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Two Parades

March 21, 2016

“Two Parades” Luke 19:28-40 © 3.20.16 Palm Sunday C by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

Note: This sermon depends heavily in its historical section on Marcus Borg and John Crossan, The Last Week: What the Gospels Really Teach About Jesus’s Final Days in Jerusalem.

On a spring Sunday in 30 AD, two parades made their way into Jerusalem from opposite sides of the city. From the Mount of Olives and the villages of Bethphage and Bethany on the east, Jesus rode into town on a donkey, welcomed by an adoring crowd. Moving in from the west, from the port city of Caesarea Maritima, was an elite column of Roman soldiers. At their head, on a war horse, was the Roman governor of Judea, Pontius Pilate. That procession was greeted with fear, stares, and silence.

I’ll say more about the parades. But before we go any further, some historical background is in order. Jerusalem was for the Old Testament prophets both the city of God, meaning it stood for justice, peace, and hope; and the city of evil, oppressing the vulnerable, lining the pockets of the few, and empowering the elite, namely, monarchs and aristocrats. Jesus himself continued this tradition, regarding the city as full of possibility yet saddening the heart of God. Luke reports that as our Lord came down from the Mount of Olives and saw the city, he wept for its blindness and its unfortunate future, all brought on by its failure to recognize the time of its “visitation from God” (Luke 19:41ff). And as soon as he got to town, he went into the temple and violently drove out the merchants, but then continued to go there to teach.

The city, along with Judea, had been under the rule of various foreign powers since the Exile in the sixth century BC and had enjoyed a brief time of self-government under the Hasmonean dynasty after the defeat of the Greek tyrant Antiochus Epiphanes IV in 164 BC. That ended when the Romans gained control in 63 BC.

The Romans initially followed their Standard Operating Procedure and ruled through collaborators, the aristocratic wealthy families they trusted, which included the high priestly dynasty. But when those folks started to squabble among themselves, Rome appointed a Jewish convert named Herod as king. When he died in 4 BC, his territory was divided among his three sons: Archelaus, Philip, and Antipas. The last-named two fared pretty well, but Archelaus was deposed by Rome in 6 AD and a Roman governor took control of Judea and Samaria. Pontius Pilate was the latest in the line of those officials, also known as procurators.

On this particular day, the ruthless, Jew-hating governor was making his way with his cohort of troops into Jerusalem to keep order for Passover, a festival that commemorated deliverance from bondage to a foreign power, and so inspired those who goal was to overthrow the current oppressors. The procurator preferred spending the rest of the year on the coast in splendor, but for festivals like this one he had to be in Jerusalem, a parochial and boring town. His legionnaires would reinforce the permanent garrison at Fortress Antonia, which overlooked the temple and its grounds.

But the point of the procession that Sunday morning was more than getting from A to B, traversing the sixty miles from one place to another. It was designed to intimidate and to awe, to project power and authority which could only be opposed with the dire consequence of torture and crucifixion, a means of execution the Romans did not hesitate to use. The tramping feet, the gleaming brass, the creaking leather, the snorting horses and chariots, the fearsome weapons—all were intended to proclaim the glory and invincibility of the empire, the SPQR, Latin acronym for the “Senate and People of Rome.”

But along with projecting power to crush opposition, the parade also made a theological statement. The emperor at the time, Tiberius, was regarded as a god, as was his father Augustus before him. Augustus was called “the son of God,” “lord,” and “savior” and was hailed as the one who brought peace on earth. He had ascended into heaven to take a permanent place of authority in the Roman pantheon. That Rome now ruled in Judea was confirmation that its god, the emperor, was more powerful and present than the God of the Jews, supposedly reigning from the temple.

Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem was a counter cavalcade, a rival retinue, an alternative aggregation intended as a planned, peaceful, political protest against both the power and theology of Rome and something scholars call “the domination system,” which was the common way of organizing societies then, and continues in subtle and overt forms even to this day. It claimed that God had legitimated the rule of a few wealthy people over the rest of the population or if God had not set up the hierarchy, it was simply the way things were and ought to be. Up to two-thirds of the income in the nation, primarily from agriculture, went to the already wealthy and powerful. The system favored them; they were privileged, and were not about to give up that advantage. Laws about taxation, debt, and land ownership kept them in power. Everyone, from greatest to least, simply accepted that this was the way things were.

By the time of the Romans, the temple had become the center of the domination system. The high priests were aristocrats, as were the Sadducees, one of the major parties of Judaism, who collaborated with the foreign rulers. The priests kept their positions by placating the Romans. Wealth was acquired by these elites by land ownership, gained either through confiscation or foreclosure on mortgages. Records of such debt were kept in the temple.

Further solidifying the power of the aristocrats, the sacrifices at the Jerusalem temple were the only means of forgiveness for certain sins. A party in Judaism, the Essenes, had criticized that system, claiming that the temple needed to be purified. John the Baptist had proclaimed forgiveness outside the sacrificial system, as did Jesus himself. When Jesus cleansed the temple after his entry into the city, it was to make the point of how far from the true purposes of God the system had fallen, even if there were still good people within it.

There is no doubt that Jesus planned his entry as a political statement against Rome and the system. He had already arranged for a colt to be waiting. I think it’s very likely that “the Lord has need of it” was a code or password. The donkey he had secured was the animal a king would ride when he came in peace, a sharp contrast to the display of imperial power going on to the west. Jesus could have chosen to walk, not ride or could have borrowed a horse. But his selection of a donkey colt brought to mind the prophecy of Zechariah that the promised king would come riding into Jerusalem on such a beast, with the express purpose of ending war. The prophet wrote: “He will cut off the chariot from Ephraim and the war horse from Jerusalem; and the battle bow shall be cut off, and he shall command peace to the nations; his dominion shall be from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth” (Zechariah 9:10). Jesus, not Augustus or the co-opted God of the aristocrats, was the Monarch worthy of adoration and praise who would bring the best future for all.

Another clue that the crowd understood the event’s significance is their spreading of cloaks on the donkey and the road. This isn’t just rolling out the red carpet, so to speak, for a celebrity. In 2 Kings 9, when Jehu was proclaimed monarch, his friends placed their garments on the steps for him to walk over.

But the main indicator is the cry of the crowd as they greeted Jesus. Part of it comes from Psalm 118, which was a song about the king’s victory in God’s name over enemies who were oppressing his people. Luke for some reason edits out the shouts of “Hosanna!” and the references to waving palm branches, which appear in his sources and in the gospel of John. Reading the reference in the context of the whole psalm and later history, though, gives us a picture of one greeted as deliverer from domination. The people celebrated the king’s victory by binding leafy branches on the altar. After Antiochus was defeated in 164 BC, fronds of palm held and waved were the symbols of victory.

I’ve spent a great deal of time so far on history and symbolism. By now you may be wondering (besides when’s he going to finish) what the takeaway is for today from this story. Well, first, I think we have to stop saying that faith and politics don’t mix. Yes, the combination has been toxic often over the centuries and definitely is poison in our own day. But let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater. Jesus was very obviously political, in its root sense of a process, a means, by which citizens could work for the good of the city, the polis. He was interested in the way society is ordered and led and the structures and laws that are in place. In this, he was right in line with the Old Testament prophets, who called for kings to do justice, to defend the marginalized. Our Lord’s entry into Jerusalem and his cleansing of the temple put him on a collision course with the aristocrats and the imperial forces they served.

The blogger John Pavlovitz notes: “Every so often I am… chided… for being ‘too political,’ as a Christian and/or as a pastor.

“Embedded in this reprimand is the myth that there is somehow a way of being spiritual without also being political; some sharp, easily identifiable, universally accepted line delineating the sacred from the secular, the supernatural from the practical, religious matters from civil ones—and that Church People can and should learn to ‘stay in their lane’.

“Here’s the only problem with such suggestions: If you are a committed person of any faith, life is the lane. It’s all spiritual.

“I am a follower of Jesus and a pastor, and for me this means that my Christian faith isn’t an isolated activity that I engage in between many other non-religious activities….

“For far too many people, praying, singing, reading the Bible, and listening to sermons are ‘spiritual things’ and they comprise the breadth of what religion should be and what they deem acceptable. Anything bleeding out beyond the church walls or private prayer time (especially stuff that conflicts with their beliefs) is quickly labeled political and therefore declared off-limits.

“This isn’t how faith works” (“Why An Apolitical Christian Faith Doesn’t Exist [If You Listen to Jesus]” http://johnpavlovitz.com/2016/03/14/why-an-apolitical-christian-faith-doesnt-exist-if-you-listen-to-jesus/).

I don’t mean for one moment that the church ought to endorse or oppose candidates or that America should be constituted as a theocracy, as some are trying diligently to do. I’m a staunch supporter of the separation of church and state; I think Jefferson’s “wall of separation” is a very good thing for everybody. Our Presbyterian principles reject any special treatment for the church, while at the same time leaving room for the church to speak about issues. For example, A Declaration of Faith insists: “We must not allow governments to impose Christian faith by legislation, nor should we demand undue advantages for the church. The church must be free to speak to civil authorities, neither claiming expert knowledge it does not have, nor remaining silent when God’s Word is clear.”

But the churches as not-for-profit institutions are different from the individual believers that make up their constituencies. It’s proper for every one of us, whether on the right or the left or somewhere on that spectrum, to express our viewpoints in reasoned and reasonable ways, whether in various forums or in conversations or by voting. In doing so, we ought to be guided by the words and example of our Lord in Scripture, following Jesus as he is presented in the morning’s text and elsewhere in the gospels, not what the corrupted religion of our day makes him into.

Next, and briefly, political protest and action are or can be acts of prayer that are faithful to Christ. As I said, his entry into Jerusalem was a protest against the domination system of his day, kept going by aristocratic religionists in league with an oppressive empire. His cleansing of the temple was also a protest. Protestors, despite what we hear, are not necessarily bad people who bring a country down. They may be folk calling for justice and righteousness, speaking for those on the margins. Our Book of Order tells us: “One may enact prayer as a public witness through keeping a vigil, through deeds of social responsibility or protest, or through symbolic acts of disciplined service” (W-5.4002). Remember, too, that Presbyterians were instrumental in the founding of this country, recognizing “the human tendency to idolatry and tyranny which calls the people of God to work for the transformation of society by seeking justice and living in obedience to the Word of God” (F-2.05). Our forebears learned from the example of Scottish Presbyterian clergy like Andrew Melville, who in 1562 put King James (of eponymous Bible fame) in his place, reminding the Stuart monarch that he was but a member, not the laird or the head, of the kingdom of Christ, the Kirk (Adam Nicolson, God’s Secretaries: 6). And remember our very brand of Christianity includes the word “protest.” Protestors are only dangerous and disgusting to authoritarians who will brook no opposition. And besides, even if the voices of those longing for peace and justice are silenced, Jesus said that the very earth itself, the stones by the road, would take up the chorus.

Finally, the king on the garment-draped colt and the governor on the armored warhorse represent two different styles of leadership, two opposite ways and principles of ordering society. So do their processions. Notice, it’s not that Jesus’ way leads to a world, a nation in which anything goes, which is in the grip of anarchy and chaos, and Pilate’s way leads to one of security and moral uprightness. Yes, Jesus’ parade is enthusiastic and a little wild with hope and joy, “off the hook” as my college students used to say, so much so that his detractors urge him to call for silence. There could be more than one interpretation of what was happening, and Jesus wasn’t trying to control anybody. As one writer says, the theology was “open-ended” (D. Mark Davis http://leftbehindandlovingit.blogspot.com/2013/03/orchestrating-events.html). The Roman’s column, on the other hand, is disciplined, gleaming, and I suspect, silent except for the creaking of leather, the neighing of horses, and the occasional command. The theology it proclaimed was the official, sanctioned one: Tiberias was the son of God. End of discussion. The imperial procession was definitely not a party nor was it intended to be.

But, again, both pointed to an order for society. In the one, a righteous ruler welcomed all, encouraging their hope for peace, modeling the humility necessary for a true leader. As the hymn writer has it, in Jesus’ kingdom, there would be “ways to order human life that surround each person’s sorrow with a calm that conquers strife” (Jane Parker Huber, “Called as Partners in Christ’s Service”). In the other, intimidation, brutality, and force were the preferred means of accomplishing goals set by an elite class to maintain their power. Pilate’s was what someone has termed the “classic authoritarian leadership style: simple, powerful, and punitive” (Amanda Taub, http://www.vox.com/2016/3/1/11127424/trump-authoritarianism). One way led to life, the other to death. Pilate was recalled to Rome in 37 for being too brutal. Jerusalem, and with it the Temple, fell in 70. Rome was sacked near the end of the fifth century, and the empire in the West crumbled.

Two parades entered Jerusalem on a spring Sunday….

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