I love Palm Sunday waving palm branches about, singing “Hosanna!” This is an opportunity for celebration that Jesus Christ, Lord and Saviour of our lives is present and that it is right and good that we honour God, show our gratitude, our indebtedness to Christ in the form of public praise and worship. But if we only see it in such a light, we might miss the core of this story. Because what we have here is the most incredible piece of street theatre. Political street theatre in fact. Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem is an act of treason.
To understand this we need to understand the Roman culture of the day and the Jewish culture. First a bit of background on the Roman Empire’s rise to power. In 49 BC Julius Caesar came the unrivalled ruler of Rome by winning a civil war. He initiated a program of social and political reforms but never fully it would be short lived. In 44 BC on the Ides of March, the 74th day in the Roman calendar and notable for the Romans as a deadline for settling debts, a group of senators led by Marcus Brutus assassinated Caesar.
The religion of Rome was polytheistic and those who were powerful and successful were said to have come from the gods. Julius Caesar, 2 years after his death, became the first Roman figure to be deified and he was given the title “The Divine Julius.” Caesar’s adopted son, Octavius (who later became Augustus), used the popularity to rise in power and after further war Augustus became the unrivalled ruler of Rome. Finally, there would be peace the, Pax Romana – Peace of Rome and prosperity. Augustus was given the titles “Son of God,” “Lord,” “saviour of the world”. He was divine or at least a demi-god, the product of a divine conception, conceived in his mother by the god Apollo, god of light, reason and order.
The monotheistic Jews who worshiped the one true God of course had issues with the Roman Emperor being worshiped as a God. The also took issue with the Empire taxes. The Jewish religious leaders needed to play politics to be given freedom to practice their religion and keep the peace. They do not want an uprising or anything that would jeopardise the compromise they have reached. And along comes Jesus who challenges both Jewish leaders breaking their rules such as healing on the Sabbath, touching the unclean and eating with sinners. He ate not just with sinners but the tax collectors the traitors, those who made a living working for the Roman Empire taking money for the Empire and themselves from their fellow Jews. Jesus challenges paying tax to Caesar and teaches about justice, liberation for the poor and oppressed. Many Jews saw themselves in these categories and hoped that Jesus might be the Messiah that would finally liberate them from foreign rulers. They were looking for the signs.
Now as Jesus prepares his entry into Jerusalem he sends two of his disciples ahead with very specific instructions:
“Go into the village ahead of you, and as you enter it you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden. Untie it and bring it here. If anyone asks you, ‘Why are you untying it?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it.’
Why so specific about it not having been ridden? While this might sound strange to us, for those who know the Jewish scriptures, that is the Jews Jesus was speaking to and that the Gospels were written for, they knew it was a reference to Zechariah 9:
“Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”
It was to be a sign that Jesus is the Messiah, the long-awaited anointed king. What is more if claiming to be king is not enough to upset the Empire what come next in that text certainly implies a threat to Rome:
“He will cut off the chariot from Ephraim and the warhorse 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.”
Jesus is acting this out! He finds a colt, and rides it to Jerusalem. Now that’s a political statement if there ever was one! And the crowd are quick to get onboard. They throw their cloaks on the road, and wave palm branches. Then they make a political statement of their own, as they shouted:
“Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David! Hosanna in the highest heaven!”
To invoke the name of David is to question the rulers of the day. Caught up in the moment, the people join Jesus as they question the authority both of Rome and of Jerusalem, of both Caesar and Herod.
Since Jesus is the centre of it all, he would no doubt be seen as both instigator and perpetrator. An even bigger target was now on his head because of this political warfare in the form of street theatre. Jesus’ theatrical act was an unsubtle parody of the way the Roman Empire showed off their military dominance and royal aspirations.
In light of the cross, it also is a parody of the messianic expectations that frames the messiah as the victorious warrior, triumphant over God’s enemies with force and brutality. Jesus shows the way for God is not through war, power and might but humility and peace. This is the paradox of the cross. The symbol of execution, of shame and death becomes a symbol of hope, forgiveness and love. In the cross we see the worst of humanity. We see an innocent man condemned to die. We see people strip Jesus of dignity and humanity. He is hung up naked on the cross as an example to others. It says: ‘tow the line, submit to the status quo or this will happen to you.’ In the cross we see the evils of humanity is less than the love of God.
Jesus is silenced because of his love for all, even the sinners and tax collectors, even his enemies – those who nailed him to the cross. This man of love in the moment of his death cried out words of forgiveness:
“Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” (Luke 23:34)
But let’s be clear, Jesus was not executed because he taught people to love each other but because of his teaching on what love is. Love is that little word that we use all the time but never enough. We use it to talk about our devices, our car, our houses our material possessions. It is used in slogans to sell us stuff such as the McDonald’s slogan “I’m lovin’ it”. It is not just because Jesus talked about love that he was killed but because his teaching about it was more than being nice and compassionate towards others. He did include that – this is not an excuse to not be nice – but for him it means so much more. Jesus taught love means standing against dominant systems such as Rome and Jewish leaders. For us today it includes political, and corporate systems. Love means working with the Spirit in creating a new way of life which goes against the wisdom of the world.
Jesus is the incarnation – the enfleshment of God. Jesus reveals God to us. Jesus is also fully human and reveals what we – humanity – were created to be. On the cross we see what might appear as foolishness, as weakness is actually wisdom and strength. We see vulnerability and that vulnerability is not weakness but truth and courage. As the body of Christ, the church, is called to be incarnational. We are to love as God loves, as Jesus loves. May we have the courage to live abundantly into our calling. Amen.
I want to give Rev Greg Woolnough credit for part of the reflection as it has been inspired by the sermon he gave at the last Ecumenical Covenant service.
Rev Tammy Hollands