A sermon preached a few years ago after having read “The Last Week” by John Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg and “Jesus for the Non-Religious” by John Shelby Spong. These two books are invaluable tools for anyone presuming to preach during Holy Week!
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I love a parade. So, I find the details of the parade which we celebrate today fascinating. In their book: The Last Week, New Testament scholars John Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg, point out that the parade which heralded Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem wasn’t the largest or most spectacular parade in town during that particular Passover season.
Back then, Jerusalem was a destination hotspot—a tourist town. The city’s population swelled from 40,000 to 200,000 during the holidays and Passover was one of the busiest holidays. Crossan and Borg point out that there were two processions into Jerusalem on what we call Palm Sunday. One, we know well and commemorate today with the waving of palm branches. We remember a peasant riding a donkey, accompanied by his peasant followers coming from the north into Jerusalem.
Also entering Jerusalem at Passover, from the west, was the Roman governor Pontius Pilate. Like the Roman governors of Judea before him, Pilate lived in Caesarea by the sea. In other words, Pilate spent most of his time at his beach house. But with crowds of devout Jews flowing into Jerusalem to commemorate their liberation from Egypt, the Roman Governors would put on a display of force, to deter the Jews from getting too exuberant about the possibility of liberation from Rome. Pilate’s procession was the visible manifestation of Imperial Roman power. Once a year, during the Passover, the Roman procurator moved his headquarters to Jerusalem in a show of strength designed to prevent any outbreaks of insurgency or violent rebellion against Roman rule. Such outbreaks were a constant danger, both because Roman rule imposed real hardship economically on their subject nations, and because, no one likes the foot of a foreign power on their necks. In a show of military force, the second parade included, “cavalry on horses, foot soldiers, leather armor, helmets, weapons, banners, golden eagles mounted on poles, sun glinting on metal and gold.”
The sound of “marching feet, the creaking of leather, the clinking of bridles, the beating of drums” would have had a sobering effect on all those who saw this parade. There would have been no shouts of Hosanna as the powerful Pilate rode astride of his horse, hoping to strike fear into the resentful onlookers. As Pilate lead a regiment of his own most trusted soldiers into town; as a show of force, he did so with confidence knowing that he was backed up by several battalions of Rome’s finest garrisoned on the west side of Jerusalem ready to flood into the city at Pilate’s command.
The Gospel according to Mark, written some 50 years after the event, tells us that Jesus’ procession into Jerusalem was not a spontaneous, slap-dash, spur-or-the-moment event. In fact Mark, the first Gospel to be written, spends more time telling us about the preparations for Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem than about the event itself. It would seem Jesus wanted intentionally to set himself in stark contrast with the other procession coming into town. According to Mark, the event was a sort of counter-procession, designed to contrast the kingdom of Rome to the dominion of God. According to the first account, Jesus assigned two disciples to the job of acquiring a colt. It’s an odd clandestine mission that Jesus gives to his two disciples. At the entrance of a village, they are told they will see the animal tied up. They are instructed to untie the donkey and bring it back; and if anyone questions their actions, they are to offer the oblique explanation that their master has need of it. Oh, and by the way, the animal has never been ridden before. The disciples do as they are told, find the colt and they are indeed questioned as to why they, two strangers, are making off with someone else’s animal. They bring the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks on this unbroken colt and Jesus sat on it. Jesus simply sat on the back of a previously un-ridden colt.
Now by the time the writer of Luke gets around to telling the story, some 60 or 70 years after the event, the colt is a donkey.
Matthew written 60 or 70 years after the event, can’t seem to decide so that gospel has the disciples bring a donkey and a colt and Jesus sits on them and rides them into Jerusalem. So, is it any wonder that the folks might have been slightly impressed with Jesus’ abilities? They spread their cloaks on the road and some lay leafy branches on the road. According to the Gospels of Mark and Matthew these are just any old leafy branches. Luke doesn’t have any branches at all.
By the time you get to the Gospel of John written some 70 to 80 years after the event, the leafy branches are named as branches of palm trees. Now lest you think I’m nit picking, there’s a point to any old branches verses palm branches. Waving palm branches was the way that conquering military leaders were welcomed home from battle. The Gospel of John hints that Jesus is a conquering hero, when the earlier gospels seem to be setting up this particular parade as an ironic antithesis to a military parade.
So, what really happened, all those years ago? Well, our friend Jack Spong seems to think that the followers of Jesus were interpreting their memories of the Jesus experience through the lenses of their own Jewish traditions. In his book, Jesus for the Non-Religious, Jack points out that at the time of the Passover there wouldn’t have been any leafy branches about. Jerusalem at that time of year would have had leafless trees. Except of course for the only tree that keeps its leaves; the evergreen of the desert: the palm tree.
Scholars agree that it is entirely possible that the death of Jesus took place not at the time of the Passover, but rather at the festival of Sukkoth, one of the most popular festivals of the Jewish calendar. Sukkoth is the harvest festival. It is also known as the Festival of Tabernacles or Booths. This holiday, which also attracted huge numbers of pilgrims to Jerusalem, would have also required Pilate to exhibit a show of force. It was probably the most popular holiday among the Jews in the first century. There are some very telling features of the festival that suggest that the crucifixion did not actually occur during the Passover.
In the observance of Sukkoth, worshippers processed through Jerusalem and in the temple, waving in their right hands something called a lulab, which was a bunch of leafy branches made of willow, myrtle and palm. As they waved these branches in that procession, the worshippers recited words from Psalm 118, the psalm normally reserved for Sukkoth. Among those words were: “Save us, we beseech you, O Lord.” “Save us” in Hebrew is hosianna or hosanna. That phrasing was typically followed with the words: “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.”
Jack Spong and a good many other theologians point to the book of the prophet Zechariah. The prophet quoted by the gospel writers when they tell the story of Palm Sunday. “Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem! Lo, your King comes to you; triumphant and victories is he humble and riding on an ass, on a colt, the foal of an ass.”
Jack, insists that the Gospel writers were trying to make sense out of the crucifixion and did so through the lens of their own Jewish scriptures and traditions. Jesus may well have participated in the festival of Sukkoth before the crucifixion. Those events were spoken of down through the decades until in the hands of the gospel writers, they were reinterpreted to portray Jesus as the messiah, the one the people were waiting for. Jesus was not just some political rabble-rouser who was executed by the Romans for provoking an insurgency. Jesus is reinterpreted as the longed for Messiah as foretold by the Prophet and the story is reset during the Passover to portray Jesus as the new Moses, sent to deliver his people from the hands of their oppressors.
The historical details are impossible to sort some two centuries after the events. Reading the accounts literally is also impossible; that is unless you are willing to leave your brain out of the equation; and picture Jesus riding a colt and a donkey, both of whom have never been ridden before. What is important is that the gospel writers wanted to give their readers an impression of who Jesus was using words and images that that they would understand because they came straight out of the Jewish scriptures and traditions. What we must not do is read these stories outside of their own context. To do so is to run the risk, that Christianity has fallen prey to over and over again down through the centuries that has labeled our Jewish brothers and sisters as the killers of Christ and punished them mercilessly.
So, what are we 21st century Christians to do with the Palm Sunday? Well, it seems to me that no matter how you look at the story of this amazing procession into Jerusalem, you can’t help but see the image of a Jesus who offers us a choice between two parades. The attraction of the power and the might of Pilate’s military parade with all its glory and wonder is still there to tempt us. The temptation to use force and violence, military might, nuclear deterrence, shock and awe, is still marching its way into the hearts and minds of so many people.
The pathways to glory still beckon. Power and might, greed and violence attract more attention and more converts than the path less traveled: Jesus versus Pilate, the nonviolence of the dominion of God versus the violence of the empire.
Two arrivals, two entrances, two processions—and all too often we find ourselves in the wrong parade. The world is full of parades, or as we might more frequently say, full of “bandwagons.” Sometimes it’s really difficult to know which parade to join, which bandwagon to hop on. It’s so easy and so tempting to join the wrong ones and so hard, sometimes, to get in the right procession.
It’s so easy to simply get caught up in the enthusiasm of the crowds and join the processions which has the loudest brass bands or the most elaborate floats or the greatest number of celebrities or the most charismatic leaders. It’s easy to miss the counter-procession that is taking place on the other side of town—the one where Jesus is riding on a humble donkey, claming a dominion, not by violence, but by courageous loving, serving and accepting his place among the victims of imperial power. In so doing, for those with the eyes of faith to see it, Jesus bears witness to the futility of the world’s kind of power in establishing god’s peace, God’s shalom, and points Christ’s followers to a different way. The dominion of God is nothing remotely like the kingdoms or empires with which we are all too familiar. Power does not come from domination or oppression, but rather flows from love and service. Leadership requires servanthood and grace. Peace is won without sword, and person claims greater value than another. While Pontius Pilate processed into town with a showcase of intimidating muscle and glinting armor astride a noble steed, Jesus processed unarmed, unflanked, on the back of a borrowed burro.
Holy Week reminds us how easily we are distracted and fooled by fancier parades and promises.