Palm Sunday A

Palm Sunday is often seen as a service of opposites – a liturgy that begins with triumph and ends with death, one that begins with hosannas and ends with grief, one that begins with Jesus surrounded by adoring throngs and ends with him hanging alone on the cross.

It is a service where we enter with exuberant joy and leave subdued and mournful.

Scholars Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan have given me a new lens through which to view this day that begins Christianity’s holiest of weeks.

From them I learned that Jesus’ procession into Jerusalem was not a parade of triumph, as we historically have celebrated it, but instead was a political farce, mocking the Roman empire which controlled that part of the world.

During the week of Passover, thousands of Jews from throughout the region poured into the holy city of Jerusalem to celebrate God’s liberation of their ancestors from slavery and oppression by the Egyptian empire, a celebration which made rulers of the present-day empire very nervous.

To remind the Jews who was in charge, Roman governor Pontius Pilate set up camp in Jerusalem that week, arriving in town in a military procession that Crossan describes as “a visual panoply of imperial power: Calvary on horses, foot soldiers, leather armor, helmets, weapons, banners, golden eagles mounted on poles, sun glinting on metal and gold.

“There was the sound of marching feet, the creaking of leather, the clinking of bridles, the beating of drums.”

The message of this procession of might was clear. Rome had the power and would not hesitate to use it. Don’t cause any trouble, Pilate’s procession warned.

Across town on the same day another procession entered Jerusalem.

The leader of this procession was not a mighty Roman governor, but a lowly Jewish peasant. He rode not a stallion prepared for war, but a nursing donkey with its foal trotting along beside her.

The leader of this procession was accompanied not by a column of soldiers in an impressive display of military might, but by a group of peasants who spread their threadbare cloaks before him and waved palm fronds and shouted “Hosanna,” which means “Save us now.”

In essence, Jesus is saying that the emperor has no clothes.

“Pilate’s procession embodied the power, glory, and violence of the empire that ruled the world.

Jesus’ procession embodied an alternative vision, that of the kingdom of God, a world where God’s justice reigns; a world where no one is in need, where even those on the margins of society are welcomed and cared for, a world of peace, where swords have been beaten into plowshares..

This contrast – between the kingdom of God and the kingdom of Caesar – is the central story of Jesus’ teachings and life.”

We can be assured that even in the days before Facebook and Twitter and 24-hour cable news networks that word of Jesus’ mockery quickly reached the ears of those in power.

So did his actions the very next day – entering the sacred Temple and going on a rampage, turning over tables, and chasing people out.

That, too, was a political protest, an act of outrage that the leaders of the Temple, considered by Jews to be the very dwelling place of God, had become collaborators with Rome, collecting Roman taxes and working to keep their Jewish subjects under control.

Religion was being used not to advance the kingdom of God, but to legitimate the status quo, to keep the wealthy and powerful in authority, and keep those they ruled in their place.

Under Roman rule, political and economic oppression were increasing, and many in the peasant class were moving from mere poverty to desperation.

The sacred city of Jerusalem and the holy Temple had become part of the Roman domination system.

Jesus’ life is a protest against that system, of demands for justice and the end of oppression, of calls for the establishment of God’s kingdom rather than the emperor’s kingdom.

Writer David Henson suggests that if we really want to follow Jesus, then we too must publicly stand against oppression, “even when and especially when it comes from our own government.”

A true Palm Sunday observance, he suggests, would be to “protest the imperial powers of our day that exploit the poor, the earth, and our humanity.

“Protest the imperial powers that would strip us of our rights, of our dignity, of our voice. Laugh in the face of those who seriously think they can own humanity’s future,” he says.

The kingdom of God versus the domination of the empire. The issues that Jesus confronted 2,000 years ago continue to confront us today.

We still live in a world ruled by empire, longing for the kingdom of God to break through, for God’s justice and peace to be established on earth.

Borg and Crossan end their writing about Palm Sunday with questions that are pointedly relevant for us to consider today as we enter into this holiest of weeks.

“Two processions entered Jerusalem,” they write. “The same questions, the same alternatives, face those who would be faithful to Jesus today:

“Which procession are we in? Which procession do we want to be in?”

Which side are we on?

Amen.

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