by John C. Odean
(Addendum by Bob Kaylor)
Traditionally, Lent is a time of preparation and penitence in preparation for Easter. We began the season on Ash Wednesday. That’s the personal and spiritual dimension of Lent. But there’s also a public and political dimension to the Lenten journey. It’s been said that one should never mix religion and politics, but the Gospels don’t have such restrictions. For The Gospel writers, the week between Palm Sunday and Easter is the climax of the conflict between two kingdoms or, to update the language, two worldviews: the worldview of human political and social systems and the worldview of the Jesus, whom the Gospel writers see as the one true and divine ruler of the world. That conflict is evident through the whole story of Jesus, but it comes to a head here in Jerusalem during the Passover.
So, we want to take a journey through that last week so that we can look at this conflict through first century eyes and, then, see how that conflict continues some 2,000 years later. The call to follow Christ is, after all, a call to see the world differently than humans traditionally have—to understand that Jesus was and is leading a revolution against the powers of this world, but doing so through a movement of justice, grace and peace over and against the human values of power, violence, and oppression. When we see more clearly what Jesus was doing in Jerusalem, we see more clearly our own call as his disciples.
It was Sunday, the first day of the Jewish work week, when Jesus and his disciples finished the climb up the hills from the Jordan River valley to Bethany and the Mount of Olives overlooking Jerusalem. They would have certainly not been the only ones on the road as pilgrims from all over the region were making their way to the holy city for the Passover festival, which celebrated the liberation of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt during the time of Moses. Jerusalem would swell from its regular population of maybe 40,000 inhabitants to more than 200,000 people during the festival.
Passover was a time of celebration, but it was also a time of high tension in Jerusalem. While the festival celebrated liberation from the tyranny of Egypt generations before, first century Israel was still under foreign domination. The Romans had taken over Jerusalem in 63BC and their imperial policies of taxation and occupation chafed at many Jews. Riots and uprisings were fairly common during the Passover festival, so Rome made sure that there was a military presence during that week, garrisoning more troops at the Antonia Fortress, which overlooked the Temple complex.
On Sunday, the first day of Passover week, a parade would have been entering the gates of the city from west as the Roman legion finished its 60 mile march from the town of Caesarea on the coast. The Roman governor, Pilate, would have accompanied the troops, leaving behind the ocean breezes and resort-like atmosphere of Caesarea and all its Roman amenities to come to the hill country and Jerusalem and its tense political atmosphere, bringing reinforcements along to keep an eye on things.
Pilate was already well-known to the people of Jerusalem by that year. He was not a popular figure among the native population, not only because he was Roman but because he failed to understand the intense religious devotion of the people. According to the contemporary historian Josephus, when Pilate first brought Roman troops to Jerusalem from Caesarea, he committed an unprecedented violation of Jewish sensibilities by allowing the troops to bring into the city their military standards with the busts of the emperor, which were considered idolatrous images by the Jews; and this was done in an underhanded manner, the troops bringing in and setting up the images by night. A massive protest demonstration in Caesarea’s stadium forced the removal of the standards, but only after the Jews used tactics of nonviolent mass resistance, lying down and baring their necks when Pilate’s soldiers, swords in hand, surrounded and attempted to disperse them. Josephus again speaks of protests that broke out on another occasion when Pilate appropriated Temple funds to build an aqueduct for Jerusalem. On this occasion, Pilate had Roman soldiers, dressed as Jewish civilians and armed with hidden clubs, mingle with the shouting crowd and attack the people at a prearranged signal. Many were killed or hurt. Pilate was, in many ways, typical of the kind of ruler that the world promotes—using coercion, oppression, and even violence as the means to attain imperial ends.
Needless to say, Pilate’s arrival with the legions would thus have caused quite a spectacle as they entered the city from the west: a parade of infantry marching to the beat of drums, cavalry mounted on horses (if you had horses in the ancient world, you had the equivalent of F-16s), weapons, armor, gold standards glistening in the sun. It would have been a spectacle of imperial power and might.
But as Borg and Crossan point out in their book, The Last Week, such a parade would also have been a demonstration of Roman imperial theology. The Roman emperor, at that time Tiberius, was considered to be divine and was given names like “son of god,” “lord,” and “savior.” To those looking on with awe and even contempt at this parade, the contrast would have been clear. Pilate’s procession was not only representative of a rival social order, but also a theology that rivaled that of the Jews who believed in one true God.
On the east side of the city, though, another parade was getting started but one quite different from the imperial march. Jesus sent his disciples to get a colt, which we assume was a small donkey. It’s not a horse—no prancing charger in full battle dress. When the colt has been secured, Jesus rides it down the steep road from the Mount of Olives to the city gate (either the Golden Gate or the Lion’s Gate), with a crowd of his supporters shouting “Hosanna!”—which is a Hebrew word that mixes praise to God with a prayer that God will save his people and do it soon. They spread their cloaks on the colt and cut branches from the surrounding fields—something that was only done for royalty. The Palm Sunday story is more than a celebration at the beginning of Holy Week. It is, in fact, a pre-planned political demonstration.
In riding through Jerusalem to the east while, or very nearly while, Pilate and the Romans were coming in from the west, Jesus was making a very clear statement—a political statement, a royal statement—a statement grounded in Israel’s Scriptures. The image of Israel’s true king, riding on a donkey, comes from the prophet Zechariah, a piece of which we read a little earlier. Note the image there: The king comes into Jerusalem with shouts of joy from the people. He is “triumphant” and “victorious”—words that Romans and other imperial leaders would have embraced—but he is “humble” and rides on a donkey instead of a war-horse (Zech. 9:9).
That’s the key to this passage. Notice the next verse: “He will cut off the chariot from Ephraim and the war-horse from Jerusalem.” This king is not a conquering hero who uses weapons of mass destruction, but one who will break the power of military might with humility, justice, and a “peace” for all the nations (Zech. 9:10). Jesus’ parade is an intentional parable and statement of contrast. If Pilate’s procession embodied power, violence and the glory of the empire that ruled the world, Jesus’ procession embodied the kind of Kingdom that God was ushering in: a kingdom of peace, sacrifice, humility, and service.
The confrontation between these two kingdoms is what drives the rest of the last week. Jesus knew that the conflict would come to a head and that it would lead to his own death. The Gospel of Mark is structured around Jesus’ understanding of the conflict. Three times he tells his disciples what is going to happen and three times they don’t understand it.
In Mark 8:31-38, Jesus makes the first prediction—“The Son of Man must undergo great suffering and be rejected” by the Temple power structure, who collaborated with the Romans. Hearing this prediction, Peter rebukes him—How can you be the Messiah if you’re killed? How can you be the Messiah if you’re not going to fight? Jesus’ response: “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” “Human things” are concerned about status, power, and security. “Divine things are focused on sacrifice, justice, and non-violence.
In the second prediction, Mark 9:30-37, the disciples respond by arguing about who among them is the greatest. They’re thinking like little politicians—who will be next to Jesus when he takes over? But Jesus redefines greatness, rejecting the idea of power and hero-worship and instead taking a little child on his knee. You want to be great? You have to be as humble as this little child. You have to be able to put yourself last. You have to be willing to serve instead of being served. It’s hard to think of a more opposite worldview from that of those sitting on thrones of power.
After the third prediction, Mark 10:32-45, James and John come to Jesus wanting to know if they can essentially be prime minister and secretary of state when Jesus takes over from the Romans. They still haven’t heard him. Notice the clear statement of Jesus in response in verse 42—“You know that among the Gentiles (read: Romans) those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them and their great ones are tyrants over them…” That’s the way of human empires. But then Jesus says this to his disciples: “It is not so among you. Whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
A lot of sermons I’ve heard focus on the denseness of the disciples in responding to Jesus, but to be fair they, like us, have been conditioned to see the world through the human lenses of power and status. Jesus challenges that worldview with a radically different God-view. In the Kingdom of God, human values are reversed and power is best exercised when it is used to serve. The Palm Sunday ride is thus a completely different kind of parade. It’s only when you join that parade that you discover the “divine things” of God’s true plan for the world.
At a conference I attended a few years ago there was one statement that has been running over and over again in my mind since. One of the presenters said this: “Most people in our churches are what we might call ‘soft secular’ people who want to incorporate Jesus into their particular worldview. Jesus, on the other hand, wants to incorporate us into his worldview—God’s worldview.” Much of Christian history consists of people trying to incorporate Jesus into their worldview, using Jesus to legitimize wars and economic systems. We do the same thing when we expect Jesus to bless our grasp for power, wealth, prestige, and self-satisfaction. We want Jesus in our lives, so long as he doesn’t actually change them. We want Jesus to join our parade.
The language that many Christians use reflects this: “Jesus is my personal savior.” Well, he is that, but that’s only a small part of the truth. The Scriptures actually say something much larger—that Jesus is the world’s true king—the one that the world has been hoping for from the beginning. This king hasn’t come to bless our personal worldviews, our politics, our desires. He has come to lead us to a completely different sort of kingdom—a kingdom of justice, peace, and sacrifice; a kingdom to which all the kingdoms of the world submit; a kingdom that is radically different from the kind we would set up; a kingdom whose throne is a cross and whose weapons are not sheathed in scabbards but forged in forgiveness, love, and self-denial. This is a king who doesn’t just want our lip service and our palms—he wants our whole selves laid down before him. The earliest Christian confession was not, “Jesus is my personal savior.” The confession of the first Christians was this: “Jesus Christ is Lord.” We are not merely his believers, we are his subjects.
This is the king we are called to follow—humble, riding on a donkey, calling those who would follow him to embrace the way of sacrifice, suffering, and servanthood. His call is not to a throne, but to a cross. Jesus isn’t waiting around for us to ask him into our lives—he’s calling us to be in his life, to walk his way, to join his march to the cross. Dietrich Bonhoeffer put it most succinctly: “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” To follow this king means we choose to die to ourselves, our ambitions, our ways of power and domination; and we choose to live his life—a life that gives itself away every day in the service of the king.
Chances are that more people turned out to watch the Roman parade on that Sunday, whether out of curiosity, respect, or contempt. It was maybe only a few who followed Jesus down that steep road on the Mount of Olives that, interestingly, goes right by a cemetery—a kind of stark reminder of where the procession will lead—to the cross and the tomb.
Lent invites us to really consider what it means to hail Jesus as king of our lives and of the whole world. Lent invites us to give up claim on our lives, to leave behind our politics in favor of the politics of Jesus the King. Lent invites us to not put our faith in the false security of wealth and weapons and instead put our faith in a crucified Christ. Lent invites us to give up those things that keep us from following the way of Christ the King. Lent invites us to turn from the ways of the past and turn toward the ways of Christ and his coming kingdom.
So, I want to encourage you over the next six weeks to really focus on Jesus—to listen deeply to what he says and does as the Gospel tells us. It is this story that remakes the world and it can remake us if we embrace it. We’re giving you lots of opportunities to go deeper—our daily devotional is a great way to engage some new spiritual disciplines this Lenten season. Our Bible studies are going to give you the chance to explore the story of Jesus’ last week in powerful ways. I hope you’ll join us for this important time of reflection, study, and prayer.
For now, however, the first day of the last week invites us to consider a critical question: Two parades came into Jerusalem on Sunday, and both parades continue to invite us to join them. Which parade will you follow?
Borg, Marcus, and John Dominic Crossan, The Last Week. San Francisco: HarperCollins, 2006.
“Pilate, Pontius” article in Harper’s Bible Dictionary