~ Luke 19:28-40/John 12:12-16 ~
As you well know Jesus told many parables in his ministry to the people. Now these spoken parables were made-up stories. There wasn’t an actual Good Samaritan. But Jesus didn’t just tell parables. He also acted parables. An acted parable was an event in which Jesus’ deeds rather than his words carried the meaning of what he was trying to communicate. They were actions in which Jesus was the star of the drama. Today’s story is one such acted parable. Jesus rides a donkey on the road to the entrance of Jerusalem. This was more than just a donkey ride.
The question is: What did Jesus intend to communicate in his dramatic performance? Did the audience grasp his meaning? Jesus’ drama was quite convoluted after all and many walked away shaking their heads in wonderment. And I suppose we could ask the same question today? What is God doing? Things seem as confusing to us today as it was for that audience so long ago. Is God at work? Is justice being done anywhere in the world? Sometimes we despair in finding answers to these questions. Maybe as we watch Jesus play out his drama we will gain some insights into our situation today.
There is no doubt that Jesus choreographed the script for his drama quite carefully. And it appears he intentionally meant to convey conflicting messianic signals. On the one hand the procession from the Mount of Olives to the gate of Jerusalem had all the earmarks of the military march of a triumphal nationalist hero. This march to the city recalled the military entry of the triumphant rebel leader Simon Maccabaeus some two hundred years earlier. The Maccabean revolt was a twenty-year struggle to depose the brutal and genocidal Greek ruler, Antiochus Epiphanes, who had desecrated the temple by sacrificing a pig on the altar. Finally, as First Maccabees records it, “the Jews entered Jerusalem with praise and palm branches, and with harps and cymbals and stringed instruments, and with hymns and songs, because a great enemy had been crushed and removed from Israel.” As a result Israel enjoyed relative freedom for almost a hundred years before the Romans came on the scene.
The Jewish Passover was an annual celebration of the exodus from Egypt. Jewish people in the time of Jesus were under the dictatorial power of the Roman Empire. No doubt when pilgrims came to Jerusalem for this annual festival nationalistic feelings and longing for liberation ran high. And those who had been following Jesus through the countryside these many months were truly inspired by him. Here was a charismatic healer with profound words of wisdom and, more importantly, a way of dealing with people that affirmed their worth and lifted them up, in contrast to their experience with the Romans and the Temple rulers. Jesus’ vision of an inclusive and affirming Israel that could truly be a light to the nations was worth following all the way to Jerusalem. And even though he had demurred from the title “Messiah” surely this march to Jerusalem was an affirmation of that. Maybe he truly was the one who would depose the Romans and return Israel to freedom. Expectations ran high; acclamation of his pending victory rang in the air: “Blessed is he who comes in the name of God!”
Yet for all this military-march-on-Jerusalem symbolism, other aspects of Jesus’ drama pointed in the opposite direction. Well over half the story concerns Jesus’ instructions to two disciples in preparation of the procession. Jesus is carefully staging this drama. On the one hand he obtains all he needs for his campaign. On the other hand what he obtains is a lowly ass. And there is only one explanation for this. Jesus is deliberately acting out the prophecy of Zechariah 9:9: “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.” Although these words belong to the messianic tradition of Israel, they are expressly antimilitary words. If Jesus were intent on overthrowing the power of Roman he would indeed have entered on a warhorse, with an army in tow. Jesus does not intend to fight the Romans! He instead comes as a Messiah of peace, in humility. So, indeed, this drama is filled with conflicting signals. It is almost as if Jesus had deliberately staged a parody, contrasting his destiny of the cross with the popular messianic expectations of the disciples and the people of Jerusalem.
And so his audience was confused. Now I don’t think the disciples who cheered Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem were the same people who later yelled for him to be crucified. But if you had been following Jesus through the countryside wouldn’t you be confused. Here he finally accepts the acclamation of Messiah, but unlike any Messiah they had envisioned. They were drawn to his vision of a new way of living, with peace and justice as the standards. But they also expected the result to be triumph over the powers that had oppressed them for so many years. Jesus did not meet their expectations. So they questioned: What is Jesus doing? Little did they know the answer would be his death on the cross.
In a world dominated by power-hungry political and religious forces, then and now, the picture of a peace-loving Messiah on a lowly ass seems almost laughable. A Messiah who enters the city anticipating intense opposition, rejection, and death makes for an almost pitiful spectacle. People, then and now, wanted a Messiah who comes in power, not weakness, a Messiah who judges the wicked, a Messiah who conquers the enemy and establishes, well, us. This Messiah riding on a donkey does not fit the power agenda. And yet it is this Messiah who bids people, then and now, to follow him in his nonviolent resistance parade.
Jesus very deliberately intended to make a political statement with this dramatic approach to the city. There is no doubt that Jesus meant this to be a subversive act. Indeed, so subversive that it would have been impossible for Rome not to notice. Rome was in charge of peace – peace through powerful force and coercion. The Pax Romana was the way of peace, certainly not the peace of some nobody riding on a donkey.
And yet, the authorities considered him to be enough of a threat that they must get rid of him. As the story progresses over the course of a week, he does more and more to subvert Rome’s domination. The people just might follow him. He is just too subversive to be ignored. He must be crucified, for all to see that this is what happens to people who defy Rome.
Now, I am fully convinced that this take on Jesus staged drama is the most authentic one. It is backed up with solid biblical scholarship. Biblical anthropologists affirm that melding spiritual statements with political ones was the norm. People didn’t separate the religious from the political in those days; separation of church and state was not a thing.
However, this take on the story is a minority view. Indeed, most Christians, particularly in the US, would not see this at all. They would reject the idea that Jesus was acting politically. They would not regard Rome as the principle antagonist here. After all, wasn’t it the Jews who killed Jesus?
No, most would see Jesus’ actions as purely a continuation of an individualistic spiritual event. Do you believe that Jesus died for your personal sins or not? Jesus only reason for being in Jerusalem was to die in our place for our sins. Then, and only then, could God forgive our disgusting sin-filled lives and thus go to heaven. Of course, only if you believe that that’s why he did it. So, the multitudes wave palm branches, shout “hosanna” but then reject him as their personal savior. And the Jews have been blamed for Jesus death ever since. Truly a horrible interpretation of today’s scripture lesson.
And thus there is a great divide between us. In a time when our country, indeed, the world, seems more divided politically than ever, we are pretty much irredeemably divided as Christians. The theological divisions are becoming more embattled, lines drawn. But, for me at least, that is not as dire a prospect as it might seem. I, for one, see some hope even in the midst of the fray.
You see, for much of our American Christian history, the personal-savior Jesus was pretty much held sway. It has dominated how people regard Christianity. A conservative, judgment-oriented Evangelicalism has been virtually the only version that the media and most of the rest of the population sees. Mainline Christians (us) were relegated to the far fringes and Catholics hardly regarded at all. The Christian Right were the top dogs.
But, of late, there are emerging voices on the Christian Left. More and more Progressive Christians are taking a stand, voicing their beliefs, acting on their peace and justice agendas. There are those who assert, “I am progressive because I follow Jesus.” They are willing to call out those who say they are Christians, yet worship our president. They even will dare say that you can’t say you follow the president and say you follow Jesus.
Of late, there are more politicians who are willing to talk about their progressive Christian faith, articulating how their faith urges them on in the pursuit of justice and peace. One particular candidate for president comes to mind.
Of course, the response by the religious powers that be to this progressive Christian uprising, this resistance march is swift and harsh. These subversives must be dealt with. Amidst lots of condemnations, the primary message is: “you’re not really Christian.” We define what is Christian, and you certainly are not, with your liberal/socialist agendas. Indeed, whole denominations are written off as apostate. My Jesus is my personal savior only; not your political, socialist Jesus. Oh, and we are the only arbiters of the moral agenda; we are the defenders of the faith and American ideals. And, yes, that means keeping out those illegal others from south of our boarder, and denouncing LGBTQ advocacy, and restoring our Christian manhood prerogatives. And, yes, that means falling into line with the agenda of our president, whom we are all supposed to obey because God says so.
Given all that, why am I talking about hope? You could say that dealing with this deep of a divide, this rancorous of a debate, has all the prospects for a hopeful outcome as, say, Jesus’ ride into Jerusalem. Look where that got him!
But, you see, I’m a follower of Jesus. I’m trying to work out, even at this stage of my life, what that means. The “kingdom” Jesus represents as he is hailed “king” while he rides triumphantly into Jerusalem, the kingdom he spent his whole life striving to bring about, has no room for the power-over-others oppressive forces that this world’s kingdoms seek to enforce. This world’s kingdoms need weapons of war to succeed. Force is the trust tool of choice.
But Jesus’ kingdom is one of love, of humility, of service, of grace, of mercy, of compassion. It is a kingdom of radical forgiveness, that does not need a substitute sacrifice to enact. This kind of forgiveness is what makes forgiving our enemies possible. Indeed, his is an incomprehensible kingdom, inaugurated by an incomprehensible Messiah. But it’s a kingdom that is very real, if only we choose to live in it.
So, we wave our palm branches and shout “hosanna” to celebrate this incomprehensible Messiah, the Prince of Peace, who is, even now, in our midst urging us along. That is a kingdom, that is an agenda, worth standing up for, worth believing. May we dare believe.
I close with these words that Linda found for me by L. R. Knost, a young mother who writes about parenting:
Do not be dismayed by the brokenness of the world. All things break. And all Things can be mended. Not with time, as they say, but with intention. So go. Love intentionally, extravagantly, unconditionally. The broken world waits in darkness for the light that is you.
May we be such followers of Jesus. Amen.