In their book, The Last Week: What the Gospels Really Teach about Jesus’ Final Days in Jerusalem, Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan claim that there were actually two processions that entered Jerusalem on this day that we now celebrate as Palm Sunday. One procession was from the east, largely composed of peasants, and it was following Jesus from Galilee who was riding on a donkey down the Mount of Olives. The second procession was from the west, and it was following the Roman governor Pontius Pilate who was riding a warhorse at the head of a column of imperial cavalry and soldiers. Pontius Pilate had come to town to maintain law and order; he didn’t want anything getting out of hand during the Jewish festival of Passover. Jesus’ procession proclaimed the kingdom of God while Pilate’s procession proclaimed the power of empire. These two very different processions represent the conflict that eventually comes to a head and leads to this week being the last week of Jesus’ life. Whether or not Borg and Crossan are right about there being a procession of Pontius Pilate on the same day as Jesus’ procession, Pilate had certainly had many processions into town that exerted his military might and the power of the Roman empire. What is certain is that Jesus’ procession ushers in a very different kind of kingdom because Jesus is a very different kind of king.
The anticipation and excitement and fear that filled the air of the city is palpable. Borg and Crossan say that there may have been as many as 200,000 pilgrims marching into the holy city of Jerusalem, that had only about 40,000 inhabitants. The city’s inhabitants are probably on edge, tense, and wondering what this procession will bring. They are surely confused; this procession is unlike any procession they have ever seen. Those who march with Jesus have had their imaginations captured and their souls nourished. They believe that Jesus is the one for whom they have been waiting. Of course, among them, there are many differing ideas about what kind of person the messiah will be and how that messiah will enter the world. Many thought that the messiah would violently overthrow Rome and all its leaders. But the very way Jesus enters the city shows what kind of messiah he is. His rise to power is not and never will be violent. When Jesus comes near Jerusalem and reaches Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives, he sends two disciples to secure a donkey and a colt. The prophet Zechariah, who Matthew quotes in his passage, has told us that the Mount of Olives is the place where the Lord will stand and defeat those gathered against Jerusalem; it is from that mount that the Lord will become king over all the earth and forever keep Jerusalem from destruction. The prophet Zechariah has also said that the people of Israel’s king will come humble and mounted on a donkey and on a colt. The writer of Matthew is careful to reflect this prophecy exactly and pictures Jesus riding through town straddling both a donkey and a colt! If anyone is still wondering if Jesus will violently overthrow Rome, they get their answer when he secures a donkey instead of a warhorse to be his escort.
The crowd that has been following Jesus goes out ahead of him, takes their cloaks and tree branches and spreads them on the road. They shout, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!” To claim that Jesus is the son of David is to assert that Jesus is the messiah. Hosanna is Aramaic for “Save or help we pray!” These are appropriate words for a savior, a king, the holy one who will liberate. This same city that trembled along with Herod at the birth of Jesus trembles again. They are in turmoil because they are shaken by this procession. The normal order of things is being upended. They aren’t quite sure what to make of this crowd of people, but they know things will never be the same. “Who is this?” they cry out. The crowd answers, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.” Jesus is indeed both a king and a prophet in the line of succession of Israel’s prophets, and Jesus knowingly enters into the city that is known for killing its own prophets.
Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem is the moment when all of God’s purposes and promises to the people of Israel are about to be fulfilled. The people have been cast out of Eden, but Jesus has returned and is God walking among them again. God’s promise to Abraham that he will be a blessing to all the families of the earth will come to fulfillment in Jesus; through Jesus, all people will be invited into God’s covenant. Moses and the people were nourished by water provided from the rock in the wilderness, and now God’s people will never thirst again because Jesus, the rock, the living water, has come to them. Though David was a king like the people had never known before, Jesus will ultimately be the king that God had always hoped for. The people who wandered through the valley of the dry bones in Ezekiel, who were cast out into exile and living in utter despair, will finally be restored. Jesus will breathe the life of the resurrection into them. When Jesus enters Jerusalem he ushers in the kingdom of God once and for all and fulfills all the promises God has made to the people of Israel.
This is an earthshaking event that changes everything. When Jesus enters Jerusalem, he initiates a disturbance, a seismic shift, that echoes from his birth and reverberates to his impending death and resurrection. This Lent we have joined Jesus’ triumphal entry, but as we do, we must remember what kind of march we are participating in. We must examine what this march actually means for our lives. This march calls us to identify exclusionary practices and policies among us so that we can stand together as God’s people to oppose them. Our remembering of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem challenges us to march again with Jesus, to proclaim peace and reconciliation, and to embody that peace and reconciliation by the very way we live our lives. This Palm Sunday as we reenact God’s liberating action, we remember the way Jesus entered Jerusalem and turned the world’s empires on their heads, and we are called to have the courage to remember we have a different kind of king. The image of Jesus’ kingship is a cross, not a throne.
A long time has passed since Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey and solidified that God’s kingdom is not one of violence, but we still keep getting it wrong. This past Tuesday was the fiftieth anniversary of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s speech, entitled “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence,” given at the Riverside Church in New York City. It was a speech addressed to a group of clergy and laypeople concerned about our involvement in Vietnam. The speech begins with these words: “‘A time comes when silence is betrayal.’ That time has come for us in relation to Vietnam. The truth of these words is beyond doubt, but the mission to which they call us is a most difficult one. Even when pressed by the demands of inner truth, men do not easily assume the task of opposing their government’s policy, especially in time of war. Nor does the human spirit move without great difficulty against all the apathy of conformist thought within one’s own bosom and in the surrounding world. Moreover, when the issues at hand seem as perplexing as they often do in the case of this dreadful conflict, we are always on the verge of being mesmerized by uncertainty. But we must move on…we must speak.”[i]
Many had questioned King’s outspokenness against the war, and in response to those who wonder if his outspokenness is in conflict with his role as a preacher and a civil rights leader, he says, “I would yet have to live with the meaning of my commitment to the ministry of Jesus Christ. To me, the relationship of this ministry to the making of peace is so obvious that I sometimes marvel at those who ask me why I am speaking against the war. Could it be that they do not know that the Good News was meant for all men—for communist and capitalist, for their children and ours, for black and for white, for revolutionary and conservative? Have they forgotten that my ministry is in obedience to the one who loved his enemies so fully that he died for them?” He goes on to say, “I must be true to my conviction that I share with all men the calling to be a son of the living God. Beyond the calling of race or nation or creed is this vocation of sonship and brotherhood. Because I believe that the Father is deeply concerned, especially for His suffering and helpless and outcast children, I come tonight to speak for them. This I believe to be the privilege and the burden of all of us who deem ourselves bound by allegiances and loyalties which are broader and deeper than nationalism and which go beyond our nation’s self-defined goals and positions. We are called to speak for the weak, for the voiceless, for the victims of our nation, for those it calls ‘enemy,’ for no document from human hands can make these humans any less our brothers[and sisters].” King insists, “We can no longer afford to worship the god of hate or bow before the altar of retaliation.” [ii] It’s been fifty years since King said these words, and yet have we really taken them to heart? King understood that the god of hate, retaliation, war, and violence was not the God of Israel. King understood that the kingdoms of this world, the kingdoms that make people suffer, the kingdoms that make people victims of war, the kingdoms that make people outcasts are not the same kingdom of God that Jesus ushered in. King understood that in God’s kingdom all are beloved children. King understood that Jesus was the kind of king that would die before retaliating violently towards the kingdoms of this world.
As we begin Holy Week this year, wars continue to rage all around us. We watched the news in horror this past week as a chemical weapons attack killed more than 70 people in Syria. The images of people gasping for air are too much to bear. It’s reportedly one of the worst attacks in the country’s six year civil war that has led to almost 400,000 deaths and half of the population of Syria being displaced. What has been our response? A demand for retaliation and a threat for violent actions used as fear tactics. On Thursday evening we made good on our threats and dropped tomahawk missiles on a Syrian air base. Ironically we’ve been afraid these refugees would harm us if we let them in our country, and now we are willing to justify acts of violence on their behalf. It’s not really surprising. Leaders from both of our political parties called for this very response. It’s the logic of empire, but on a day like Palm Sunday, let us be clear: it’s not the response of God’s kingdom. Jesus asked us to follow him to the cross, not to the seat of power. He rode a donkey, not a warhorse. He calls for resurrection and restoration, not retaliation. Jesus would have us to cast out our own fear and breathe life into those who are suffering, not bring death upon those who caused their suffering.
It’s no surprise that Jesus’ entry is celebrated by those who are not in power. Those who are in power don’t want the world turned upside down. Those who are in power are okay with business as usual; those who are privileged can afford to be uncertain, to remain silent, to not speak, to contemplate their convictions. If we are the holders of power and privilege, can we move out of the way and allow those not in power to help us to see God’s kingdom better? Or will we side with Rome and beef up our security measures when we feel threatened? We do not hail Jesus as king when we allow politics to just run their course and for business to continue as usual. When we wave the palm branches, we declare that we put our hope and trust in Jesus, the Son of David, who comes in the name of the Lord. When we wave the palm branches, we allow the one who rides in on the donkey, not the one who rides in on the warhorse, to be in control. When we wave the palm branches, we allow turmoil, challenge, and the shattering of politics as usual so that we can move towards peace, reconciliation, and resurrection. When we wave the palm branches, we enter into Holy Week and welcome a different kind of king.