Palm Sunday Reflection: The Revolutionary Jesus

Readings for Palm Sunday: John 12: 12-16; Isaiah 50: 4-7; Psalm 22: 17-24; Philippians 2: 6-11; Mark 14: 15-47

Today is Palm Sunday. For Christians, it begins “Holy Week” which recalls Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem (Palm Sunday), his Last Supper (Holy Thursday), his torture and execution (Good Friday), and his resurrection from the dead as the culmination of a long history that began with the liberation of Hebrew slaves from Egypt (Holy Saturday).

As just noted, the saga begins today by recalling what the Christian Testament remembers as the day when Jesus was greeted by chanting throngs as he entered the city seated on a donkey while the crowds waved palm branches and shouted “Hosanna.” They spread their cloaks before the animal that bore him to the temple precincts where he famously evicted money changers and vendors of sacrificial animals.

The event is full of political significance for those of us whose government has proudly inherited the mantle of the Roman Empire. That’s because the supposed events of Palm Sunday were probably part of a much larger general demonstration of faithful Jews including Jesus against the oppression that is part and parcel of all imperial systems including our own. As such, today’s narrative calls us to resistance of U.S. Empire as Rome’s contemporary successor.

To understand what I mean, consider (1) the significance of the Jerusalem demonstration itself and the role that palms played in its unfolding, (2) the demonstration’s chant “Hosanna, Son of David” and (3) the meaning of all this for our own lives.

Jerusalem Direct Action  

For starters, think about what actually happened in Jerusalem during that first Demonstration of Palms.

Note at the outset that if the event wasn’t a whole-cloth invention of the early church, it’s highly unlikely that Jesus would have entered Jerusalem as a universally acclaimed figure. That’s because the gospels make it clear that all during his “public life,” Jesus confined his activities of healing and speaking to small villages where his audiences were poor illiterate peasants.

Given their small numbers, poverty and the expenses of travel and lodging, their massive presence in Jerusalem would have been highly unlikely. This meant that Jesus’ profile would have remained exceedingly low in larger cities and nearly non-existent in his nation’s capital city, Jerusalem. He would have been largely unknown there.

Again, if the event happened at all, it is more likely that the part Jesus and his disciples played in it was marginal and supportive of a larger parade and demonstration supported by well-organized revolutionaries such as Judah’s Zealot cadres whose raison d’etre was the expulsion of the occupying forces from Rome.

This also means that the demonstration’s climax with its “cleansing of the temple” would probably have represented a much larger assault on the sacred precincts where only large numbers of protestors would have stood any hope of impact rather than an individual construction worker supported by 12 fishermen.

(Remember, the residence of the Roman procurator, Pontius Pilate, was actually attached to the temple itself. So were the barracks of Jerusalem’s occupying force. The annex was called the Fortress Antonia. During the Passover holidays, everyone there would have been on high alert rendering any small demonstration – and probably any large one — virtually impossible. If the temple itself were not crawling with Roman soldiers, they would have been surveilling the whole scene.)

But even if (before that) Jesus were welcomed by the frantic crowds as depicted in the gospels, the event would have been precisely intended to be seen by the Romans as highly political and perhaps even decisive in defeating their hated occupation and bringing on in its place what Jesus described as the Kingdom of God.

(Jesus’ high hopes surrounding the incidents of this final week in his life are suggested by the words Mark records at the Last Supper in today’s gospel reading: “I shall not drink again the fruit of the vine until the day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God.” In other words, Jesus evidently thought that the events of this first “holy week” would signify a political turning point for Jews in their struggle against Rome. Their uprising would finally bring in God’s kingdom.)

Jesus’ Anti-Imperialism

In any case and whatever its historical merits, Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem is presented as anti-imperial. The waving of palms, the chanting of the crowd, and Jesus’ mount all tell us that. In Jesus’ time, the waving palms on patriotic occasions (like Passover) was like waving a national or revolutionary flag. That had been the case ever since the successful rebellion led by the Jewish revolutionary Maccabee family against the Seleucid tyranny of Antiochus IV Epiphanes 150 years earlier.

So, crowds greeting Jesus with palms raised high while chanting “Hosanna, Son of David” (save us!) would have meant “Hail to the Son of David, who will lead us to regain our freedom from the Romans, the way the Maccabees led the revolution against the Seleucid tyrant!” Jesus’ choice of a traditionally royal donkey as his mount would only have underscored that message. Only kings rode donkeys in processions.    

All of this means that the story of “Palm Sunday” as presented in today’s reading depicts an overt threat to the imperial system of Rome supported by Jerusalem’s Temple establishment.

Anti-Imperialism Today

So, what’s my point in emphasizing the political dimensions of Palm Sunday? Simply put, it’s to call attention to the fact that followers of Jesus must be anti-imperial too.

That’s because imperialism as such runs contrary to the Hebrew covenant that protected the poor and oppressed, the widows, orphans and resident non-Jews from the depredations of local elites and outside military powers.

And that’s what empire represents in every case. It’s a system of robbery by which militarily powerful nations victimize the less powerful for purposes of resource transfer from the poor to the already wealthy.

Such upward redistribution of wealth runs absolutely contrary to the profound social reform promised in Jesus’ notion of the Kingdom of God. There, everything would be reversed downward. The first would be last; the last would be first (Matthew 20:16). The hungry would be fed and the rich would suffer famine (Luke 1: 53). The rich would become poor and the poor would be rich. The joyful would be saddened and those in tears would laugh (Luke 6: 24-25).

Contradicting those grassroots aspirations is the very purpose of U.S. empire today with its endless wars, nuclear arms, bloated Pentagon budgets, and glorification of the military. All of that is about supporting the status quo and preventing Jesus’ Great Reversal.

That’s why American armed forces maintain more than 800 military bases throughout the world. All of them are engines of stability in a world of huge inequalities. (Btw, do you know how many foreign bases China maintains? One!!) Maintaining stability in a world crying out for change is why the U.S. is currently fighting seven wars (Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria, Somalia, Yemen, Niger – and who knows where else) with no end in sight. (Today’s designated enemy, China, is fond of pointing out that it hasn’t dropped a single bomb on foreign soil for 40 years.)

Conclusion

Recently, a conservative church friend of mine told me that his primary identity is as a follower of Jesus. I found that wonderfully inspiring.

On second thought however, I wondered which Jesus he was referring to. Was it to the revolutionary Jesus of Palm Sunday? Or did his Jesus support U.S. empire? Did he promise individualized prosperity as the result of following him? Was his Jesus politically involved? Or did he simply ignore politics in favor of internal peace and a promised heaven after death?

The questions are crucial. There are so many Jesuses of faith. And, of course, we’re all free to choose our favorite. By the same token however, we have to explain how an “other-worldly” Jesus would have appealed to his impoverished audiences like those depicted in today’s gospel. My guess is that an other-worldly guru would have had zero appeal to them.

Why would such a Jesus have been seen as threatening to Rome? Again, he would not have been.

Yes, there are many Jesuses of faith. However, there was only one historical Jesus. And it seems logical to me that the historical Jesus must be the criterion for judging which Jesus of faith we accept — if any.

Today’s recollection of the parade down Jerusalem’s main street, with crowds waving revolutionary symbols, and its assault on the sacred temple precincts (including Roman barracks) remind us that the historical Jesus stood against empire. Like every good Jew of his time, Jesus not only hoped for empire’s overthrow, but worked to that end with its promised Great Reversal.

No wonder Jesus was so popular with his poor and oppressed neighbors. No wonder Rome executed him as an insurgent. No wonder that particular Jesus seems so foreign to us who now live in the belly of empire’s beast. No wonder he remains so despicable to our religious and political mainstream.

Christians Supporting Donald Trump: How Luke’s Passion Narrative Prepared the Way

Readings for Palm Sunday: LK 19:28-40; IS 50: 4-7, PS 22: 8-9, 12-20, 23=24, PHIL 2:6-11, LK 22: 14-23:58.

It’s puzzling to see white Evangelicals rallying around Donald Trump. He’s the one who owns casinos and strip clubs, who has been married three times and brags about sexually assaulting women. 

How is it possible for white evangelicals to support such a person whose policies favor the rich and punish the poor, who despises immigrants, advocates torture, and whose appetite for profit seems insatiable.

After all, Jesus was a poor laborer who criticized the rich in the harshest of terms. He and his family knew what it was like to be unwelcome immigrants (in Egypt). He himself was a victim of torture, not its administrator. Far from a champion of empire, he was executed as a terrorist and enemy of Rome.  His followers were not about accumulating wealth but shared what they had according to ability and need.

When you think of it, all of this seems antithetical to not only to Trumpism, but to the declared positions of virtually the entire Republican Party. They’re all imperialists. All of them are friends of the one-percent. They all want to increase military spending — apparently without question or limit.

How did all of that happen?

Today’s Palm Sunday readings provide some clues. Luke’s Passion Narratives reveal a first century Christian community already depoliticizing Jesus in order to please Roman imperialists. The stories turn Jesus against his own people as though they were foreign enemies of God.

Think about the context of today’s Palm Sunday readings.

Note that Jesus and his audiences were first and foremost anti-imperialist Jews whose lives were shaped more than anything else by the Roman occupation of their homeland. As such, they weren’t waiting for a Roman-Greco “messiah” who, like the Sun God Mithra, would die and lead them to heaven. They were awaiting a Davidic messiah who would liberate them from the Romans.

So, on this Palm Sunday, what do you think was on the minds of the crowds who Luke tells us lined the streets of Jerusalem to acclaim Jesus the Nazarene? Were they shouting “Hosanna! Hosanna!” (Save us! Save us!) because they thought Jesus was about to die and by his sacrificial death open the gates of heaven closed since Adam’s sin by a petulant God? Of course not. They were shouting for Jesus to save them from the Romans.

The palm branches in their hands were (since the time of the Maccabees) the symbols of resistance to empire. Those acclaiming Jesus looked to him to play a key role in the Great Rebellion everyone knew about to take place against the hated Roman occupiers.

And what do you suppose was on Jesus’ mind? He was probably intending to take part in the rebellion just mentioned. It had been plotted by the Jews’ Zealot insurgency. Jesus words at the “Last Supper” show his anticipation that the events planned for Jerusalem might cause God’s Kingdom to dawn that very weekend.

Clearly Jesus had his differences with the Zealots. They were nationalists; he was inter-nationalist who was open to gentiles. The Zealots were violent; Jesus was not.

And yet the Zealots and Jesus came together on their abhorrence of Roman presence in the Holy Land. They found common ground on the issues of debt forgiveness, non-payment of taxes to the occupiers, and of land reform. Within Jesus’ inner circle there was at least one Zealot (Simon). Indications might also implicate Peter, Judas, James, and John. And Jesus’ friends were armed when he was arrested. Whoever cut off the right ear of the high priest’s servant was used to wielding a sword – perhaps as a “sicarius” (the violent wing of the Zealots who specialized in knifing Jews collaborating with the Romans).

But we’re getting ahead of our story. . . Following his triumphant entry into Jerusalem, Jesus soon found himself and his disciples inside the temple participating in what we’d call a “direct action” protest. They were demonstrating against the collaborative role the temple and its priesthood were fulfilling on behalf of the Romans.

As collaborators, the temple priests were serving a foreign god (the Roman emperor) within the temple precincts. For Jesus that delegitimized the entire system. So, as John Dominic Crossan puts it, Jesus’ direct action was not so much a “cleansing” of the temple as the symbolic destruction of an institution that had completely lost its way.

It was this demonstration that represented the immediate cause of Jesus’ arrest and execution described so poignantly in today’s long gospel reading.

Following the temple demonstration, Jesus and his disciples became “wanted” men (Lk. 19:47). At first Jesus’ popularity affords him protection from the authorities (19:47-48). The people constantly surround him eager to hear Jesus’ words denouncing their treasonous “leaders” (20:9-19), about the issue of Roman taxation (20:20-25), the destruction of the temple (21:1-6), the coming war (21:20-24) and the imminence of God’s Kingdom (21:29-33).

Eventually however, Jesus has to go underground. On Passover eve he sends out Peter and John to arrange for a safe-house to celebrate the feast I mentioned earlier. The two disciples are to locate the “upper room.” They do so by exchanging a set of secret signs and passwords with a local comrade.

Then comes Jesus’ arrest. Judas has betrayed Jesus to collect the reward on Jesus’ head – 30 pieces of silver. The arrest is followed by a series of “trials” before the Jewish Council (the Sanhedrin), before Pilate and Herod. Eventually, Jesus is brought back to Pilate. There he’s tortured, condemned and executed between two other insurgents.

Note that Luke presents Pilate in way completely at odds with what we know of the procurator as described for example by the Jewish historian Josephus. After the presentation of clear-cut evidence that the Nazarene rabbi was “stirring up the people,” and despite Jesus’ own admission to crimes against the state (claiming to be a rival king), Pilate insists three times that the carpenter is innocent of capital crime.

Such tolerance of rebellion contradicts Crossan’s insistence that Pilate had standing orders to execute anyone associated with lower class rebellion during the extremely volatile Passover festivities. In other words, there would have been no drawn-out trial.

What’s going on here? Two things.

First of all, like everyone else, Luke knew that Jesus had been crucified by the Romans. That was an inconvenient truth for Luke’s audience which around the year 85 CE (when Luke wrote) was desperately trying to reconcile with the Roman Empire which lumped the emerging Christian community with the Jews whom the Romans despised.

Luke’s account represents an attempt to create distance between Christians and Jews. So, he makes up an account that exonerates Pilate (and the Romans) from guilt for Jesus’ execution. Simultaneously, he lays the burden of blame for Jesus’ execution at the doorstep of Jewish authorities.

In this way, Luke made overtures of friendship towards Rome. He wasn’t worried about the Jews, since by the year 70 the Romans had destroyed Jerusalem and its temple along with more than a million of its inhabitants. After 70 Jewish Christians no longer represented the important factor they once were. Their leadership had been decapitated with the destruction of Jerusalem.

Relatedly, Jesus’ crucifixion would have meant that Rome perceived him as a rebel against the Empire. Luke is anxious to make the case that such perception was false. Rome had nothing to fear from Christians.

I’m suggesting that such assurance was unfaithful to the Jesus of history. It domesticated the rebel who shines through even in Luke’s account when it is viewed contextually.

And so what?

Well, if you wonder why Christians can support Donald Trump . . . if you wonder why they so easily succumb to empires (Roman, Nazi, U.S.) you’ve got your answer. It all starts here – in the gospels themselves – with the great cover-up of the insurgent Jesus.

And if you wonder where the West’s and Hitler’s comfort with xenophobia in general and anti-Semitism in particular come from, you have that answer as well.

The point here is that only by recovering the obscured rebel Jesus can Christians avoid the mistake they made 80 years ago. Then instead of singing “Hosanna” to Jesus, they shouted “Heil Hitler!” to another imperialist torturer, xenophobe, and hypocrite.

The readings for Palm Sunday present us with a cautionary tale about these sad realities.