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.

From the Beatification of Pontius Pilate to the Sanctification of Donald Trump: Two Peas in a Pod

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 safehouse 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 87 years ago in Germany. 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 and the trend among white evangelicals that impossibly transforms Donald Trump into a Christian hero. The imperialists Pontius Pilate, Adolf Hitler, and Mr. Trump all belong in the same anti-Christ category.

“Christ the King”: How Jesus Became Donald Trump

Readings for the feast of “Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe”: 2 SM 5: 1-3, PS 122: 1-5; COL 1: 12-20; LK 23: 35-43.

Do you ever wonder how U.S. Christians were able to elect a man like Donald Trump?

After all, Trump represents the polar opposite of the values embodied in Jesus of Nazareth. In fact, Jesus was the kind of person Donald Trump and his supporters actually hate.

I mean, the Nazarene was poor, dark skinned, the son of an unwed teenage mother, and an immigrant in Egypt. Jesus was viscerally opposed to an empire very like the United States. And that empire (Rome) executed him as a terrorist. Jesus ended up on death row and finished as a victim of torture and capital punishment. To repeat, Trump and the Republicans hate people like that. They want Middle Easterners like Jesus out of their country at best, and dead at worst.

Again, how could followers of Jesus elect his sworn enemy?

The readings for today’s feast of “Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe” provide the answer. They explain what might be termed the great “makeover” of Jesus of Nazareth changing him from the leader of an anti-imperial revolutionary movement into a pillar supporting the very institutions that assassinated him.

In other words: through 4th century sleight of hand, the Jesus who sided with the poor and those oppressed by empire was made to switch sides. He was co-opted and domesticated – kicked upstairs into the royal class. He became not only a patron of the Roman Empire, but a “king” complete with crown, purple robes, scepter and fawning courtiers.

Reza Aslan’s best-seller, Zealot, explains the process in detail. The book centralizes today’s account of Jesus’ crucifixion in Luke, Chapter 23. There Aslan pays particular attention to:

  • Jesus’ cross,
  • To the Roman inscription identifying Jesus as “King of the Jews,”
  • To the dialog between Jesus and the two “thieves” presented as sharing his fate.

Take the cross first. It was the mode of execution reserved primarily for insurrectionists against the Roman occupation of Palestine. The fact that Jesus was crucified indicates that the Romans believed him to be a revolutionary terrorist. Aslan asks, how could it have been otherwise?  After all, Jesus was widely considered the “messiah” – i.e. as the one, like David in today’s first reading, expected to lead “The War” against Israel’s oppressors.

Moreover, Jesus proclaimed the “Kingdom of God,” a highly politicized metaphor which could only be understood as an alternative to Roman rule. It would return Israel, Jesus himself promised, to Yahweh’s governance and accord primacy to the poor and marginalized. The Romans drew logical conclusions. Put otherwise, the Roman cross itself provides bloody testimony to the radical threat the empire saw personified in Jesus.

That threat was made specific in the inscription the Romans placed over the head of the crucified Jesus. It read, “King of the Jews.”

Typically, those words are interpreted as a cruel joke by the Roman procurator, Pontius Pilate – as if he were simply poking fun at those who saw Jesus as the worthy successor of Israel’s beloved King David.

However, according to Reza Aslan, nothing humorous was intended by the inscription. Instead it was a titulus. Every victim of crucifixion had one – a statement of the reason for his execution. The motive for Jesus’ crucifixion was the same as for the many others among his contemporaries who were executed for the same crime: aspiring to replace Roman rule with home rule – with an Israel governed by Jews instead of Romans. The titulus on Jesus’ cross, along with the cross itself identify him as the antithesis of what he eventually became, a Roman tool.

And then there are those two thieves. Aslan says they weren’t “thieves” at all. That’s a mistranslation, he points out. A better translation of the Greek word, lestai , would be “bandits” – the common designation in the first century for insurrectionists. And there probably weren’t just two others crucified the day Jesus was assassinated. There may have been a dozen or more.

In this context the dialog between Jesus and two of the terrorists crucified with him takes on great significance. Actually, it documents the beginning of the process I described of changing Jesus’ image from insurrectionist to depoliticized teacher.

Think about it. Luke’s account of Jesus’ words and deeds was first penned about the year 85 or 90 – 20 years or so after the Roman-Jewish War (66-70 C.E.) that utterly destroyed Jerusalem and its temple. In the war’s aftermath, defeated Christians became anxious to show the Roman world that it had nothing to fear from their presence in empire.

One way of doing that was to distance the dying Jesus from the Jewish insurgents and their terrorist actions against their oppressors. So in Luke’s death-bed dialog among three crucified revolutionaries, one of the terrorists admits that Jesus is “under the same sentence” as he and his comrade in arms. Given what Aslan said about crucifixion, that fact was undeniable. All three had been sentenced as insurrectionists.

But now comes the distancing between Jesus and Israel’s liberation movements. Luke has the “good thief” (read good terrorist) say, “. . . indeed we have been condemned justly, for the sentence we received corresponds to our crimes, but this man has done nothing criminal.”

In other words, Luke (writing for a post-war Roman audience) dismisses insurrection as “criminal,” and removes Jesus from association with such crime – a fact endorsed, Luke asserts, by insiders like the honest lestai crucified with Jesus. Luke’s message to Rome: the killing of Jesus was a terrible mistake; he meant no harm to Rome. And neither do we, his followers.

After the 4th century, Luke’s message became the official position of the Catholic Church – adopted subsequently by Protestantism. The message transformed the poor, brown, bastard, revolutionary martyr from a tortured and executed criminal into “Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe.”

So, by now in 2019 Jesus has changed color and class. He is the white, rich, bigoted “American” champion of U.S. empire. Those pretending to follow the one-time immigrant from the Middle East show they want to keep riffraff like Jesus, Mary and Joseph out of their land of the free and home of the brave. They want enemies of empire like the Nazarene tortured and executed the way Rome tortured and killed the historical Jesus. Their president even wants to go after Jesus’ parents while he’s at it.

We’ve come a long way, baby! Or have we?

The truth is that only by rescuing the historical Jesus – the antithesis of his radically domesticated version – can we be saved from Jesus-hating Trumpism.

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.

Jesus’ Case for Non-Violent Resistance to Rome (Sunday Homily)

images16[1]

Readings for 3rd Sunday of Lent: Ex. 3:1-8A, 13-15; Ps. 103: 1-4, 6-8, 11; I Cor. 10:1-6, 10-12; Lk. 13: 1-9 http://www.usccb.org/bible/readings/030313-third-sunday-lent.cfm

I’m currently teaching a little Lenten seminar on the historical Jesus. Its central emphasis explores the context of Jesus life and words. The idea is that understanding that context will help us better interpret the gospel readings we encounter in church each Sunday. Our goal is to get closer to the meaning intended by the Four Evangelists and beyond that by the historical Jesus who stands behind the evangelists’ interpretations of the carpenter from Nazareth.

We’ve discovered that one of the criteria for identifying the authentic words and deeds of Jesus is the unconventionality of Jesus’ teaching. By all the accounts we find in the gospels, Jesus regularly scandalized and angered his straight-laced listeners – especially the professional rabbis, priests and scribes. So anything in the gospels that smacks of the scandalous has a point in its favor regarding the authenticity that concerns our seminar. By the same token, expressions of conventional wisdom are doubtfully authentic for that very reason.

With this in mind, there are at least two ways of interpreting today’s gospel reading from Luke. The more or less standard reading boils down to conventional wisdom. It’s what we usually hear from the pulpit. The other interpretation is truer to Jesus’ context. The difference between the two interpretations illustrates what we’re about in the seminar I mentioned. Contrasting the understandings also uncovers a strong challenge otherwise concealed in this more contextualized reading.

Before we get to that, consider the standard interpretation of this text. Jesus is asked about “the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with the blood of their sacrifices.” Evidently, Roman soldiers had surprised some Galilean insurgents while the rebels were engaged in worship. The soldiers had slaughtered the men then and there. Jesus asks “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way because they were greater sinners than all other Galileans?” Then he answers his own question, “By no means! But I tell you, if you do not repent, you will all perish as they did!”

Jesus continues his questioning. He asks,

“Or those eighteen people who were killed
when the tower at Siloam fell on them—
do you think they were more guilty
than everyone else who lived in Jerusalem?
By no means!
But I tell you, if you do not repent,
you will all perish as they did!”

Here interpreters unfamiliar with the historical context in question usually understand Jesus as referring to a random accident that was well-known in his time. A tower had fallen by chance and killed some innocents. It raised the familiar question, “Why do bad things happen to good people?”

In both cases, Jesus’ answer seems to be: bad things happen to good people because the people aren’t really good. The insurgents were guilty and deserved what they got. The same is true about the apparently innocent bystanders killed by the tower’s freak accident. Even more, Jesus seems to be saying, everyone is guilty and needs to repent or all will perish in the same way. “Repentance” is usually understood as more faithful observance of the 10 Commandments – especially those having to do with sex.

There are obvious problems with this interpretation. To begin with, the “wisdom” attributed to Jesus is nothing if not “conventional.” That in itself distances the explanation from the decidedly unconventional historical Jesus. Secondly, the standard interpretation ignores the political nature of this passage. It places in the same category of “acts of God” the accidental collapse of a tower on the one hand and the murder of Jewish patriots on the other. This equivalency has Jesus more or less endorsing Pilate as the agent of God’s punishment for the sins of the Galileans in question. Such endorsement and lack of political nuance is hard to imagine coming from the mouth of a Galilean Jew of the 1st century.

An explanation more faithful to Jesus’ context takes the topic of today’s readings to be violence, counter-violence and the need for non-violent resistance. According to this reading, Jesus’ words are not taken as an abstract statement about bad things happening to good people. His pronouncement doesn’t equate Pilate’s murder of innocents with the accidental collapse of a building. Instead the two incidents are seen as mirror images of each other. Together they warn about the cycle of violence Jesus sees as destroying his people. This approach contextualizes Jesus’ words and takes seriously the political intent of the news item shared with Jesus at the very outset. Luke tells us,

“Some people told Jesus about the Galileans
whose blood Pilate had mingled with the blood of their sacrifices.”

No doubt, this was not news to Jesus. Everyone in Galilee must have been talking about it. Some Galileans – people from Jesus’ own province – had been slaughtered by Roman soldiers while offering sacrifice. The opening words of today’s gospel were not meant to communicate news but to complain about the Roman occupiers. Those introducing the topic were looking for sympathy and agreement. Jesus does not disappoint.

Pilate, of course, would have claimed that his victims were insurgents against the Roman occupation; they were “guilty” as terrorists, he would have said. That was his official line. Jesus says, “Don’t believe it” – as if his audience were tempted to believe Roman lies. “Do you think they were guilty?” Jesus asks. “By no means,” he answers.

Here Jesus is agreeing with his Galilean compatriots. If the ones Pilate killed were terrorists, he says, so are all Galileans; we’re all guilty in Pilate’s eyes. None of us wants the Romans here, Jesus implies. After all, it wasn’t the Galileans who threw the first stone; it was Pilate and the Roman soldiers who did so by invading Israel’s sovereign territory.

But then Jesus suddenly takes another tack. He connects Pilate’s butchery with another headline of his day – an act of counter-violence taken by the “Zealot” forces Pilate was attempting to punish. (Zealots were the revolutionary force committed to ousting the Roman occupiers from Palestine.) Pilate’s action, Jesus suggests, started the cycle of violence that evoked a disaster at Siloam at a spot near the Fountain of Ezekias. Siloam was the location of a small arsenal, where the Romans kept their swords, shields, battering rams and other weapons.

According to Maria and Ignacio Lopez-Vigil, a group of Zealot insurgents had tried to dig a tunnel up to the tower with hopes of seizing the weapons and turning them against the Romans. But the tower’s foundation was already in a state of decay, and the tunnel caused the entire construction to suddenly collapse. The falling tower claimed the lives of several Galilean families who had built their houses near the arsenal.

Jesus point: Pilate is certainly a bloodthirsty man. None of us want him or his armies on our soil. However, those who return his violence with their own are bloodthirsty too. And if we don’t reform our ways we’ll all drown in a bloody deluge. Or as Jesus put it, “I tell you, if you do not repent, you will all perish as they did!”

And time is running short, he adds with his parable about a fig tree. The bloody deluge has been building for at least three years. We have maybe another twelve months before the chickens of the deadly cycle of violence come home to roost. Without repentance, without replacing violent resistance to Roman butchery with non-violent tactics, we’ll all be cut down like a barren fig tree. (Later on, remember, Jesus himself demonstrates the kind of non-violent direct action he had in mind, with his “cleansing” of Jerusalem’s temple.)

Jesus’ prediction of bloodbath, of course, eventually comes true, but not as soon as he thought. The Romans would defeat the Zealot uprising in the year 70, and definitively squash all Jewish rebellion in 132. Jesus was right however about the extent of the slaughter. It was horrific resulting in the deaths of more than a million Jews. Such disaster is inevitable, Jesus teaches for all who “live by the sword.”

What does all of this say to us today? The message is quite relevant. It says first of all that we must be careful about domesticating Jesus and the gospel. The standard interpretation of this passage has the effect of making us comfortable with empire as somehow the instrument of God. It is not. Instead, empire represents the systematized oppression of the poor and defenseless by the rich and powerful. That was true of Rome; it’s true of U.S. empire today. We’re still killing insurgents in their churches and mosques.

Secondly, this passage calls us to non-violence and warns us about where the cycle of violence will inevitably lead. Sandy Hook provides a window into the world created by the worship of guns. Another window is provided by Afghanistan and Iraq, Vietnam, Hiroshima, the Cold War, and the general impoverishment of our country and world brought on by so-called “defense” spending. All of it has us drowning in a deluge of blood. And it promises to get worse and eventually destroy us all. How much time do we have before our chickens come home to roost – three years, one year. . .?

Christians represent about 30% of the world’s inhabitants. There are more than 2 billion of us. Imagine the world we’d create if we insisted on following the call to non-violence represented by Jesus’ words in this morning’s gospel!

Jesus before Pilate: His heroic refusal to name names

Readings for “Christ the King:” Dn. 7:13-14; Ps. 93:1-5; Rv. 1:5-8; Jn. 18:33b-37 http://www.usccb.org/bible/readings/112512.cfm

This is the feast of Christ the King. In today’s gospel reading, Jesus declares his kingship during his interrogation before the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate. Standard interpretations of the scene (such as in Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ”) present Pilate as a spiritually sensitive seeker.  It seems that Pilate had some appreciation of Jesus’ innocence and was trying desperately to free him from the rabid hatred of his Jewish adversaries.

So Pilate’s questioning of Jesus takes on a theological tone. His questions though arrogant are intellectual almost gentle and respectful. They seem sparked by genuine curiosity. Pilate asks, “Are you the king of the Jews?” In the end Pilate ponders the imponderable, “What is truth?”

The standard account goes on to say that only his personal weakness causes the Roman procurator to have Jesus scourged – to appease the fanatical Jewish leaders demanding Jesus’ blood. Yes, he was weak, but in the end the Jews were the ones principally responsible for Jesus’ death.

That’s the familiar picture: Pilate the intellectual, spiritually sensitive, looking for a way to set Jesus free, but too weak to assert his authority in the face of powerful and hateful Jewish leaders.

Problem is, the picture is profoundly at odds with the historical record. It also ignores the real reason representatives of empire engage in interrogation. As for the procurator’s personal character, Philo, Flavius Josephus, and Tacitus, tell us that Pontius Pilate was an absolutely brutal man. He had no fear of Jewish leaders. He despised them. In fact he took pains to provoke them. For instance, he knew the Jewish prohibition against idolatry and the making images, and yet he routinely paraded through the streets of Jerusalem statues of the Roman emperor who claimed to be a God. On several occasions, Pilate had his soldiers enter the Jerusalem Temple itself provocatively profaning it by their very presence.

No, Pilate was brutal. And his questioning of Jesus in today’s gospel had nothing to do with theological interest. He cared not at all for Jesus or establishing innocence. Quite the opposite. Pilate was just doing his job. If the questioning actually took place at all (and it’s doubtful that it did), it was at the hands of an imperial administrator doing what administrators do in all such circumstances from first century Jerusalem to twenty-first century Kabul. They arrest, interrogate, torture, and execute.

After all, Pilate had in his presence a man identified by local informants as a terrorist. In fact, this one (like innumerable others Pilate had questioned) claimed to be King of the Jews – obviously an insane “rival” to Caesar. What a laugh – an uneducated laborer from Nazareth!  So Pilate would have been all about arresting this “militant,” interrogating him for information about accomplices, torturing him when the initial interrogation failed, and then butchering the fool.

Moreover Jesus’ silence before Pilate had nothing to do with humility. It was instead about Jesus’ refusal to name his accomplices. So the torture began. To humiliate him, the soldiers stripped him naked – again, standard operating procedure then and now. For the soldiers this was fun.  No doubt they made crude jokes about Jews and circumcision. (Do you hear echoes of Abu Ghraib here?)

Still Jesus said nothing. So they beat him nearly to death. Thirty-nine lashes (almost no one survived that). And yet Jesus refused to name names. So they gave him the “crown of thorns” treatment. It was like water-boarding today. Still nothing – no names. It was entirely heroic on Jesus’ part.

Then they applied the final torture – the “third degree” following the first two: the scourging and “crown of thorns.” This was the ultimate torment reserved for insurrectionists – crucifixion. They’d send a detachment of soldiers to copy down any final disclosures. But Jesus said nothing to help them. His silence and acceptance of suffering and death literally saved his friends. They had been disloyal to him, explicitly denied him; they had been cowardly and weak. They had sinned against Jesus. Yet he gave his life for them. His friends would never forget that. Jesus’ heroic death saved them from their sins. It saved them from Pilate.

However, the truth is that Pilate was probably not aware of any of this. He was used to applying the third degree. The record shows he had crucified literally thousands in his time. A lot of them had claimed to be messiahs sent from God.  For him executing such delusionaries was no big deal. In fact, scripture scholar John Dominic Crossan suggests that Pilate took no notice at all of Jesus. The whole world was not watching, Crossan says. Jesus wasn’t even a blip on Pilate’s screen. The “trial before Pilate” was probably pro forma at best – possibly even a fabrication of the early church to shift blame for Jesus’ death from the Romans to the Jews. After all, by the time John wrote his gospel in the final decade of the first century, Christians were anxious to court favor with Rome. In the meantime, they had been excommunicated from Judaism, and had nothing to lose by alienating Jews.

Strange then that we should be celebrating Jesus as a king today who became a victim of torture and extra-judicial capital punishment. But that’s really the point. I mean our faith tells us that Jesus was the kind of king who reigns in the Kingdom of God where everything is turned upside-down.  Jesus’ kingdom, God’s Kingdom, is truly not of this world. For instance, Jesus says, its citizens don’t respond to violence the way empire or the kingdoms of this world do. Its ethic is not an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. Or as Jesus put it, “If my kingdom were of this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over . . . .“  No, in the Kingdom of God non-violence reigns. And in his behavior before Pilate, Jesus himself shows the way.

As for the personal character of Jesus’ kingship . . .  God’s head of state is not what at all what the world expected. In the eyes of Roman imperialists, Jesus represented the dregs of humanity. He was a Jew – a people the Romans despised. He was poor and probably illiterate. He was unemployed and traveled about with slackers who had given up gainful employment. At least one of his companions (Simon the Zealot) was a self-declared insurrectionist. Jesus was known as a glutton, drunkard and companion of sex workers. And he was irreligious. The holy men of his own people had excommunicated him and accused him of being possessed by the devil.  Some king indeed!

And yet, according to today’s first reading from the Book of Daniel, this king as “Son of Man” will stand in judgment over all the world’s empires from the Egyptians to the Romans and beyond. According to today’s reading from Hebrews, Jesus’ blood is his “Red Badge of Courage.” It will be his ID card when he returns to judge and destroy the empires that routinely kill people like him. Paradoxically however, what destroys the empires in question is Jesus’ non-violence, his refusal to name names, his followers’ refusal to employ violence even to save their king, his own acceptance of death rather than retaliate.

What a mystery that is! And how difficult it is for us to accept and live by Jesus’ radical non-violence. We so believe in violence, force, guns, and bombs. However until we accept non-violence, we will, like everyone else, continue making this world a version of hell rather than of God’s kingdom.

How can we reverse our belief in violence and embrace Jesus’ alternative? What does non-violence look like in our families, in the workplace, in politics and economics?

(Discussion follows.)