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.)
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.
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.)
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.