Carlyle Fielding Stewart III

Writings on Democracy, Social Justice, and Religion

“The Politics of Palm Sunday”

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Delivered on the Lord’s Day

March 24, 2013

Zechariah 9:1-17: Mark 11:1-11

Carlyle Fielding Stewart, III

In their book, “The Last Week,” John Dominic Crossan and Marcus J. Borg tell us that Passover is the most sacred week of the Jewish year.  As Christians, we know that Holy Week is the most sacred week of the Christian year.

Palm Sunday is the first day of both the Jewish Passover and our Holy Week, with Holy Week reaching its apex on Resurrection Sunday.

It is very interesting that each year, in Christian observances of Palm Sunday, we fail to highlight the Jewish aspects of this day. Jesus was a Jew who was not against Judaism. He lived each day as a Jewish person. He taught and lived the spiritual and faith traditions of Judaism. How strange it is then that we separate from our celebrations the Jewishness of Jesus and His religious traditions, which birthed the “Way,” later known as Christianity. Judaism is the spiritual parent of Christianity.

We must also remember that the earliest group of followers of the Jesus movement was composed primarily of Jews. Marcus Borg, in his book “Jesus,” is correct in observing that we must distinguish between the Pre-Easter and Post-Easter Jesus. So, we must consider Christianity within the context of the Pre-Easter life that Jesus led.  Jesus rode into Jerusalem upon a donkey, on Passover, as a Jew.

So, Palm Sunday is a key example of this tendency to overlook rather than to examine and “look over” the Jewish elements of the Gospel. If we use the historical-critical method of biblical analysis, many Bible events, including Holy Week, can be understood in their Jewish context.  We must come to understand the meaning of Palm Sunday in the context of the Passover celebrations. We must acknowledge what these Passover traditions have come to mean to Christians who later formulated their own religious belief system by combining these elements of Judaism with aspects of the new Way.

We cannot therefore come to appreciate the true meaning of Passover as the holiest week for Jews – and Holy Week as the holiest week for Christians – without considering why Jesus in the fervor and flavor of Jewish prophetic tradition rode into Jerusalem in the way that he did that Palm Sunday.  The donkey, the mode of transportation that Jesus chose, and everything else that he did that day symbolized a Jewish world view which sharply contrasted with the predominant Roman world view. We cannot as Christians come to fully understand Palm Sunday without considering its Jewish elements: what the Jesus procession was designed to do, what it would symbolize in the minds of the people in Jerusalem on that Passover day.

As Christians, we see Palm Sunday as an event celebrating the Lordship of Christ. But this Lordship was not fully established until later Christian communities reflected on the life of Jesus, penned the Gospels, documented his miracles and all of his works and affirmed the Lordship of Jesus as Christ. We cannot fully understand the Lordship of Christ until some centuries later.

We must also remember that, contrary to some theological assertions, his status as Lord does not cancel out his prophetic claims of God’s concern that truth and justice be established on earth. That is in fact what he rode into Jerusalem to proclaim.

At the time of Passover, the way that Jesus rode into Jerusalem would allow the people of that time to see him more as a prophet or Messiah, in the line of former Jewish prophets. He did not claim himself to be Lord and Savior as he would later come to be known. Rather he was the Son of Man, a prophet in the messianic tradition who celebrated the liberation of his people from Egypt. He was a prophet celebrating the future liberation of his people from then existing forms of bondage. He was to establish a new kingdom on earth, which in its final manifestation would be a kingdom of peace and justice on earth, as it is in heaven – not a kingdom of war and violence and destruction.

Jesus would ride into Jerusalem in the manner spoken of in Zechariah 9:9-10. You must, however, read all of Zechariah 9 to understand the context and events of Palm Sunday. Let me share a portion of that scripture that sets the context of and back drop for Palm Sunday.

“Rejoice greatly, Daughter of Zion, Shout, Daughter of Jerusalem! See your king come to you righteous and victorious, lowly riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey. I will take away the chariots of Ephraim and the war horses from Jerusalem; and the battle bow will be broken; He will bring peace to the nations. His rule will extend from sea to sea and from the River to the ends of the earth….

Passover was a time of tension and political unrest and Palm Sunday was a time in which competing and conflicting claims to kingship and ruler ship of the world would be played out. This new King would ride into Jerusalem on a donkey and thereby proclaim the Kingdom of God and its imminent revelation on Earth.

Marcus J. Borg and John Dominic Crossan tell us in their book “The Last Week” that there were two processions going on that day in Jerusalem. On the east end of Jerusalem we find Jesus riding into the city in the manner prophesied by Zechariah, on a donkey – the foal, or young donkey. The people understood what that procession meant, in light of Passover celebrations and what it could mean in their present context. Jesus would ride into the city symbolizing the prophetic dawning of a new age and kingdom; one that would herald justice and peace, and the replacement of the existing order with a new order on earth. The understanding at that time was that the coming Kingdom would replace all earthly kingdoms, including Rome. His was a peasant procession signifying the humility and lowliness of what Sly Stone called,” everyday people.” This procession would herald him as a new messianic King who would peacefully usher in the new kingdom of God on earth any day now.

Around the same time, on the west end of Jerusalem, there was another procession coming into the city; an imperial parade, with Pontius Pilate, the Roman Governor of Idumea, Judea and Samaria, entering Jerusalem at the head of a column of soldiers. This procession was a show of Roman Imperial power,” with foot soldiers, men on horses, leather armor, helmets, weapons, banners, golden eagles mounted on poles, sun glinting on metal and gold; the sounds of marching feet, the creaking of leather, the clinking of bridles, the beating of drums, the swirling of dust, the eyes of silent onlookers some curious, some awed, some fearful and some resentful,” write Borg and Crossan. This procession, on the west end of Jerusalem, was a demonstration of Roman Imperial power and might; a display of the military and magisterial strength of the great Roman armies and the mighty Roman Empire.

These two processions on Palm Sunday, during the Jewish Passover, embody the central conflict of the week that led to the crucifixion of Jesus. We cannot fully understand the events of Palm Sunday and Holy Week without first discerning the social, political and religious climates of that moment in that tumultuous era.

It was standard practice for the Roman Governors of Judea to be in Jerusalem during major Jewish festivals in case there was trouble. This was especially true at Passover, which celebrated the Jewish people’s liberation from Egypt, an earlier empire. Roman Imperial authority wanted to be sure that Passover celebrations did not get out of hand especially since there was continuing conflict with the Roman and the Jewish world views.

There was ongoing conflict in matters of God versus matters of man. The Jewish people were highly conscious of their religion and took seriously any hint at secular violations of its most cherished religious beliefs. Rome was highly conscious of its political system and took seriously any religious violation of its cherished political beliefs.

The power of Judaism resided in its notion of a sovereign God who was far above and beyond the dictates of any person or manmade kingdom. The power of the Jewish people lay in part in their belief in God’s sovereignty which could not make them ultimate subjects of any earthly kingdom. The power of Rome lay in its capacity to subjugate and subdue and rule its subjects in ways that consolidated its political and military strength and power for the purposes of expanding and consolidating its earthly power and kingdom. The concerns of both groups were focused on power. God’s power versus man’s power.

So here we have on Palm Sunday two processions entering into Jerusalem; one by Jesus representing at Passover the Jewish Messianic and prophetic tradition, symbolizing that God would one day usher in a new kingdom on earth where peace and justice would reign forever. And on the other end of Jerusalem we find Pilate marching into the city in Roman political tradition symbolizing that a new Kingdom had finally come through Rome, because the emperor had ushered in this new kingdom on earth. This inferred that the Gods had seen fit to choose Rome as the new Kingdom of power on earth. Rome was therefore in charge, Rome ruled; and Rome would not tolerate any messianic claims to rival its rule or its kingdoms, none that would disrupt its power, its commerce, its Roman Imperial order. No other kingdom on earth at that time could rival the power of mighty Rome. As with any system of governance or empire, no rival forms of kingdom would be allowed to prevail to overturn the rule that Rome had imperially established in Palestine and in other parts of the world.

So here on Palm Sunday we have a tension between two world views; the kingdom of God on earth and what it ultimately meant to the people on earth and their personal and religious freedom and sovereignty in God – versus the kingdom of man on earth and what it ultimately meant to the sovereignty of Rome and its rule over the people on earth. It is in this context that we must come to understand the politics of Palm Sunday.

The procession of Jesus represented Jewish prophetic and messianic claims to the coming Kingdom that would replace all existing earthly kingdoms which included Rome; the elimination of oppression, injustice, and all forms of social debilitation that hindered the people in God. Pilate’s procession represented Roman Imperial claims to itself as the preeminent existing kingdom that would not be conquered or replaced by any kingdom on earth. Here we have the clash of ideas of kingdom and who ultimately rules and what that kingdom would ultimately symbolize.

The “Last Week” authors note that “Pilate’s procession displayed not only imperial power, but also Roman imperial theology. According to this theology, the emperor was not simply the ruler of Rome but the Son of God. It began with the greatest of emperors, Augustus, who ruled Rome from 31 BCE to 14 CE. His father was the god Apollo, who conceived him in his mother, Atia. Inscriptions refer to him as ‘son of God,’ ‘lord’ and ‘savior,’ one who brought ‘peace on earth.’ After his death, he was seen ascending into heaven to take his permanent place among the gods. His successors continued to bear divine titles, including Tiberius, emperor from 14 to 37 CE and thus emperor during the time of Jesus’s public activity. For Rome’s Jewish subjects, Pilate’s procession embodied not only a rival social order, but also a rival theology.”

So in the context of Palm Sunday, we have a conflict which is a clash of theologies. We have Jesus riding into Jerusalem with potential claims of being the Son of Man (Mark 8:31) and later the Son of God by his followers. Later he would later become known as the Savior of the World. We have Pilate under the authority of Tiberius Caesar, who also bore the title is Son of God and Savior of the world.

We cannot fully understand the significance of Jesus crucifixion and resurrection without analyzing the politics of his situation, for too often our analysis of the Bible is theological and not cultural, or social or political. Perhaps this is so because we read the bible theologically and not culturally or socially, so we do not see the political or social dimensions of the Gospels.

 In Jesus’s time there were no such distinctions between politics and religion. What one believed religiously was to be manifested in the political life of the community. Because we, today, separate politics from religion  – mostly because politics has such a bad name but also due to the separation of church and state- we often fail to appreciate the social and political dynamics of various Gospel texts.

 This conflict sets the tone for Holy Week which we will examine on Maundy Thursday and Easter Sunday.

 The question is in what procession will you find yourself or what procession do you want to belong?

 There was continuing conflict between the Jewish people and Romans and that conflict was played out in the context of real life experiences as they do today.

Rome would not tolerate any group challenging its power over its kingdom. Jews would not tolerate any group challenging the power of God in his kingdom.

There we have the terms of conflict around which the politics of Passover, Palm Sunday, Good Friday and Resurrection Sunday come to bear witness.

We cannot thus gain a full complete picture of the reality of Holy Week without understanding these political hot button issues that were permeating the culture and society of Jesus’s time. There were constant pockets of unrest and revolt going on against the existing system. Read  “Bandits, Prophets and Messiahs,” by Richard Horsely and John Hanson, who tell us that revolts were going on all the time in first century Palestine; and also read “Revolution in Judea” by Hyam Maccoby and also read the book to which I made plentiful reference this morning, “The Last Week,” by Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan. You understand this as citizens of the world today. No existing system is going to tolerate a challenge to its authority.

We come to these Holy Week celebrations year after year not having a clue of the social backdrop and context of these events. We read the bible day after day as though it were a document written in isolation from specific cultures, politics, social and economic settings. As Dr. Larry Murphy once brilliantly observed, “We treat the bible almost as sacred history and not as real history.” We treat our entire religion as though it were some isolated human enterprise without social and political implications and realities. When we examine Palm Sunday we ought to come away from it with some understanding of Passover and what it meant and still means to the Jewish people. We ought to come away with some knowledge of what was going on in the culture of that society and world at that time. We ought to come away with a better understanding of Judaism and the politics or Rome as a world power and how it viewed these various groups as challenges to its existing authority. We ought to come away from these events not with just a spiritual or theological understanding of the meaning of Jesus’s ministry and what it means for us today, but come away with a deeper understanding of why he took up his ministry; why he healed the sick and fed the hungry and ministered to the people; we must understand why he did what he did, how he lived and how he died, who he offended and why he was crucified.

Beloved, when you have conflicting and competing claims to power and authority, you inevitably will have conflict. The Gospel is no different; which means some will live and some will die. When you have competing claims as to who is the son of God, and what is the kingdom of God, and who are the people of God, then you have the table set for conflict and strife and politics. If we do not grasp this central truth of our faith and those narrative traditions then we are missing the full picture of what religion meant then and what it means today for countless people in the Judaeo-Christian tradition struggling with similar conflicts in today’s world.

Palm Sunday was a time when those conflicting claims to freedom, sovereignty, authority and kingdom were publicly demonstrated by the Jewish people and by Roman Imperial authority; it was a clashing of belief systems and world views; a collision course that later played itself out in various revolts and confrontations that have stained with blood the pages of human history.

Does your faith put you on a collision course with competing claims for Kingdoms? As citizens of the world, who practice faith, what does it mean to stand for peace, justice and nonviolence in a world that says it must maintain power through war, violence and absolute political power and authority? As people standing on the precipice of these two realities how do we live out our faith in the midst of conflicting demands and competing interests and loyalties which play out in the context of our daily lives? What does it mean as citizens of both kingdoms to live out dual allegiances within the tensions of these conflicting realities? 

Palm Sunday was not some parade down main street in Jerusalem where the people got all excited because they wanted to “get their praise on” that morning and then go home. They were there expecting something. They were there hoping for something – that God would come and that positive change would be realized in their lifetimes. Palm Sunday was more than a parade with confetti and ribbons and all kinds of other stuff. It was a serious statement symbolizing God’s coming Messianic kingdom and God’s existing kingdom which was Rome; about who had the authority to rule and whose power was greater than the other’s and which Kingdom would finally prevail so that all human beings could finally live in peace and harmony, which God wants for all!

It is in this context that we must understand the politics of Palm Sunday as we move to Maundy Thursday, and then on to Good Friday and then on to Resurrection Sunday. Having an isolated theological and spiritual understanding of these events is not enough to get the full picture of what happened that week and what has happened in the world since that time.


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