Read this story and more in CONNECT Magazine | 2019 Lent Edition
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What are your thoughts and memories of Palm Sunday? Little children (maybe you, or your own children) waving palm branches, singing hosannas, strains of “All Glory Laud and Honor,” and the ubiquitous image of Jesus riding into Jerusalem on a donkey to the praise and adulation of his followers.
Well, part of that is right. However, beyond Jesus’ Triumphant Entry being the kind of block party most people imagine it to be, New Testament scholars Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan educate us otherwise, saying that Jesus was not just the passive recipient of impromptu adoration on Palm Sunday, but rather staging an act of intentional protest; an anti-imperial demonstration designed to mock the obscene pomp and circumstance of the Roman military. The palm branches they waved were a symbol of Jewish nationalism. The waving of palm branches was actually an expression of hope that Jesus would be the one to lead an overthrow of the Roman imperialism.
In their compelling book, The Last Week: What the Gospels Really Teach About Jesus’ Last Days in Jerusalem, Borg and Crossan also tell us that there were actually two processions entering Jerusalem on that original Palm Sunday. As Jesus rode in on the donkey from the east, the Roman governor of Judea (Pontius Pilate, whom we already know we’ll see again on Good Friday) rode into Jerusalem with a battalion of soldiers as he did every year during Passover, an annual Jewish festival that dramatically increased the population of Jerusalem to many times its normal size.
Pilate’s timing was deliberate. It was a show of his power, wealth, and glory — a display of imperial majesty that was, above all, designed to remind the Jewish pilgrims that Rome was in charge. It was the height of the PAX Romana, a peace bullied by power, and with it came a distortion of religion, where religion was co-opted by the dictates of Roman imperial occupation.
Borg and Crossan’s description of Pontius Pilate’s imperial procession sets the stage perfectly: “A visual panoply of imperial power: cavalry on horses, foot soldiers, leather armor, helmets, weapons, banners, golden eagles mounted on poles, sun glinting on metal and gold. Sounds: the marching of feet, the creaking of leather, the clinking of bridles, the beating of drums. The swirling of dust. The eyes of the silent onlookers, some curious, some awed, some resentful.”
It’s important to remember here that according to Roman imperial belief, the emperor was not simply the ruler of Rome but also the Son of God. Crossan notes that Jesus, who could have entered Jerusalem any number of ways, deliberately rode in on “the most unthreatening, most un-military mount imaginable: a female nursing donkey with her little colt trotting along beside her.” This choice of mount, Crossan says, was Jesus drawing on the prophetic symbolism of Zechariah, that the king who rode “on a colt, the foal of a donkey” would be the nonviolent king who’d “command peace to the nations.”
So here we have pomp and circumstance on the west side, and Jesus and his followers entering from the east in a show of deliberate mockery that leaned into Jesus’ vulnerable show of nonviolent rebellion. This procession of the ridiculous was a ragtag bunch of followers that included tax collectors, fishermen, and farmers, all of whom had been touched and healed by the true Son of God.
Jesus came into Jerusalem that day as a moving display of quiet, non-violent, non-revolutionary power. In sharp contrast to Pilate’s braggadocios chest thumping, Jesus modeled leadership of a new and strange kind of kingdom that put the last first, the first last, and where the meek — not the powerful — inherit the earth. This would be a kingdom that belongs to its peacemakers.
So this year, let’s not consider Palm Sunday as just the starting line in the Holy Week rush to Easter Sunday. Let’s not overlook the critical significance of Jesus’ deliberate and symbolic action. Let’s take a moment to consider that rather than being just a big, spontaneous welcome party by the Jews of Jerusalem, the Palm Sunday Parade carried overt political significance as a deeply subversive act directed against not only the well-established Roman oppression, but also the religious leaders and temple authorities who were complicit with it. Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem that day was, therefore, much less of a party and much more of a quiet, utterly fearless, unshakable display of a gentle but fierce and courageous commitment to the kingdom of God.
When we begin to view Palm Sunday in this light, we find something radical, incendiary, and dangerous that sets the stage for the Holy Week story of this unfolding confrontation. Jesus rode into town to confront the domination of the poor and marginalized, the top-heavy political oppression, the economic exploitation, and the system of taxation and laws set up to oppress the poor and satisfy the cravings of the rich. Jesus rode into town to confront the religious authorities who used their religious language and practice to legitimize and justify their unjust systems. Each year the Palm Sunday story of Jesus’ counter-procession provides us with an alternative vision of the world. And each year it’s up to us to see it and choose. In which parade will you march?