The festival celebrated liberation from the tyranny of Egypt generations before, yet first-century Israel was still under foreign domination. The Roman occupation of their homeland grieved many celebrants, tempering the joy that was supposed to be part of the festival. Riots and uprisings were common during Passover, so Rome made sure that there was a an increased military presence during that week, garrisoning more troops at the Antonia Fortress, which overlooked the temple complex.
The New Testament describes Jesus’ procession into Jerusalem on this day that we designate Palm Sunday, but Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan, in their book The Last Week, say that on that particular Sunday people in Jerusalem would have witnessed two processions, not one — the Pilate Procession and the Jesus Procession.
Pilate. The procession of Roman governor Pontius Pilate and his accompanying military force coming into the city from the west provided the military deterrent deemed necessary for the festival. If you could have Googled Pilate back then to check his “trending,” you would have discovered some disturbing results.
According to the contemporary historian Josephus, when Pilate first brought Roman troops to Jerusalem from Caesarea some time earlier, he committed an unprecedented violation of Jewish law and respect by allowing the troops to bring military standards and busts of the emperor into Jerusalem by night and set them up in the temple. This was a desecration of sacred space for the Jews.
A massive protest demonstration in Caesarea’s stadium forced the removal of the standards, but only after the people used tactics of nonviolent mass resistance, lying down their very lives, and baring their necks when Pilate’s soldiers, swords in hand, surrounded and attempted to disperse them.
Josephus tells of other protests that broke out when Pilate seized temple funds to build an aqueduct for Jerusalem. On this occasion, Pilate had Roman soldiers, dressed as Jewish civilians and armed with hidden clubs, mingle with the shouting crowd, attacking the people at a prearranged signal. Many were killed or hurt.
Yes, people knew about Pilate, but far from popular, he was seen as a despotic head of state.
Jesus. On the east side of the city, another parade was being planned. The crowd gathering there would have been hopefully reporting the arrival of a different kind of leader.
According to Mark, Jesus sends disciples to get a colt, which is assumed to be a small donkey (Mark isn’t specific). Jesus rides the donkey down the steep road from the Mount of Olives to the Golden Gate of the city, with a crowd of his supporters shouting “Hosanna!” — a Hebrew word that mixes praise to God with a heart-felt prayer that God will save the people and do it soon. They spread their cloaks on the colt and cut branches from the surrounding fields — actions that were done only in the presence of royalty.
When we’re waving those palm branches around on Sunday morning, one of the things we have to be careful not to miss is that Jesus was intentionally setting up a comparison between the violent and malevolent forces of the empire and the non-violent and grace-filled forces of the kingdom of God.
Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan view the Palm Sunday parade as a kind of pre-planned political protest, and a look at the context seems to back this up. The symbolism of a ruler riding on a donkey would not have been lost on those putting their cloaks in the road. They would have remembered the words of the prophet Zechariah: an image of a king coming into Jerusalem with shouts of joy from the people. He is “triumphant” and “victorious” — words that Romans and other imperial leaders would have embraced — but he is “humble” and rides on a donkey instead of a war horse (Zechariah 9:9). In fact, continues the prophet, “He will cut off the chariot from Ephraim and the war-horse from Jerusalem.” This king is not a conquering hero who uses weapons of mass destruction, but one who will break the power of military might with humility, justice and a “peace” that means more than the absence of war for all nations (Zechariah 9:10).
Jesus’ parade is no accident. It is an intentional parable and statement of contrast. If Pilate’s procession embodied power, violence and the glory of the empire that ruled the world, Jesus’ procession embodied the kind of kingdom that God was giving birth to in Jesus’ ministry of healing, his message of good news and, ultimately, his death on a Roman cross.
Pilate and the empire he represented were the most powerful force in the region on that Sunday, but if you Google “Jesus” and “Roman Empire” today which is most popular is not even close: Jesus wins hands down.
The rest of Holy Week really comes down to a continual struggle for influence, like much of national news today.
Jesus has the popular vote on Sunday but, in Mark’s time line, on Monday when he turns over the tables in the temple Jesus’ popularity takes a serious dip, at least among the religious elite.
Jesus’ verbal sparring with the Pharisees and temple officials and his non-violent opposition to Roman oppression made him too popular with the people and led both the religious and Roman leaders to look for a covert way to bring him down (Mark 11:18; 12:12).
Those who follow Jesus today must address a basic conflict presented in this Palm Sunday text: the clash of worldviews — worldviews that are still at odds.
The empire’s worldview of rank, domination, military might, and coercion may be just as or even more present and dominant in our nation and world today than it was then. The desire for comfort, security, self-interest and wealth is certainly just as strong.
I could not help but think about these things as I watched millions of people participate in the #NEVERAGAIN march led by our nation’s students from all over the country. Many who came from Parkland, Florida spoke passionately about the need for new gun control laws. One young man from Chicago was there advocating for safer communities and gun reform in the wake of his brother’s violent gang-related death. The march also lifted-up the more than 6,000 women killed by guns last year in domestic violence incidents. Clearly this demonstration was about much more than gun violence- it was a passionate commentary and protest about the increasingly violent nature of our culture.
One commentary on our gospel text remarked, “[Google] “Kingdom of God” vs. “American Dream” and the kingdom loses big time. We may admire Jesus, but we’re not necessarily ready to follow him down that road of suffering, sacrifice and servanthood that ultimately leads to the redemption of the world. As if to underscore the point, the traditional route Jesus took down the Mount of Olives went through an ancient cemetery, as it still does today — a stark reminder of where this particular parade will lead.”
If we are honest with ourselves and each other we know that following Jesus often means sharing his unpopularity- at school, in the workplace, in the community, or at home. I wondered if any of those present at the March for Our Lives demonstrations thought about this. I did; and I think it is important for to think about it on this Palm Sunday.
Jesus never claimed nor sought to be a populist. What is a populist?
Today populism is often used to describe individuals, groups, or politicians identified for their opposition to human rights, particularly those related to immigration and immigrants; and the promotion of ideas like isolationism, nationalism, and anti-globalization.
A Populist is a person who represents, upholds, and advocates these kinds of ideas, so Jesus, friend of the immigrant, the outcast, and the marginalized, who sought to draw all nations to himself, clearly never sought to be, and never was a populist.
Jesus is beyond these types of simplistic political definitions and divisions. This is why his presence, teaching and very life threatened both the Jewish (religious) and Roman (political) leadership. Both were grounded in and maintained by violence, where peace was understood as the limitation of military violence while maintaining a system of social violence, exemplified by marginalization and exploitation of the most vulnerable members of each community.
Jesus was looking to bring redemption, hope and wholeness to the whole broken world through a life uniquely devoted to God. This included living and teaching a lifestyle built upon the principles and practices of non-violence and social justice.
We cannot fully or perfectly live that same kind of life, but with prayer and self-examination we can seek to follow where Christ leads today, to the best of our ability.
Palm Sunday offers, or perhaps even forces us to look at our culture and at ourselves, to ask to which procession we belong?
“Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord. Hosanna! God save the people and do it soon!