Disrupting Empire – Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem as political theatre

As Canadians and Christians we feel a lot of social pressure to be nice. To not cause trouble. Especially for folks who seem nice. Nobody should be distressed. Let’s keep everything, on the surface anyway, agreeable and pleasant. Well that’s nice isn’t it? Sometimes it’s even a good thing. But sometimes what is required is real honesty. Whether that’s telling our true feelings to a friend who needs to know, or speaking a difficult truth to those in power. Or even challenging our own assumptions.

However, that desire to smooth things over can be overwhelming at times. We may choose silence or couched words over challenging conversation. Or we may avoid someone or something altogether rather than offering a challenge and engagement that might spark personal growth or a healed relationship.

I remember as a child (and frankly still on visits to my parents) that there is a strongly held belief that the church has no place, nothing to say in politics. Now that’s not a position that has much support here in this place, but it is very common nonetheless and is part of the religious world we are part of. I think that, as a result of this belief being held for such a long time, dare I say it may have begun with the baptism of the Roman Emporer, that many of our texts, theology, and liturgies have been tilted away from the real concerns of life into the more nebulous realm of our spiritual health. We are more likely to hear of spiritual freedom than literal, of a re-balancing of the scales in the next life, of the spiritual wealth of the poor.

I have found in my experience of church over my lifetime that Palm Sunday is often one of those events that gets smoothed over and made nice. Jesus is tamed by plopping him in the midst of prophecies that suck most of his agency away. He is fulfilling what was foretold by the prophets of old. He is fulfilling God’s mission to liberate his people from sin and death.

Jesus is celebrated by all the wonderful people of Jerusalem, who are happy to welcome him as a king in their midst. We wave our palm branches and sing hosanna! Hooray! Everything is great now!

One of the effects of this light and momentary look at Palm Sunday is that it is tempting, to want to dive into the more challenging parts of the story of this week, to preempt Palm Sunday by turning it into Passion Sunday, so we can get right to the raw negative emotion of Thursday and Friday. The focus of this preemptive dive into the events of later in the week also often turns into full-blown atonement theology as we bang right into texts that seem to support the need for someone to pay for the sins of the whole world.

Who says payment must be made? Well, we’re not going there this morning. That is a huge topic for another day and the history of which was explored a little in the forum last week. I would like you to grant Jesus a little more agency. Just for now, just for this one day at least. Let him be not just an actor in a drama with a pre-ordained ending. Let us grant Jesus the power to write his own part of this piece of radical improvisational theatre.

On his way to Jerusalem, Jesus has had a number of fascinating encounters with individual people along the way. He has raised up a blind beggar from his suffering. He brought down the tax collector Zacchaeus, literally and figuratively and called him to remake his life.

He told a fascinating parable of the talents which graphically illustrates what happens to those who challenge the prevailing economic model. The servant who called out the master for his harshness and greed was destroyed for his words, those who played along with the master were rewarded. We are usually told this story with God in the role of master as an exhortation to use our gifts, but I think it also has validity with Jesus as the servant showing the likely consequences of challenging those who prey on the economically weak.

When juxtaposed with the story of Zachaeus it serves as a reminder that just because one rich man repents, it doesn’t change the system. We need a lot more Zacchaeuses to do that. And as Friere says in our reading today “Our converts truly desire to transform the unjust order; but because of their background they believe that they must be the executors of the transformation. They talk about the people, but they do not trust them;”

Jesus knows he is not here to throw out Rome. He knows he is becoming dangerous by his insight into scripture and his solidarity with the ordinary. He knows there are risks of being arrested or disappeared, not just for him but for his followers. His followers are numerous, but do not approach the power needed to remove Rome or even to reach all of Israel before they are destroyed. The story needs to grow. Rome needs to be cast out, as do those who benefit from and support the Empire.

What’s a young carpenter and popular rabbi to do? You can’t win at war. You don’t believe in war anyway. What are your options to spread the message of liberation? Political theatre. Parody of the ruling elite.

Setting:
Passover is coming. Many thousands will travel to Jerusalem. Not only will there be a bigger audience for his message, Israel is restive at this time of year and anti-Roman sentiment runs high. Israel was not an easy place for Rome. Most of their conquered territories didn’t need on an ongoing military presence. The emotional power of Pax Romana was enough in most parts of the world.

Not so Israel. Regular shows of force were the norm here. Particularly around Passover when the locals got restless. A delightful little ceremony called the Triumphus or Triumph, and initially designed to celebrate a successful military commander, had by this time, become a common way of showing Rome’s political might to an occupied state. The commander or consul would have ridden a war horse or been drawn in a chariot by several war horses and accompanied by an entire army. A powerful message indeed. The power of Rome was not to be resisted with force.

So to enter at Passover allowed a receptive audience and also a clearly defined expression of the kind of power that Jesus had called to account over and over in his ministry.

Jesus enters Jerusalem by descending from the Mount of Olives. This was a potent image for his audience. The Mount of Olives is where they gathered palms after their return from exile in Babylon, It was where the prophecies of Zechariah place the final battle of Israel with her enemies. To descend to Jerusalem from Mount of Olives was to associate his entry with liberation.

Costume, props and imagery:
We all know that Jesus was knowledgeable of scripture. He has ably demonstrated his ability to get the better of various authorities in battles of meaning. He well knows the power of the imagery of the old prophecies. How could he not be put in mind of the text from Zechariah that we heard today:

“See, your king comes to you,
righteous and victorious,
lowly and riding on a donkey,
on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”

He knew that the image would be familiar to many, if not all of those who assembled. He knew that many saw him as the messiah, the leader who would come and overthrow the oppressors of Israel. However, he also knew that he was no war leader. His vision was a different one. He may have hoped that those who recognized the image of the donkey, would also recall the following verses:

“I will take away the chariots from Ephraim
and the warhorses from Jerusalem,
and the battle bow will be broken.
He will proclaim peace to the nations.”

So, the donkey is a key prop in sending the message he wants to send. He certainly spends lots of time clearly explaining what he wants to his disciples so there’s no mistake about it.

We don’t hear him give direction about the actions of those who will follow and join the parade or what props they should use, but it seems he trusts his followers and the people of Jerusalem to be themselves. To respond to the message he sends by his choice of props and location and to do so with the items of ordinary life: coats and shirts and palms. Not weapons and regal robes and imperial eagles.

And respond they do. This is a parade that grows. It grows because it’s a parade and that’s what they tend to do. But it also grows because the audience is ready to hear an anti-imperial message and because they recognise this march for what it is: a challenge to Rome and their local collaborators and kings. They’re ready. They have no idea how it will happen, but they approve of the message.

Do the authorities recognise the message? Do they get what’s going on? Maybe not entirely, but they certainly seem to have an inkling of trouble. Although it’s missing from the Mark text we heard today, I think we are all familiar with the text from Luke which adds:

“Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, ‘Teacher, order your disciples to stop.’
He answered, ‘I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.’”

This simple parade has clearly disturbed the Pharisees, but even more interesting to me in my modern context are his words about stones.

Do stones speak? Not with words, but stones are hard. They carry the echoes of cries, they reverberate with marching feet and they can find their way into small hands and fly in the face of authority. Stones can be very eloquent at times.

Is Jesus offering a threat? Doubtful. A warning maybe, but I was struck with those thoughts nonetheless.

So, if he’s not going to directly overthrow Rome as so many hoped and believed, what the heck was he doing?

On Friday, many members of this community will take part in the Good Friday Walk which uses the narrative of Jesus’ walk to crucifixion at the hands of the authorities, The Way of the Cross, as a frame to explore justice issues in our communities.

Today, instead of considering the way of the cross, let’s look at the way to the cross: the way that Jesus lived that landed him in pretty much the ultimate trouble.

Jesus was not the oppressor, but was speaking to both the oppressed and oppressor of his time. In our context, whether we like it or not, we, the hearers, are sometimes the oppressors or at least collaborators like Zachaeus.

Sometimes, seeing a clear path forward is not possible for the oppressed—sometimes resistance, active or passive, is all that is possible. That needs to be respected.

So resistance is clear for the oppressed, but what if you are holding the power?

Some of us do have power—maybe not a lot, but some—and positions of more or less privilege. It is the task of those of us with real concern for community to not simply reject that privilege, but to acknowledge it, examine it, and use it to make change–to bend the arc of the universe toward justice. Using the privilege we hold, while we are mindful of Friere’s challenge to trust those we work with and on behalf of.

Those of us who are born into this English colonial world are taught from an early age that there are certain taboo subjects:

  • politics
  • religion
  • sex
  • money

Why are they taboo? Because they are the central aspects of our daily lives and most people have strong feelings about them. But that is also the very reason we must talk about them.

When we don’t talk in open and heartfelt ways about these topics and find ways to include each other, terrible things happen:

  • crusades
  • economic exploitation
  • we use words which were created to describe sexual organs or acts, things which bring us joy, as some of the nastiest insults we cast.

We are colonised and co-opted by the empire from an early age. Even though we may resist, the fact that it is so tiring to do so, causes us to give in in so many little ways every day. Not to do so would make every moment of our lives an exhausting decision-making process—we couldn’t cope—or I can’t anyway.

But that doesn’t mean that we need to leave those things unexamined—it just means that we need to do that examining in times and places where we have made space. To make deliberate decisions that we can simply stick with later.

Empire is about control. Control by one or a few of the many. Often reasons are given to justify that control:

  • protect the economy
  • prevent terrorism
  • prevent instability
  • protect the family

At the heart of most given reasons is an assumption. An assumption that there is a “right” way to do things—that anything else is “unnatural”. It is interesting to me that even in “progressive” communities there is often an implicit acceptance of the status quo—if only we could change that one thing.

I want to challenge all of us to question our assumptions, our privilege, the “emperors” and collaborators within us. Even when it is risky. Especially when it is uncomfortable. Not every day, because as I’ve identified, that’s not practical, but let us make space in our lives to ask questions of ourselves and our leaders: economic, political and spiritual. Regularly and deeply. Even better, let us challenge each other. With care and love, but with serious questions about the empire we live in and our part in it. And let’s use that knowledge to disrupt that empire when and where we can and with as much boldness as we dare.


Readings:

first reading:
Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed

“…the fact that certain members of the oppressor class join the oppressed in their struggle for liberation, thus moving from one pole of the contradiction to the other… Theirs is a fundamental role, and has been throughout the history of this struggle. It happens, however, that as they cease to be exploiters or indifferent spectators or simply the heirs of exploitation and move to the side of the exploited, they almost always bring with them the marks of their origin: their prejudices and their deformations, which include a lack of confidence in the people’s ability to think, to want, and to know. Accordingly, these adherents to the people’s cause constantly run the risk of falling into a type of generosity as malefic as that of the oppressors. The generosity of the oppressors is nourished by an unjust order, which must be maintained in order to justify that generosity. Our converts, on the other hand, truly desire to transform the unjust order; but because of their background they believe that they must be the executors of the transformation. They talk about the people, but they do not trust them; and trusting the people is the indispensable precondition for revolutionary change. A real humanist can be identified more by his trust in the people, which engages him in their struggle, than by a thousand actions in their favour without that trust.”

“[T]he more radical the person is, the more fully he or she enters into reality so that, knowing it better, he or she can transform it. This individual is not afraid to confront, to listen, to see the world unveiled. This person is not afraid to meet the people or to enter into a dialogue with them. This person does not consider himself or herself the proprietor of history or of all people, or the liberator of the oppressed; but he or she does commit himself or herself, within history, to fight at their side.”

second reading:
Zechariah 9:9-10 The Coming of Zion’s King

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

Gospel reading:
Mark 11:1-11

When they were approaching Jerusalem, at Bethphage and Bethany, near the Mount of Olives, he sent two of his disciples and said to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately as you enter it, you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden; untie it and bring it.
If anyone says to you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it and will send it back here immediately.'”
They went away and found a colt tied near a door, outside in the street. As they were untying it,
some of the bystanders said to them, “What are you doing, untying the colt?” They told them what Jesus had said; and they allowed them to take it. Then they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks on it; and he sat on it. Many people spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut in the fields.
Then those who went ahead and those who followed were shouting, “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David! Hosanna in the highest heaven!” Then he entered Jerusalem and went into the temple; and when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve.