Reflection on Palm Sunday, March 28
Isaiah 50:4-7, Phil. 2:6-11, Mark 11:1-10
The story of that first Palm Sunday as told by Mark would have made for good optics. If CNN had been there, the news team helicopters might have filmed two processions entering Jerusalem. Pontius Pilate and his legions coming from the east with their state-of-the-art weaponry rolling into town as they did every year at Passover. And on the other side of the city, Jesus of Galilee, coming down from the Mount of Olives riding on a colt with her foal alongside. Both to cheering crowds. Procession and counter-procession. Or demonstration and counter-demonstration. And so begins what turns out to be the most dramatic, publicly religious and political week of Jesus’ life.
In their co-authored work, “The Last Week,” biblical scholars Marcis Borg and John Dominic Crossan provide a compelling, day-by-day exegesis of Mark’s Gospel story of Jesus’ final days. Borg and Crossan assert that these two processions — the one led by Pilate and the other of Jesus — embody the central conflict not only of this week, but of the competing visions, claims and kingdoms for whom both Caesar (Pilate was Caesar’s representative) and Jesus carried the title “Son of God, Redeemer, Liberator, Savior of the world.”
What were these competing visions, claims and kingdoms? Pilate’s procession embodied the power, glory and violence of the Roman empire that ruled the world. Pax Romana was a world system that established “peace on earth” — instead of peace, read “pacification” through war and military conquest and all that goes with it: slavery, greed, plundering, destruction, which, if you do it well enough, does tend to bring a period of acquiescence . . . until those who’ve been conquered can rise again. Jesus’ procession symbolized — and this was manifested throughout his public ministry — an alternative kingdom, a kingdom of a God who desired mercy and justice, inclusion, compassion and nonviolence. Jesus’ program, his way to peace, was not through victory and conquest, but through justice and nonviolence. These competing worldviews, these competing kingdoms are central not only to Mark’s Gospel, but to the story of Jesus and early Christianity.
Why did Jesus go to Jerusalem? Did he know he would be martyred? Did he wish to get himself killed? Was he there to join other bands of rebels in the tinderbox that was Jerusalem at Passover every year?
Or was he simply one more faithful Jew among so many longing to celebrate Passover at the only Temple in all of Palestine … sort of like Muslims going to Mecca. Those Jews who were able would have made the journey to Jerusalem at Passover every year. Because of this, the population of the city often swelled to five times its normal size. Jewish zealots, resisters, freedom fighters if you will, also would be there ready for any opportunity to strike back against imperial forces. Pilate with his legions had to leave his more comfortable seaside palace at Caesarea Maritima to provide crowd control in Jerusalem. This would have been widely known among the Jews. Surely the disciples would have warned Jesus about the risk, the dangers of being in Jerusalem at this time. But throughout his Gospel, Mark has Jesus pointing to Jerusalem, aiming for Jerusalem. It is the theme of over half of his Gospel. It seems that Jesus knew what was given him to do. What else explains his persistence? His courage? Mark reminds us of the words of the prophet Isaiah: “The Lord God is my help, therefore I am not disgraced. I have set my face like flint, knowing that I shall not be put to shame.”
All that was a long time ago. Perhaps it’s difficult to get our minds and hearts around the story. And besides there were no eyewitnesses there to record it. No NYT. No CNN. But we have other stories, stories of contemporary saviors and sons of God that may help us relate to Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem, his trial and execution, and his risen life among us. T
This coming Sunday, Easter Sunday, marks the 53rd anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. You recall that he was murdered in Memphis where he had gone for the second time to join black sanitation workers who were on strike for just wages and better working conditions. Like Jesus, Martin was warned by his followers not to return to Memphis. Memphis was a tinderbox in the spring of 1968, and Martin knew his return there would be extremely risky. Recall that the civil rights movement drew much of its inspiration from the Jewish prophetic tradition. Martin would have been familiar with the words from Isaiah, “The Lord God is my help, therefore I am not disgraced. I have set my face like flint knowing I shall not be put to shame.” On the night before he died, Martin’s words in his last speech could well have been spoken by Jesus: “Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life, longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will.”
Jesus and Martin, prophets of their time, saviors, liberators — they knew what they were about — they knew what was given to them to do. Both rose up amidst a suffering people. Their lives and deaths were shaped out of a vision of an alternative kingdom, or today we might say, an alternative global community. Both embodied the dream of God — a dream of peace through justice, inclusion and nonviolence.
Today as we begin our journey of remembrance through Holy Week 2021, let’s take to heart these questions: What procession do we choose to be in? What is it we have been given to do? What does prophetic persistence and courage require of us today? How do we, like Jesus and Martin, dream the dream of God and make it real in our individual lives, in our beloved community, in our suffering world?