This past Sunday, in many Christian churches, there was quite a bit of pomp and circumstance. Many probably had processionals led by the children waving palm branches – an enduring sight, to be certain. Ministers talked about the large crowd that gathered and how Jesus rode into town on a donkey (just like kings used to do). They talked about the shouts of Hosanna, about the kingship of Jesus, and about how this was his triumphal entry into Jerusalem, the town where he would soon die as a sacrifice to save the world from its sins.
I call horsepucky on the whole thing.
The scene is frequently called the “triumphal entry.” I have to say, I do not believe the entry was “triumphal.” I actually doubt there was much of a crowd there that day because if there had been, knowing how the Roman government operated, Jesus probably would have never made it another day alive, more or less another week.
You see, Jesus and his followers, along with tons of other people, were coming to Jerusalem to celebrate Passover which, as most of you know, is a Jewish celebration that remembers the story of how Moses led the people of Israel in escaping a repressive and enslaving government.
As you might imagine, Rome, actually BEING a repressive and enslaving government, was somewhat weary about this kind of celebration. They certainly didn’t want the people to get any ideas about having another Exodus, this time from the occupying Roman government.
So, if a LARGE crowd had looked to Jesus as their new king (as in their reported shouts of “Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord”), the Roman government would likely have put a very quick end to him.
At the same time, even from a small crowd, the shouts of “Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord” probably played a role in Jesus ultimately facing corporal punishment. After all, that’s why a sign reading “King of the Jews” hung with Jesus on his cross. That was his crime “blasphemy and sedition.”
To me, the “triumphal entry” is a story about confronting the Powers that Be.
I can’t help but see his entry into Jerusalem as anything other than a direct response to what would be Pontius Pilate’s entry into the city at about that same time. As Prefect (or basically Governor) of the region, he would parade in through the front of the city’s gates on an impressive stead surrounded by Roman soldiers.
Jesus, on the other hand, comes in through a small back gate, riding a donkey that had never been ridden before (which was probably a hilarious sight to see – not to mentions kings might have once rode donkeys, but they certainly didn’t any more), and those around him were not soldiers but rather, everyday folk singing about peace.
Palm Sunday is not a story of Jesus being recognized as the most powerful King of all. Palm Sunday is a story of confronting the Powers That Be. It shouldn’t really be all that surprising to us. As I mentioned, the people were arriving to celebrate escaping out from under the heavy hand of Egypt which is certainly a story of escaping the Powers That Be. Now we have Jesus entering into the city humbly, and surrounded people singing a song of peace, in contrast with Pilate entering in powerfully and surrounded by warriors.
Palm Sunday is a story of confronting the Powers That Be.
Now just in case we don’t pick up on the subtle context of the story, all but one of the Gospel authors follow this arrival into Jerusalem with a story that is undeniably about confronting the Powers That Be.
Keep in mind that the Roman government has upped its law enforcement game for the week of Passover. They don’t want any chance of Passover inspiring an uprising, so they’ve brought in extra forces to quickly squash out even the first signs of trouble.
Of particular interest to them is the temple. You have to realize, the government and religion had very close ties. The Pharisees and Sadducees weren’t just religious leaders, they were also the local government. One of their big sources of income came from sales that happened in the courtyard of the temple.
Many of the people traveling to Jerusalem would want to make a sacrifice in the temple. Now, because of how far they would travel and how difficult the journey could be, it wasn’t always feasible for them to bring their own sacrifices (particularly for those who already didn’t possess much). So, the temple provided a place where they could purchase the appropriate sacrifice. The only problem was, being that they had a monopoly on the whole buy-an-appropriate-sacrifice-here thing, they took advantage of the people doing business with them, with the largest majority of those being taken advantage of being poor.
On a week like Passover, the courtyard would be particularly packed with people busily bustling around doing business. You can probably imagine, with all we’ve already talked about, that the Roman government was very concerned about this area, so they visibly posted extra soldiers on top of the guard walls that surrounded the courtyard.
Also, you can probably imagine that Jesus, who’d spent his life teaching about love, equality, and justice, was less than happy to see the temple using its position of power to take advantage of those who already had so little.
So, Jesus walked right into the temple under the watchful eye of the soldiers surrounding it and took on the Powers That Be along with their willingness to take advantage of people who had so little.
As I said, I doubt that the crowd was very big as Jesus entered the city bouncing around on a donkey that’d never been ridden before. I do suspect, however, that the Roman government had heard about the crowd shouting that Jesus was “King of the Jews” and that he “comes in the name of the Lord.” But it was just a sideshow at that point; nothing to be too concerned over, no real threat.
But this? This in the courtyard? There would definitely have been a BIG crowd there and there was no reason to report back to the government what happened because he knowingly did it under the watchful eye of the government’s henchmen.
Combined with the story of his entry into Jerusalem, I suspect that this was the beginning of the end of Jesus. This is where the Powers That Be began to recognize him as a viable threat to their power and began to conspire to rid themselves of this thorn in the side.
These two stories together are a story of not only confronting the Powers That Be, but they are the beginning of a reality check as to how far the Powers That Be Will go to protect their status. It is a story whose conclusion happens on Easter.
It’s a story that continues to echo in the world today. We can look to the life story of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and see it. We can even see it in our political races as a whole group of folks who are used to being privileged are beginning to lash out as they feel their power slipping away.
Confronting the Powers That Be can be dangerous work. It should not be taken lightly. It can be unsettling, unnerving, and downright uncomfortable.
The Powers That Be will not go down gently – they never do.
They will use every tool available to them. In confronting them, we could be risking our good name, our freedom, or even (as we see on Easter Sunday) our lives.
Yet, we are morally obligated to confront them. Yes, we are called to do so lovingly, but confront them we must, because they will not relinquish their power gently.
This is a story of the one who comes in the name of the Lord. This is not a Lord who lords over people. This is not a Lord who abuses his power. This is not a Lord like those we see far too frequently in our government and business.
Believe it or not, this Lord actually takes us back to Moses. He takes us back to the story that sets him into motion to free his people from the Powers That Be in Egypt.
The word “Lord” in English Bibles actually comes from the word Yahweh or Jehovah. Which are just vocalized versions of what Moses was told at the Burning Bush when he asked for God’s name. As the story goes, the voice told Moses, Y-H-W-H. The root of that name is “to be” or “I am.” I think of it as God is. Or God will be what God will be. For me, it points to the fullness, the everything-ness of God. It says that God is of and in everything.
Of course, that kind of Lord, that Y-H-W-H, that God of everything-ness, confronts the Powers That Be – those that lord over others. This isn’t those bad kinds of Lords.
This is a good Lord and on Easter, we learn just how far that kind of Lord, that kind of Love, will go to overthrow the Powers That Be in the name of equality and justice.