Choose Your Parade (Day 34)
Today is Palm Sunday.
Growing up I never thought of the “triumphal entry” as anything other than a pleasant pageant forecasting Jesus’ triumph over death. After all, the Bible tells us that the crowd that went ahead of Jesus spread cloaks and palm branches on the road and sang his praises. You’ve no doubt seen this in a church pageant. For worship planners it’s a great way to involve children and families in services. We draw inspiration from Arthur Maxwell’s The Bible Story where children run along and jovial-looking people line the road, and Jesus seems happy with it all. ￼ It wasn’t until I read The Last Week by Marcus J. Borg and John Dominic Crossan that I came to understand just how much my childhood view of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem missed the point.
Rather than a nice story about the crowds hailing Jesus as King, this procession marks the intensifying clashes between Jesus and the Roman and religious authorities, which ends with Jesus’ execution a few days later. Jesus is not a passive bystander following the whims of the crowd here; he is the orchestrator of the events that unfold.
Borg and Crossan point out that two processions entered Jerusalem on a spring day during Passover in the year 30:
One was a peasant procession, the other an imperial procession. From the east, Jesus rode a donkey down the Mount of Olives, cheered by his followers. Jesus was from the peasant village of Nazareth, his message was about the kingdom of God, and his followers came from the peasant class. They had journeyed to Jerusalem from Galilee, about a hundred miles to the north, a journey that is the central section and the central dynamic of Mark's gospel. Mark's story of Jesus and the kingdom of God has been aiming for Jerusalem, pointing toward Jerusalem. It has now arrived.
On the opposite side of the city, from the west, Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor of Judea, and Samaria, entered Jerusalem at the head of a column of imperial cavalry and soldiers. Jesus's procession proclaimed the kingdom of God; Pilate's proclaimed the power of empire. The two processions embody the central conflict of the week that led to Jesus's crucifixion.” (Borg & Crossan, 2)
Pilate’s military procession was a demonstration of both Roman imperial power and Roman imperial theology. It was standard practice for Roman governors of Judea to be in Jerusalem for major Jewish festivals, in case there was trouble:
Imagine the imperial procession's arrival in the city. 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. (Borg & Crossan, 3)
On the other side, Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem is a prearranged “counterprocession.” As Jesus approaches the city from the east, he tells two of his disciples to go to the next village and get him a colt they will find there, one that has never been ridden, a young one. They do so, and Jesus rides the colt down the Mount of Olives to the city. He’s surrounded by a crowd of enthusiastic followers and sympathizers, who spread their cloaks, lay leafy branches on the road, and shout,
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! (Mark 11:9-10, NRSV)
The meaning of the demonstration is clear, for it uses symbolism from the prophet Zechariah. According to Zechariah, a king would be coming to Jerusalem (Zion) “humble, and riding on a colt, the foal of a donkey” (9:9). The rest of the Zechariah passage details what kind of king he will be: “He will cut off the chariot from Ephraim and the war-horse from Jerusalem; and the battle bow shall be cut off, and he shall command peace to the nations” (9:10).
This king, riding on a donkey, will banish war from the land—no more chariots, war-horses, or bows. Commanding peace to the nations, he will be a king of peace.
Jesus' procession deliberately countered what was happening on the other side of the city. Pilate's procession embodied the power, glory, and violence of the empire that ruled the world. Jesus' procession embodied an alternative vision, the kingdom of God, humility and non-violence. This contrast—between the kingdom of God and the kingdom of Caesar—is central not only to the gospel of Mark, but to the story of Jesus and early Christianity.
The confrontation between these two kingdoms continues through the last week of Jesus' life and ends with his execution by the powers who ruled his world.
The weight of the repercussions of entering Jerusalem was not lost on Jesus or his followers. Mark tells us that just before this counterprocession, those traveling with Jesus towards Jerusalem were afraid (Mark 10:32). Luke adds that “as [Jesus] came near and saw the city, he wept over it, saying, ‘If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace!’” (Luke 19:41-42)
As I contemplate the implications of the two parades in the year 30, I cannot help but think of the year 2018. Right now in our country there is a lot of talk about demonstrating power through military parades. And yet, yesterday, perhaps fittingly the day before Palm Sunday, hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets in a “March For Our Lives” parade to protest against violence.
From the west, Pilate. From the east, Jesus. Two parades . . . Our rehearsal of the final week of Jesus’ life puts the question front and center for the followers of Jesus:
Which will we embrace?