Today is Palm Sunday, the beginning of Holy Week for Christians. On Palm Sunday Jesus enters Jerusalem riding a donkey, hailed by followers waving palm branches. The action is a deliberate symbolic protest.
Biblical Scholar John Dominic Crossan pinned an article just two days ago which explains exactly what Jesus was up to:
Jesus went up to Jerusalem to make twin demonstrations, first against Roman imperial control over the City of Peace and, second, against Roman imperial control over the Temple of God. In other words, put personally, against the (sub)governor Pilate and his high-priest Caiaphas.Together with his friend and colleague Marcus Borg, Crossan wrote an excellent book a few years back with elaborates and clarifies Jesus purpose in Jerusalem: The Last Week. Early in this book they explain that:
The Meaning of the demonstration is clear, for it uses symbolism from the prophet Zechariah in the Jewish Bible. 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 .... 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 king of peace.
Jesus' procession deliberately countered what was happening on the other side of the city [that Sunday, Pilate entered the city in a pompous pro-empire procession]. 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.
The kingdom of God is the heart of Jesus' life and message. Dedicated to non-violence, inclusiveness, justice for the poor and afflicted, and peace through justice for all, Jesus entered Jerusalem intentionally opposing his message and his mission to the power and injustice of empire.
The problem with Rome and the Priesthood for working so closely with Roman power. Was that this power disenfranchised, exploited, and oppressed the peasantry (a good 90% or so of the population) simply to create wealth and power for the elites.
Or to quote from Crossan once more:
After centuries of subjugation to various empires, the Jews of Jesus' time wanted to know: if God is just, and the world belongs to God, why is the world so unjust? One stream of Jewish tradition answered that question with this mantra: God will overcome, someday. At some point in the future, God would not only clean up the mess but also create a perfect world....
[To fight against Roman imperial power] Jesus told his companions to heal the sick, to eat with those they healed, and to announce that the Kingdom of God had arrived. is the basic spiritual power. Eating is the basic physical power. That mutual sharing of spiritual and physical power, in a sense, recreated the sharing aspects of peasant life in contrast to the greedy life under Antipas' Romanization process.
Think about those twin aspects for a moment. Those who bring healing and those who furnish eating are not exactly in the same position. They represent, respectively, itinerants and householders. By itinerants, I mean people pushed off family farms or family boats as the New World Order arrived in Lower Galilee.
Think, for example, of how readily fishermen followed Jesus. By householders, I mean families who know how easily they could lose their own farms or boats in a changing economy. As itinerants and householders faced one another, the former saw where they had been, and the latter saw where they could be. The program of the Kingdom was to join both groups in support and common life.In other words, Jesus challenged his hearers to disobey Roman power by living in God's kingdom here and now. In effect he claimed that Roman authority was null and void, that the Temple leadership was dissolved, and that God was ruling in our midst. No wonder the authorities killed him!
In Leviticus 25:23 God says that, "The land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is mine; with me you are but aliens and tenants." Land is life itself and cannot be bought and sold like other commercial commodities. In the gospels and throughout the New Testament there is little said about land and much said about food. But the continuity is clear--land is there for food, and the basis of life is land because it produces food.
Jesus' Kingdom program was not just about politics or as distinct from theology. It combined religion, politics, and economics; it was about divine distributive justice; it was about the ownership of this world; it was about a theology of creation ("Jesus' Kingdom Program" Belief-net).
To follow Jesus, therefore, is to oppose the forces of empire and violence. To fight for the radical inclusion and healing of all people.
Palm Sunday offers us a choice: we can follow Jesus the messiah of peace and justice, or align ourselves with the forces of empire. THAT is the gospel; THAT is the passion of Holy Week.
UPDATED: APRIL 1, 2012