From Palm to Passion: The First Betrayal
A Sermon preached by The Rev. Jeffrey A. Geary at the White Plains Presbyterian Church for “Palm Sunday to Passion Sunday” – April 9, 2017. The fabulous photo above was taken in our sanctuary by The Rev. Lynn Dunn
Mark 11:1-11 and Mark 15:1-39
Today is Palm Sunday, the day we wave our eco-palms as our choir processes between the branches to shouts of “Hosanna!” This is the Sunday that we sing, and our children march around the church, and we remember Jesus’ final journey into Jerusalem. We call it his “triumphal entry”. But “triumphal entry” is a misnomer. For Jesus carefully choreographed this parade to repudiate our hopes for a messiah who will triumphantly save us. [i]
Let’s review the sequence of events.
- Jesus marches into the city accompanied by a band of people
- who had gleaned palm branches from the fields,
- whose rapturous cries escalate the earlier confession
- of now-healed but previously blind Bartimaeus,
- “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”
- into a full-blown revolutionary chant:
- “Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David.”
When we hear these words we may have images of the heavenly realm coming upon earth with some recollection of David as an important kingly ancestor of Jesus. But this cry doesn’t seem all that “revolutionary” to us.
It is easier for us to understand the political nature of current statements – such as the cry that emerged during the civil rights and black power movement, “no justice, no peace.” And more recently, “I can’t breath. Black lives matter.” This week saw the emergence, again, of the cry “not my war” in response to the U.S. bombardment of a Syrian airstrip with fifty tomahawk missiles. We understand what is risked, and what is at stake, in these cries. But, hosanna, blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David? To understand why this cry is a cry of resistance, of veritable revolution, we need to remember the context in which this story plays out.
Jerusalem, indeed all of Palestine, including Judea, Galilee, and Perea were under occupation by the Roman government. When Rome invaded and wrested control, there were seemingly three alternatives.
- The first was to do nothing. To simply submit to new rule.
- The second was to revolt. Many revolutionary groups sprung up and were suppressed from the initial invasion to well into the second century. In fact in our reading from Mark 15 today, we notice that Barabbas “was in prison with the rebels who had committed murder during the insurrection.”
- The third alternative was to make some form of accommodation. Many Pharisees and Sadducees, the religious teachers and temple authorities, the Jewish tax-collectors who gathered money for Rome from their own people, and even the later historian Josephus, a former revolutionary himself, colluded with the Roman government in order to assure their own security.
It is in this highly charged context that Jesus designs his bit of street theater, parading into Jerusalem on a colt to cries of “Hosanna” which means, “Save us!”, “Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David.” Biblical interpreter Ched Myers notes that
For the original readers of Mark’s gospel, this holy parade would also call to mind the victorious military procession of Simon Maccabaeus, the great rebel general who liberated Palestine from [Greek] rule some two centuries before. According to 1 Maccabees 13:51, Simon entered Jerusalem “with praise and palm branches…and with hymns and songs.
At the time Mark was writing his gospel – about 30 years after Jesus’ crucifixion – the people of Judea were midway through a revolt against Rome. And, at that time, according to the Jewish historian Josephus, “the Judean rebel captain Menahem had marched through Jerusalem heavily armed and “like a king,” in an unsuccessful attempt to become the sole leader of the rebel provisional government that had set up its headquarters in Jerusalem.” So those who heard Mark’s gospel, which was the very first telling of the life and ministry of Jesus to be composed, were going to be drawing direct parallels between Jesus triumphal entry and that of Menahem’s.
And to top it all off, the crowd that welcomes Jesus is waving palm branches. Everybody knew that the palm branches were symbols of Caesar, the Roman Emperor. The palm branches of victory were, in fact, minted right into the roman coins of the time. And, interestingly enough, when Jewish revolutionaries defiantly snubbed Roman currency and decided to issue their own coins, they appropriated the palm branch as their symbol. So we see that in our story from Mark today, the crowds were giving Jesus a military welcome worthy of a General or even of the Emperor himself. [ii]
Finally, the Greek word that is translated as “kingdom” in our text is a bit more pointed than kingdom. Kingdom these days conjures up either magical fairy tales or perhaps medieval monarchs. The Greek word basilea is best translated “empire.” So, hosanna (save us), blessed is the coming empire of our ancestor David!
To Rome’s leaders and the people who they subjugated, Jesus’ procession into Jerusalem sent a pretty straightforward message. It was an acclamation of Jesus as the political king who would usher in a Davidic Empire, most likely at the point of a sword. And to do that it was necessary to overthrow the Roman Empire.
In the rock musical, Jesus Christ Superstar, there is a powerful song sung just after Jesus enters Jerusalem that I think crystallizes the emotions and thoughts of the crowd who shouted Hosanna to Jesus. It goes like this:
Christ you know I love you, did you see I waved?
I believe in you and God so tell me that I’m saved!
Jesus I am with you, touch me, touch me Jesus!
Jesus I am on your side, kiss me, kiss me Jesus!
Christ, what more do you need to convince you
that you made it and you’re easily as strong
as the filth from Rome who rape our country
and who’ve terrorized our people for so long?
There must be over 50 thousand screaming love and more for you;
And every one of 50 thousand would do whatever you ask them to.
Keep them yelling their devotion but add a touch of hate at Rome
You will rise to greater power. We will win ourselves a home!
And you’ll get the power and the glory. Forever and ever and ever. Amen.
For once we probe these historical symbols and acts, we begin to see why Jesus was crucified.
It is crucial that we remember that Jesus’ was not crucified by the Jews. Jesus was crucified by the Romans. Jesus was not crucified for blasphemy, though that charge was lodged by the Jewish high council, the Sanhedrin. Jesus was crucified for sedition. The sentence is in our passage from Mark, chapter 15 verse 2. “Pilate asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” He answered him, “You say so.”
Crucifixion was a punishment by the Romans reserved for those who had committed crimes against the Roman state or threatened its economic basis in slavery. Jesus was regarded as a dangerous political insurgent, one who spoke and enacted sedition, especially through this “triumphant entry.”
Beyond the political allusions Mark employs, he also uses images for the parade that draw upon several biblical precedents that would have been very familiar to Mark’s community:
- the colt signifying triumphant Judah (Genesis 49:11);
- the return of the Ark to Israel (1 Samuel 6:7ff);
- the declaration of Jehu as upstart king (2 Kings 9:13);
- a royal processional hymn (Psalm 118: 25ff).
- On top of all that, the fact that the parade began “near the Mount of Olives” would have brought to mind the final end of the world battle between Israel and its enemies spoken of by Zechariah (Zech 14:1-5).
But our gospel writer Mark uses all of these popular political and religious images in this story of Jesus’ entrance precisely in order to subvert them. To turn them upside down. This is the point of the odd story about “commandeering” a colt, which occupies fully half of the story of the parade. Mark is consciously reorganizing the symbolism of this parade around a different image from the prophet Zechariah which is expressly anti-military:
“Shout aloud, daughter of Jerusalem! Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding upon…a colt, the foal of a donkey. He will cut off the chariot from Ephraim and the war horse from Jerusalem…and shall command peace to the nations.” (Zechariah 9:9ff).
And shall command peace to the nations. This king in Zechariah, as Jesus in the gospels, rejects a road to peace that involves violence. Instead he enters Jerusalem quite unarmed–though just as dangerous.
Ched Myers call Jesus’ action a “nonviolent siege” of Jerusalem that refuses to follow the script of messianic hope that equated national liberation with the rehabilitation of the independent Temple state as it once was under King David. When Jesus comes to the Temple it is not to defend it, but to disrupt it, to cleanse it. And this ecstatic parade culminates into an anti-climax: Jesus marches into the Temple alone, looks around, and leaves because it is already late. This is neither what the crowd wants or expects.
And it’s not what we expect either. We enacted the liturgy of the palms this morning because we too want to acclaim Jesus as Messiah. But our liturgy lures us into participation in order to condemn us. For it is our very “Hosannas!” that are truly our first words of betrayal of the Jesus we claim to love. When we sang and marched and blessed the palms, we were initiating ourselves into a divine reenactment, a remembrance of our own betrayal of Jesus. Our Palm Sunday liturgy glorifies the grand mistake. Our shouts of hosanna, proclaim Jesus as the King that he is not. This Sunday is called both Palm and Passion Sunday. Because it reminds us of how deaf we are to the non-violent message of a humble leader who announces shalom, a just peace to the world.
This is both Palm and Passion Sunday because we are reminded of how we turn away everyday by either trivializing his call or by warping Jesus’ message into our own agenda. When the Jesus of scripture
- fails to meet our criteria of what is rational, pragmatic, or fair, like;
- when he tells us to love our enemies;
- when he says that the one who would be greatest must be the servant of all;
- when he turns the other cheek;
we are tempted to sidestep his message for the predictable fervor of the crowd and shout “Christ you know I love you. Did you see I waved? I believe in you and God so tell me that I’m saved!”
As we enter into Holy Week, let us enter cognizant of how our betrayal begins with the call of Hosanna. Let us enter prepared to have our visions of who Jesus is and how God acts challenged so that they can be reborn. Let us enter as Jesus did, humbly, riding on a colt. Let us follow him to the Passover table. Let us try to pray in the garden. Let us have the courage to follow him to the cross, even if we be like the women who stood at a distance. This Holy Week, may we face our fear of going against the crowd, of our desire to be accepted by society, of our insatiable drive for security over peace. May we confront these hosanna-like claims that shut the true and living God out of our lives, so that God can speak to us anew. May our liturgical remembering transform our palms into crosses. May our liturgical remembering transform our lives until we can understand that, as the German theologian Dorothy Sölle put so eloquently,
To be alive is to be vulnerable.
To be faithful is to resist the temptation of security.
Change happens at the level of action that contains risk.
And it doesn’t happen without victims.
A Life that excludes and protects itself against death,
protects itself to death.[iii]
May we have the courage to walk with Jesus to the cross, that we might experience his new life on Easter morning. Amen.
[i] Adapted from a sermon preached by The Rev. Noelle Damico, March 23, 1997. The sermon depends heavily on what was then a brand new commentary by Ched Meyers, Marie Dennis, Joseph Nangle, Cynthia Moe-Lobeda and Stuart Taylor, “Say to This Mountain”: Mark’s Story of Discipleship, (Orbis Books, 1996). All the exegesis is paraphrased or reproduced from the commentary. Just this week, Ched reproduced parts of the commentary with his own reflections for our times.
[ii] Following Simon bar Kocheba. See Martin Goodman, The Ruling Class of Judaea: The Origins of the Jewish Revolt against Rome A.D. 66-70. (Cambridge, 1987).
[iii] Excerpted from Sölle, The Window of Vulnerability: A Political Spirituality. (Fortress Press).