Text: Luke 19:28-40
Behind every story, there is a sub-text. Today, we read the story that Christians have been reading on Palm Sunday for centuries. It is the story of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem—the inaugural event of the holiest week of the Christian year. Traditionally, here at Pullen, we have re-enacted the event just as we have this year. Our children process into worship waving their palm branches. Some years, we have even spread our cloaks down the center isle as the procession made it way into the sanctuary. We announce Christ’s coming in the reading of the words found in scripture, “Blessed is the One who comes in the name of the Lord.” Short of having Larry ride in on a donkey—not that I haven’t tried to convince the worship team that a full re-enactment would enhance our worship experience on Palm Sunday—we have tried to follow the story line on this Sunday in such a way as to prepare our community for Holy Week. Today is meant to be a festive day—a parade if you will—and we know the story well.
What the text doesn’t tell us is that on that spring day in the year 30, there was another procession—another parade—going on at the other end of town. It is the sub-text to this Palm Sunday story. While Jesus was riding into town on a donkey from the east, on the opposite side of the city, from the west, Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor, was riding into town with his full imperial cavalry and soldiers. To set the scene, imagine the fanciest and grandest of all processions—all the bells and whistles; everyone dressed in full regalia; trumpets and drums; the best of everything. To get the full impact of the difference between what was happening on the opposite ends of town, think about Princess Diana and Prince Charles’ wedding day compared to, let’s say, the Charlie Brown Christmas parade. On the west side, it was royalty and power at its height. On the east side of town, it was a motley crew of characters riding in on makeshift floats.
So what was going on in Jerusalem to bring both of these processions into town?
It was the beginning of the week of Passover, the most sacred week of the Jewish year. Pilate’s military procession was a demonstration of both Roman power and Roman imperial theology. It was the standard practice of the Roman governors of Judea to be in Jerusalem for the major Jewish festivals. They did so not out of reverence for the religious devotion of their Jewish subjects, but to be in the city in case there was trouble. There often was, especially at Passover, a festival that celebrated the Jewish people’s liberation from an earlier empire. The mission of the Pilate’s troops was to reinforce the power of the Roman Empire. But it was more than that. The procession from the west also displayed Roman imperial theology. According to this theology, the emperor was not simply the ruler of Rome, but the Son of God—a theology that had been handed down since the greatest of emperors, Augustus.
As a Jew, Jesus would have been, by tradition, in Jerusalem to celebrate the Jewish festival out of reverence and devotion to his faith. But in reality, in the year 30, he was there to mount a “counterprocession.” His message was about the kingdom of God, and his followers came from the peasant class. For Rome’s Jewish subjects, Pilate’s procession embodied not only a rival social order, but also a rival theology. So while 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. This contrast—between the kingdom of God and the kingdom of Caesar—is central not only to the gospels, but to the story of Jesus and early Christianity.
As I read the story of Jesus’ entry in Jerusalem from Luke’s gospel, several things jumped out at me. First, there was the directive from Jesus to his disciples to go into the city where they would find a colt tied there that had never been ridden. They were to bring the colt back to him with the only other instruction being that if anyone asks why they were taking the colt to simply say, “The Lord needs it.” The fact that the colt has never been ridden makes it suitable for sacred purposes or for a king’s mount. However, Matthew and John specify that the animal was a donkey. A donkey is a humble mount, and the colt of a donkey even more so—definitely unsuitable for an earthly king or for someone with earthly power. While it is the interpretation of most scholars that the unridden colt symbolized it sacredness, I like to think about it another way. Maybe the reason the colt had never been ridden because there was something wrong with it—it wasn’t perfect. It would be just like Jesus to choose an imperfect vessel as a part of his procession. Regardless of the reason for the unridden colt, once again, he chose the unexpected.
The second thing that jumped out at me in Luke’s telling of this story is Jesus’ response to the Pharisees when they asked him to order his disciples to stop what they were doing. Remember his response? “…if these were silent, the stones would shout out.” The point: there is no silencing the power of Jesus’ message and his life; there is no silencing truth and justice.
Before I speak to how I see this story playing out in our lives and in the world, I want to make one more note. If you read Mark’s account of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem you will notice that after entering Jerusalem, Jesus goes to the temple and begins to drive out those who were selling and those who were buying in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold doves, accusing them of making the temple a “den of robbers” instead of “a house of prayer for all the nations.” I make this note to simply point out that when Jesus enters Jerusalem—the place where he will die, where he will be resurrected, and where the church will be born at Pentecost—he is focused on the message of his mission and ministry…a message of justice and truth and of a power unlike that of earthly institutions and earthly leaders. He rode into Jerusalem knowing that it was not just any city. It is the city of God and the faithless city, the city of hope and the city of oppression, the city of joy and the city of pain. And it was there that he focused his last acts of his ministry.
At the heart of this story is the confrontation between powers—the power of the kingdom of God and the power of the empire. It is a confrontation between those in power and those with no power. I had the opportunity this past week to witness what happens when the confrontation between powers plays out. On Tuesday afternoon, students from across Wake County gathered for the historic vote of the Wake County School Board to abandon the school system’s diversity policy. At the heart of the conflict was, indeed, a confrontation between powers. Having limited public access and participation in the meeting, the school board sat on one side of closed doors (in the board room), while local students lined the hallway on the other side of the closed doors. The east and the west. I had stood in line from early morning and had obtained one of the few tickets handed out for admission to the meeting. As the board neared their vote and the intensity of the mood heightened, the stones began to shout. Staging their own “counterprocession” the students began chanting, “No re-segregation in our town. Shut it down.” I heard the voices of the Pharisees asking them to stop but they persisted. The stones would not be silent.
Depending on where you sit and how you see the issues being debated, it is easy to judge both the school board and the students for their actions. However, I will say that as I made my way out of the board room and sat among those high school students I felt and witnessed the intensity of what can happen when the confrontation between powers becomes real and when the stones shout out. It gave me a glimpse into this Palm Sunday story that I’m not sure I had seen before. And I was grateful that the stones shouted out.
The truth is that this story is playing out on multiple levels in our world and in our individual lives. Sometimes we are the ones riding in from the west—the ones with the power and prestige and privilege. Other times we are the procession coming from the east—the ones with little or no power. For me, the questions leading us into Holy Week are this: When I find myself in the procession from the west, how am I using my power? And when I am in the procession from the east, where am I finding my power? Am I using my power to marginalize others? For my own gain? Or am I using it to lift up the lowly and those who have no power. Am I finding my power in my ego and in my own need to be important and privileged? Or is it coming from a place of authentic devotion to God—to stand for truth and justice.
Yes, two processions entered Jerusalem on that spring day in the year 30. The same question, the same alternative, faces those who would be faithful to Jesus today. Which procession are we in? Which procession do we want to be in? This is the question of Palm Sunday and of the week that is about to unfold. For sure, if we remain silent, the stones will shout out.