[The following is a Palm Sunday sermon that I preached today at "The Story" in Sarnia, Ontario.]
Introduction: Jesus Predicts his Own Death
Since today is “Palm Sunday,” we are stepping back from Acts and will be looking at Jesus and his arrival in Jerusalem during the Passover. We all know what happens next in the story: the crucifixion, death, and resurrection of Jesus which will be the focus next week. However, it’s safe to say that many of the actors involved in the story – from the disciples, to the crowds, to the Sanhedrin, to the Roman governor – didn’t know what was going to happen.
But Jesus did. Three times, in Luke’s account, we see Jesus predicting his own death. Twice in Lk 9 (vv21-27 and again in vv43-45), and then once more when he is on his way to Jerusalem he says this:
See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and everything that is written about the Son of Man by the prophets will be accomplished. For he will be handed over to the nations; and he will be mocked and insulted and spat upon. After they have flogged him, they will kill him, and so on the third day he will rise again” (Lk 18.31-33).
Jesus knows that he is going to Jerusalem to die. Stop and ask: how does Jesus know this? Don’t give yourself an easy way out and go with the Sarah Silverman answer that Joe mentioned a few weeks ago: “Jesus is magic.” Think harder. “How does Jesus know he is going to die?”
Another question that might help you answer that one is this: “Why did Jesus die?” Want to know what the wrong answer is? “For the sins of the world.” Nobody who was involved in killing Jesus had that on their minds. It’s not like the Sanhedrin, Pilate, and the soldiers who nailed Jesus to the cross all thought: “Well, gotta kill this guy to save the world from its sin – thanks ever so much for agreeing to do this. Sorry about the nails and all that.” So, why did they kill Jesus?
The answers to these questions can be seen especially clearly in the material we are looking at today: Lk 19.28-48. This passage can be broken into three episodes: the first is when Jesus proceeds from the Mount of Olives to Jerusalem and the so-called “triumphal entry” takes place. The second is the short observation that Jesus weeps for Jerusalem and its coming destruction, and the third is the so-called “cleansing of the temple.” I think all of these stories are pretty well known to anybody who grew up going to church, but I think we are mostly taught how to misunderstand them. We tend to read the “triumphal entry” as the story of Jesus coming as a king to Jerusalem, we read Jesus weeping over Jerusalem as an anti-Semitic judgment on the Jews for not being Christians, and we read the “cleansing of the temple” as some sort of religious ritual, which Jesus has exclusive permission to perform because, you know, he’s God. Jesus is magic!
However, when we read these stories in context, very different things come to our attention and after we look at them in more detail, we’ll already be able to know what is going to happen to Jesus – even if we had never read the rest of the story – these verses let us know that Jesus is going to die and why he is going to die.
Episode One: Lk 19.28-40. Lampooning Power: Seditious Street Theatre
In order to provide us with the lenses that we need to understand what happens during the so-called “triumphal entry” I want to jump ahead about two thousand years to the 2010 Vancouver Olympics. While Canada was busy selling itself to the world as a place of tolerance, diversity, and peace, the City of Vancouver was busy funneling millions of dollars away from public services and into the pockets of Olympic sponsors and transnational real estate developers. Shelters were closed, other buildings containing affordable housing were torn down, new units of affordable housing were promised and then never materialized, laws were changed in order to criminalize people for being homeless or poor, and budgets for other programs like hospitals and schools were cut. Essentially, as always happens with Olympic host cities, the games were used to create a spectacle that facilitated the theft of large sections of the city away from poor people in order to foster gentrification and the displacement of marginalized people. The result? The distinction between being poor and being a criminal was further abolished, tax paying citizens of Vancouver were stuck with more than $100 million dollars of debt to repay, and real estate developers and corporate sponsors made hundreds of millions of dollars.
As I mentioned, this experience was not unique to Vancouver. The same thing has happened over and over again in Olympic host cities. Not surprisingly, then, there was a group of concerned members of the community who gathered together and tried to oppose the Olympics in various ways. One of the ways that gained a fair bit of media attention was the creation of the “Vancouver Poverty Olympics” which were created and staged by residents of Vancouver’s downtown eastside and their friend. Events included things like “Housing Hurdles,” which told the story of all the barriers poor people face in relation to housing and other services, a “torch relay,” which focused upon ending poverty, and a hockey game between real estate developers and homeless people (the referee was a city official who kept penalizing the homeless players). The mascots were Itchy the Bedbug, Creepy the Cockroach, and Chewy the Rat [show slide with mascots image]. When they sang the national anthem they changed the words to this:
Our home on native
A billion for security
Instead of building homes.
Olympic spending has gone sky high
While thousands sleep outside.
From far and wide
Invite the world to see
A quarter million souls,
Poor and freezing cold
Oh Canada, where is e-qual-i-ty?
Oh Canada, we are ashamed of thee.
Now, you can make of that what you will but I mention this because it is a particularly good example of street theatre being employed in a manner that challenges the dominant narrative about Canada and the Olympics (i.e. the dominant narrative of the powerful). It mocks that narrative, and offers an educational alternative. They mimic the Olympics – games are held, mascots are present, a torch is paraded, medals are awarded – but all this takes place in a manner that reveals and subverts what the Olympics stand for.
I take the time to mention all this because it is precisely this kind of subversive street theatre that is being employed by Jesus and the men, women, and children who gathered with him, when they entered into Jerusalem.
Triumphal entries were well known to the residents of any major city within the Mediterranean – especially any city that had drawn the attention of Greece or Rome. Thus, Jerusalem itself, had staged triumphal entries for many victorious rulers – Alexander the Great, the Maccabees, Herod and others had all entered Jerusalem in triumphs. Even after Jesus’ death, when the Jewish revolt was in full swing in 66CE, one of the leaders of the revolt engaged in a triumphal entry and entered Jerusalem as a king. Even before the exile, the Davidic kings would ride into Jerusalem to be crowned, people would spread their outer garments on the way before them, and then this ritual would be reenacted annually and would include the words that Jesus’ disciples quote from Ps 118: “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!”
Therefore, it’s very clear that the members of the movement that gathered with Jesus were employing the imagery of a triumphal entry. That Jesus chose to ride on a colt strengthens this in some ways, as it would remind the reader of passage like Zech 9.9 or Gen 49.11 which point towards Israel’s expectations of a messianic king coming from the tribe of Judah. Additionally, that Jesus chose to come to Jerusalem, from the Mount of Olives further plays into these kingly messianic expectations, as the Messiah was expected to come to liberate Jerusalem from this location.
However, even as Jesus and others employ these images, they subvert them – just like Vancouver’s “Poverty Olympics” both mimicked and subverted the symbols and goals of the Olympic Games. Therefore, to read this passage as a time when Jesus actually claims to be the king of Israel would be as wrong-headed as thinking that the organizers of “Poverty Olympics” are actually claiming or desiring to be the core members of the International Olympic Committee. Those organizers don’t want to be a part of that committee, they want that committee to be abolished, and that is the same thing Jesus wants to happen to power structures that are arranged in order to make some people kings and other people slaves or peasants with barely enough to survive. By entering Jerusalem in this way, Jesus is not saying, “I am the true king,” rather, he is saying that all such oppressive power arrangements should be abolished in a community of people who care for one another as equal members. If one lives according to the Sermon on the Mount – “Let each give according to his or her ability, and each receive according to his or her need” – then such power arrangements cannot be permitted to exist within the community. Jesus is emphasizing that the most important thing to be is a servant of the community, a person unconcerned with his or her own status or lack thereof, one who willingly humbles him- or herself before others. Or, as Jesus says immediately following the first time he predicts his death in Luke’s Gospel:
If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it. What does it profit them if they gain the whole world, but lose or forfeit themselves? (Lk 9.23-25).
Riding on the colt, Jesus must be wondering: “Do you get it yet? Do you? All this talk about kings and power and authority—do you understand that the treasures of the kingdom you are seeking are humility, service, and love? Do you get that this is a parody or are you still hoping for me to be something I am not?”
That Jesus is, in fact, engaging in this sort of satirical and seditious street theatre becomes clear because of a few key markers in the text. The reference to Zech 9.9, and the use of a donkey’s colt for Jesus to ride highlight this. Zechariah speaks of a humble king and a colt was not the standard war horse used in triumphal entries – it was a beast of burden. Jesus also approaches Jerusalem unarmed and unarmoured. In contrast to the Lion of Judah, described in Genesis 49 (a person marked by opulent wealth), Luke’s Jesus describes himself as being so poor that he is homeless and has “nowhere to lay his head” (Lk 9.58). Whatever clothing he wore was so unremarkable that it was left to be divided amongst the executioners who later killed him (Lk 23.34). Furthermore, he didn’t even own a colt himself – he had to send his disciples to steal one.
The other major clue about this is the fact that the Pharisees in the crowd are entirely unimpressed by this bit of street theatre and say to Jesus: “Teacher, order your disciples to stop!” The Pharisees are about as impressed with this bit of parody as the Mayor of Vancouver was impressed by the “Poverty Olympics.” They see what is going on and understand the implications of the event. By acting in this way, Jesus and the other performers are asserting that all those who claim power now do not have any right to that power and should not wield it. By mocking any pretensions to kingship, Jesus is also invalidating the claims to authority made by the Roman rulers and the Jewish elite who were based at the temple and worked hand-in-glove with the Romans. By refusing to lay claim to any kind of kingship, Jesus is also rejecting their claims to lead. This is a genuinely rebellious and revolutionary assertion.
Jesus and friends probably only get away with this action because Passover is occurring, pilgrims are flocking to the city, and so the crowds would have provided some cover for this provocative bit of theatre. Perhaps the heads of security for the Sanhedrin and for the Roman Prefect did not hear about the event until afterword, if at all.
However, it’s also possible that the security forces were aware that the action occurred but chose not to act. Passover was a time of considerably heightened tension at Jerusalem. Passover was when the Hebrews commemorated their liberation from subjugation to foreign rulers in Egypt. But commemorating Passover in first century Judaea would also remind to all the celebrants that they were currently enslaved to another oppressive foreign ruler – Rome. Therefore, revolts regularly occurred at this time, and the Romans stationed extra soldiers within Jerusalem during this festival. Therefore, if the Roman security knew about this action, they may have chosen not to act for fear of inspiring a violent uprising.
After all, any other revolutionary or hopeful liberator of Jerusalem who acted in this way and made claims like these would inevitably be arrested and killed by the Romans. Richard Horsley, a New Testament scholar, sums this up well:
Had Jesus done this with several dozen followers at any time other than a pilgrimage festival, it would have been taken as a revolutionary action led by yet another in the series of popular messiahs. The Roman garrison would have immediately marched out of the Jerusalem citadel to put down the audacious (and suicidal) uprising. (Horsley, Jesus and the Powers, 170).
However, if Jesus “dodged a bullet” here, his subsequent action in the temple sealed his fate. Before, we turn to that, let’s pause for some questions:
What do you think of this understanding of the “triumphal entry”?
What might an action like this look like in Sarnia today?
Episodes 2-3: Lk 19.41-48. When All Else Fails… Then What?
Up until this point, Jesus has been relatively quiet. Other than given instructions about stealing a colt, and basically telling the Pharisees to screw off, he has been pretty passive. So much so, that he does not even mount the colt himself, but is lifted onto it by the disciples (perhaps because he knows that some of them will misunderstand the parody and think he really is coming to be and act like the kind of king they want and are accustomed to seeing?). However, as he approaches Jerusalem, he begins to weep: “If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from our eyes… because you did not recognize the time of your visitation.” That is to say, even as Jesus approaches Jerusalem, nobody recognizes that he and the Way for which he acts as an advocate, is the Way of Salvation. Instead, the local rulers will continue to exploit the people at the behest of the Empire, and the people will lash back at the rulers, in a spiral of violence that will only end in the total annihilation of Jerusalem. People will continue to embrace the dynamics of power, violence, exclusion, and oppression that Jesus rejects in his parody of a triumphal entry.
Of course, it is not only in that action that Jesus rejects these things. He has spent the last three years of his life helping to creating a movement that was based upon the rejection of these things and the affirmation of the life, goodness, health, purity, and well-being of the dying, the sinners, the sick, the impure, and the poor. I’m sure that his hope was that this vision would spread and carry to all Israel, for he was operating out of the Scriptures and traditions of Israel (just as Christians who fight to end poverty today think that other Christians should care about poor people in concrete ways because they are operating out the the same Scriptures and traditions). However, this did not happen (just like it doesn’t usually work that way today, either) and so Jesus knows that Jerusalem is doomed – weeping, he says: “your enemies will set up ramparts around you and surround you, and hem you in on every side. They will crush you to the ground, you and your children within you, and they will not leave within you one stone upon another.” Nobody gets on board with Jesus and the disciples when he enters into Jerusalem. Luke tells us that only his previously existing disciples welcome him. The crowds probably just think he’s nuts, or amusing, or somebody who is making them unsafe. That’s generally the response one gets to provocative street theatre and, with heightened security in the city – like the $900 million spent on security during the Vancouver Olympics – people tend to be especially eager to stay away from anything that can look threatening. A person could get arrested just for being around that sort of thing – like I was, while non-violently participating in a protest during the Olympics.
Knowing this, what does Jesus do next? A final desperate act that he knows will get him killed: he “cleanses” the temple. That’s the pretty church language we use to refer to this event. Alternatively stated, we could say that he goes on an absolutely crazy rampage with a mob supporting him and pretty much chooses death by cop. Jesus causes a small riot in the temple and so the members of the local elite gather together to plan his death. As Luke says: “the chief priests, the scribes, and the leaders of the people kept looking for a way to kill him” (Lk 19.47). John sees this event as so essentially related to the reason why the leaders decided to kill Jesus that he includes it at the beginning of his Gospel.
You see, Rome wasn’t necessarily going to crucify every prophetic nutcase who came along prophesying the doom of Israel. Even when the local Jewish authorities wanted to kill people, Rome didn’t always permit them to do so. For example, about thirty years after Jesus, when the political tensions between Jerusalem and Rome were far higher, the Romans spared Jesus ben Hananiah, whom the local elites wanted killed because he was going around talking about the destruction of Jerusalem. However, Jesus of Nazareth was different than some of these lone prophetic voices in at least two crucial ways: first of all, he brought an entourage. He brought a motley crew of poor, rugged, homeless, labour-hardened outcasts. Secondly, he didn’t just talk about judgment, he acted it out. As Richard Horsley makes plain: this is an “irrevocable action from which there is no retreat” (cf. Horsley, Jesus and the Powers, 172). It’s one thing to be a lone prophetic nut – it’s another thing to bring a crew with you and smash things up.
Now, I know that we are all keen to talk about how the Way of Jesus Christ, how Christianity, is about non-violence and the refusal to do harm to others, but the violence of this event should be emphasized. Luke tries to skip over it, simply stating that Jesus “entered the temple and began to drive out those who were selling things there” and leaves it up to the reader to imagine precisely how Jesus did this. Luke uses the same language for this action as he does when Jesus casts out or drives out demons – the sellers are like a demonic presence in the temple and Jesus casts them out. Somehow.
The other Gospels provide more detail: what happened was scary and violent – Jesus making a whip, terrifying animals, causing cattle and sheep to panic and scatter, overturning tables, scattering money, which the poor people who followed him around were sure to have scooped up – all while accompanied by an intimidating mob who, if they did not also participate, certainly would have added to the scare factor. Jesus hung around with hardened manual labourers, social outcasts, and the poor. When a group of people like this show up in a market, it doesn’t matter how many of them start flipping tables – what the merchants see is violence backed up by a scary looking group. Things get destroyed and people would have been concerned about there own well-being.
So, while we like to imagine Jesus like this:
[Gentle Jesus with child slide.]
Something like this would probably be a more accurate picture:
[Black bloc members trashing police car at Toronto G20 picture.]
The use of black blocs at protests is actually a pretty good contemporary parallel. I’m sure you’ve seen the pictures in the news, but basically a “black bloc” is when a group of people choose to disguise their identities and all dress the same – in black with covered faces – so that a small number of people in that group will be able to engage in the destruction of some property without being identified. The majority do not act violently but, instead act as a cover for the minority. Still, even if one or two members become violent, the whole group tends to scare people. So whether or not only Jesus participated in the violence in the temple – which I find to be a bit of a stretch of the imagination – the point is that he did so backed up by a mob.
So, why does Jesus choose the temple to be the location of this action? Jesus chose the temple because it was the centre of power in Jerusalem. We tend to think of the temple as a religious institution but it was much more than that in Jesus’ day. The temple was also the central bank for Judaea. Large sums of money, all the records of debt, and a good many property deeds were stored there. It was also the central marketplace of the city. And it was the “home base” of the Jewish rulers who had been nominated to rule by the Romans and who continued to rule because they were willing to sell-out their own people to enrich themselves and meet the demands of the Empire. If we switch the location to modern day New York City, the temple would be City Hall, the New York Stock Exchange, the Federal Reserve Bank, and St. Patrick’s Cathedral all combined in one location.
Therefore, by acting in the temple, Jesus is announcing God’s judgment against the social, political, economic and religious leaders of Judaea. Essentially, these leaders were like the leaders of a Banana Republic – they operated like Augusto Pinochet did in Chile in the ’70s and ’80s. Mostly, the wealth and resources of Chile were funneled off to the United States – the Empire – Pinochet, his family and friends became enormously wealthy and powerful – like the Temple-based Jewish leaders – and the people in Chile became poverty stricken and suffered a great deal of violence, trauma and death – like the Jewish people in general. It is this death-dealing exercise of power that Jesus condemns.
He makes this clear by quoting Jer 7 and asserting that the temple has been turned into a “den of thieves” or a “cave for bandits”. In Jer 7, the “cave for bandits” is a place where “people of violence” retreat to in order to escape from justice. This is then contrasted with what the temple is supposed to be – a “house of prayer” which, according to the previous chapters in Luke, should be defined by the persistent pursuit of justice and a humble openness to God that rejects anything that is self-glorifying.
No wonder, then, that immediately after this, Luke tells us that all the different leaders unite with one another in order to look for a way to kill Jesus. This is why Jesus was killed. Going to Jerusalem, with this plan in mind, is why Jesus knew he was going to die. You don’t have to be a genius or the Son of God to know that acting in this way will get you killed. If I busted into the New York Stock Exchange with an angry mob on September 11th and started smashing the video screens with some sort of improvised weapon, driving out the Brokers, and yelling that a country that utilizes the rhetoric of freedom and democracy was getting rich from killing and oppressing others, I’m pretty sure I know what would happen to me. I would be charged as a terrorist and either imprisoned for life, disappeared to a torture centre, or executed – if I wasn’t shot dead then and there.
Conclusion: Anticipating Easter
And this, of course, is exactly what happened to Jesus. He died the death of a State-executed terrorist – as he knew he would. This is what the sign “King of the Jews” meant. It was Pilate’s way of mocking any who would try to create a more just way of structuring life together. Today, Pilate’s sign would be like a Canadian soldier holding a sign that says “Freedom Fighter” over the body of a dead Afghani (who may or may not have been a member of Al Qaeda). Pilate doesn’t really think Jewish peasants could be Kings, and the Canadian soldiers don’t really think Afghani farmers can be freedom fighters – but Empire’s are never satisfied by simply killing their enemies. They also need to mock them, perhaps in order to convince themselves that there is no other way of structuring the world, perhaps in order to try to overcome their fears that the victims of the Empire might not stay dead. Because if people like that, if State-executed terrorists, began to come back to life it would not bode well for any Empire, since the ultimate power of the Empire is Death and the ability to kill their enemies. If their enemies don’t stay dead, what then?
The Roman Emperor Nero, who was in charge when Paul died, used to have this nightmare: he was in the Theatre of Pompey, a theatre lined with statues representing all the people conquered by Rome. Suddenly, the statues came to life and slowly but inexorably drew closer and closer to him, surrounded him, and crushed him.
If, as Paul says, we have been crucified with Christ, and if the risen Christ now lives in us (cf. Gal 2.20), then we are these statues come back to life. We are the nightmare of Empires.
But I am getting ahead of myself. That is the story of Easter. For now, we are left with a Messiah who mocks any messianic expectations based on power over others, a Messiah who weeps for Jerusalem, and a Messiah who chooses to die, rather than live, in one last desperate effort to confront the Powers of his day and bring to the fore that a more just and life-giving way of structuring life together is possible.
Do we have the same view of authorities as Jesus did? Should we? If we did, what sort of action would that require of us?
How can we possibly try to model ourselves after Jesus when he chose to do something that he knew would get himself killed? What are the implications of this for Christian discipleship? How in the world does this connect with the lives we live as Christians?