East or West Gate?

Everyone loves a parade (except maybe those who have to clean up after a parade). But so much of what is important in this story is what is not in the story. And reality may be like raining on the parade.

Because this story takes on an entirely different meaning when told in context. Preaching on this Scripture story ushers in a degree of difficulty depending on when and where in the historical timeline one lives. Some places, because of their history, can relate better to the story because of their own story. If we were a congregation living in Seoul, South Korea, I could take you back to what it was like to be ruled by the Japanese, living in oppression, sacred places desecrated. If we were living in Krakow (Poland), I could take you back to World War II, when Germans marched into town and rounded up the Jewish community to a nearby camp named Auschwitz. If we were a Native American congregation, then explaining the meaning of why Jesus was riding a colt into Jerusalem would be easy. However, most of us do not know what it is like to have our homes, our churches, our families destroyed.

Imagine growing up in Omaha, coming to worship here every Sunday. Imagine you believed the very essence of God physically lived here in this church. And then imagine a foreign power invades Omaha and enslaves everyone. Destroys your home. Your loved ones are taken far away never to be seen again. The foreign power establishes a new mayor who many say murdered others, to include members of his own family, to secure his position. He likes the location of the church, and after bulldozing the gigantic pine, Bradford pear and ginkgo trees, he builds his palace right on the front lawn. The mayor uses the church as the center of political life, and employs church leaders to help the foreign power continue its oppressive practices. Land is taken from native Omahans who are forced to beg for food and shelter.

Years pass and the town of Omaha still celebrates Easter, but peaceful sunrise services are replaced with armed guards and special security teams because the foreign-appointed mayor invites the imperial President to his Omaha palace for Easter. The news media hypes up the forthcoming imposing grand entrance. Fighter jet fly-overs. Numerous musical performers contracted to play. Military regiments marching to the steady pounding of drums. The President will enter on a thoroughbred worth more than all the wages of the oppressed people of Omaha. The annual Easter parade, a parade coordinated by the mayor designed to remind the people of Omaha to whom their allegiance must be, or else.

All business establishments, all schools, all sporting events halt for the parade. While no edict mandates attendance at the parade, everyone knows that punishment could result if found anywhere but along the streets of West Dodge Street.

However, quiet rumors excite your friends. Some are talking about another parade coming from the East.
Back to the Scriptures. Only twice in scripture does it say Jesus wept. The better known reference is the response to a question you’ve probably been asked: What is the shortest verse in the Bible? Two words: Jesus wept.

Jesus first wept when he learned his friend Lazarus died. That is the context in John 11:35, which records Jesus weeping once he arrived at the home of Lazarus to find out he had already been buried. Before doctors, before hospitals, before healthcare…people went to the religious leaders for healing. Jesus had been healing people all over Galilee but when he learns his good friend Lazarus is sick, it is not a priority to rush to his side. When Jesus arrives four days after the death of Lazarus, the sister of Lazarus says something along the lines of, “Lord, had you been here our brother would not have died.” Jesus weeps, raises Lazarus from the dead and that’s when the Jesus assassination committee is formed.

But back to the weeping on Palm Sunday, the only other time the Gospel writers say Jesus weeps. As he nears the top of the hill known as the Mount of Olives from the East, Jesus weeps and says, “If you had only recognized the things that make for peace.”

Why is Jesus weeping? I don’t think he weeps for himself, for the words point to a weeping for Jerusalem.

A town that has become complicit with an oppressive ruling power.

In their book, The Last Week, New Testament scholars John Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg write, “The wealthy and powerful justify their position by saying, ‘This is the way it is.’ Whether done by religious or nonreligious authorities, the effect is the same. God—or the way things work—has set it up this way.”1 Jerusalem, home to the house of God, the temple, now at the center of a domination system validated by theology.

That day during the Passover season, Jerusalem was a popular tourist destination town. The city’s population swelled from 40,000 to 200,000 during the holidays and Passover was one of the busiest holidays. Imagine Omaha hosting the Equestrian World Cup, the College World Series, the Olympic Swim Trials and Berkshire Hathaway all in the same weekend?!

The Gospels all indicate crowds welcomed Jesus, but the parade of palms and shout of “Hosanna!” that heralded Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem wasn’t the largest or most dramatic parade occurring that day. The larger parade was happening on the other side of Jerusalem as the territorial leaders of the Roman Empire, Pilate and Herod, were also entering the city, leading a regiment of soldiers who could reinforce the Roman garrison in Jerusalem during Passover, just in case things got out of hand. They represented Rome, the foreign power that destroyed holy sites, took people’s lands in order to build massive palaces and oppressed the people. Among those cheering at this parade—those who benefitted from Rome’s domination: Political and religious bureaucrats who had found ways to justify their complicity, profiting from the suffering of others. They knew who was responsible for their success, so they showed up at Pilate’s parade rally to possibly ingratiate themselves even more to Rome.

Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan, The Last Week (New York: Harper Collins, 2006), 20.
Perhaps the ones who dared to go to the East gate to welcome Jesus did so knowing that their defiance to Rome could cost them their lives. Perhaps the ones who dared to go to the East gate remembered stories passed down to them about a prophecy of a Messiah who would enter the town on a colt and bring peace. Perhaps the ones who dared to welcome Jesus did
so because they had nothing to lose—they had no power, no control, no money. All they had was hope.

The implied question when we think of this story contextually—which parade would we have joined? Would we have been at the East Gate, spreading our cloaks on the road, praising God until our throats were hoarse shouting “Hosanna! Blessed be the King who comes in the name of the Lord!” Or would we have been on the western side of the city, conjuring plans of how we could benefit from Roman power?

It’s difficult to really know what we would have done some 2000 years ago. At which gate would we have stood? Maybe we ought to ask ourselves where we stand today.

How do we react to violence and war? Do we embrace the nonviolence that Christ talked about, or do we live in fear and think military power is the best way to ensure peace for our lives? Do we, who have plenty, advocate for the poor and oppressed in the name of equity, or do we silently allow the powerful and privileged to continue disproportionate lifestyles? Do we open our homes and hearts to those who have no home?

As we deeply contemplate those questions, we cannot help but realize that quite possibly we may not like which parade history would find us cheering. The church has a long history of trying to be at both parades. Putting alliances with national identity and political parties may lead us to a place we really do not want to be. Just as we individuals stray from the path of mercy and justice, political structures and church organizations also get caught up in the domination system.

Jesus wept over Jerusalem.

Would Jesus weep over Omaha because of our North and South clearly defined racial boundaries? Would Jesus weep over Washington because of policies that communicate indifference to the powerless? Would Jesus weep over Christian churches that surrender to American values, thereby sacrificing principles that he taught?

To truly be present at the East gate where Jesus enters, a community of faith needs a healthy grounding in who it is we follow. Our citizenship is not that of Omaha, or the United States, but the Kingdom of God.

Peace is far from a reality in Jerusalem, in the Middle East, in the world. The wars in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan result in unknown numbers who have been killed, who are wounded in body, mind, and spirit; the millions who have been displaced from their homes; and the trillions of dollars which could have been used for health care, education, humanitarian relief, and so many other pressing needs in God’s hurting world.

Yes, two thousand years after Jesus, it is tragically evident our world still does not recognize the things that make for peace. If Jesus were to enter Washington, Damascus, Beijing, Baghdad, Tehran, Moscow, Kabul, Jerusalem, or any capital city today, I think he would weep because we are still a people of violence.

But there is hope because there are many who stand at the East Gate. They were there when Jesus arrived, and still they stand waiting. May we be the people who enter the East Gate and continue the great and might march of peace.