First United Methodist Church – Omaha
Dr. Jane Florence
March 25, 2018 – Palm Sunday
Scripture: Mark 11:4-10
Parades evoke memories of childhood delight. Colorful balloons bobbing with the gentle breeze down main street. Vendors hawking tall stems of cotton candy sweeping the air like blossoms on foxglove plants. Clowns with floppy shoes and red bulb noses driving tiny cars or tinier scooters in figure eights. Bands marching, flags waving, floats of flower petals evoking oooh’s and aww’s as they glide by one after the other. Seasonal touches distinguish the parades by colors or honored guest: Santa or Leprechauns or rainbow spectrum flamboyance or red, white, and blue bunting. Those are one kind of parades ushering in a holiday or festival.
Then there are other kinds of parades that are not swirling with an air of childhood delight. Parades of fortified tanks rumbling heavily down city streets and missiles on huge flatbed trailers. Starched troops marching line by line in stiff legged regimen bayonets in place catching the sun on just sharpened edges. Military parades lumber past capitol hill or up national mall to show dominance and spread fear. Nothing like an Emperor’s parade guised as veteran’s honor to show off imperial power.
Two parades collide today in our scripture. One signals the people’s call for liberation, “Do you hear the people sing? Hosanna, Save Us!” The other one signals power empire to crush and silence any resistance whispering “crucify” with each cadence step. Not much has changed in two thousand years.
Marcus Borg reminds us that two parades entered the holy capital city of Jerusalem on what we call Palm Sunday. One composed of peasants longing for salvation; one of might intending to oppress.
It was a divided nation. The rich were getting richer as they pushed the taxation burden upon the poor. Herod the Great ‘remodeled’ the temple with spacious courts and elegant colonnades of gleaming marble and gold. He built a palace for himself that was luxurious glittering fountains, shaded pools, gemstones. His dining room had enough couches for three hundred guests. Some Emperors like a lot of glitz and palaces bearing their name. Like I said, not much has changed in two thousand years.
The wealthy were powerful at the expense of the poor and powerless. The religious leaders sided with the powerful. Priests, scribes, Pharisees have a bad reputation because they colluded with the Roman Empire to keep the oppressed ‘peaceful’ in return for some special favors like survival. It’s easy to judge and criticize the religious leaders for their complicity in Roman oppression of the poor, but they made their deal in an effort to keep the people alive. Poor, yes, but alive. The Roman Empire expanded by rolling over and conquering nations; it’s easy to just destroy or enslave people. The Jewish religious leaders made a deal, “let our people live and we will keep them in line, no need to destroy us- we are harmless peasants, no threat to Rome!” The arrangement was working with only minor blips.
One would-be revolutionary led the peasants to revolt about four years before Jesus was born. In response, the Roman forces “burned a whole city, sold survivors into slavery, and crucified two thousand of its defenders en masse.” Miles and miles of roads were lined with corpses rotting on Roman crosses as a clear warning to any who would attempt resistance against the Roman Empire. The slaughterer made the point vividly. It was called Pax Romana, the Roman Peace. Rome was at peace and any who agreed to live under their military rule and taxation were left ‘at peace.’ Everyone with strong connections to the Temple knew the rules.
The problems comes when the city is flooded with visitors, non-Jerusalem folks coming to town for the most sacred week of the Jewish year. During the week of Passover, the city’s population swelled from maybe 40,000 to over 250,000. Jewish pilgrims made their way to the holy city from all over Judea to commemorate their freedom from Egyptian slavery. With all these multitudes swarming to Jerusalem, the Roman governors weren’t so sure the local Jewish priests and Pharisees could keep the peace particularly during a festival of freedom, so the governor made a military procession into the city as well. Nothing like an imperial parade to show off imperial power to keep the people in line. Cavalry on horses, foot soldiers marching in step, leather armor, helmets, weapons, banners and flags with sun glinting on metal and gold. Hoofs pounding, bridles clinking, drums beating, chariots rolling must have made for quite a thunderous, intimidating experience as they entered Jerusalem. “The military procession displayed not only imperial power, but also Roman imperial theology.” Accordingly, the emperor was not simply the ruler of Rome, but titled also “Son of God,” “Lord,” and “Savior.”
So, you see how their anxiety rises when on the other side of town, opposite the Roman military parading in with their power, pomp and circumstance, Jesus orchestrates a parade of his own. He enters Jerusalem riding on an ass and cheered on by his followers. Is he mocking the Roman army? There were no emperor’s robes or Roman banners, no gleaming metal or clinking bridles on the east side of town. These were the peasants who had heard Jesus out on a hillside, down near a lakeside, and around a village well. This processional was made of common people, poor people, otherwise outcast and voiceless people, some had been healed by him, others who had been fed, others knew the stories of Jesus. It was a crowd of enthusiastic sympathizers who spread their cloaks and waved leafy branches who shouted out “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest! Blessed is the one who comes – King of Israel!”
There can be only one king though. Who would it be, the Roman Emperor or a Jewish peasant?
As the week progresses, the priests and Pharisees grow more anxious. Jesus makes a scene and stirs up the people.
He cleans house at the temple. Turning over the money changers table and causing a stampede of cattle and warning the people that the priests are robbing them. “…and when the chief priests and the scribes heard it, they kept looking for a way to kill him: for they were afraid of him, because the whole crowd was spellbound by his teaching.” (Matthew 11:18)
The next day, Jesus confronts the temple authorities again with a session of Q&A and Matthew tells us, “and the large crowd was listening to him with delight” (12: 37)
By Wednesday Jesus’ popularity had grown even more. The crowds of common people heard from him a message of hope and inclusion that sounded quite the opposite of the oppression they heard from their priests trying to appease Roman rule. “It was two days before the Passover… The chief priests and the scribes were looking for a way to arrest Jesus by stealth and kill him, for they said, ‘not during the festival, or there may be a riot among the people.” (14: 1-3)
On Wednesday, the priests are afraid that there might be a riot if they try and harm Jesus. Yet, we know by Friday everything is different. The crowd of Palm Sunday did not riot to defend Jesus. What happened to those who were so eager to hail Jesus as their new king on Sunday? Yet stood silent to see him executed by Friday? What happened between Wednesday and Friday? Thursday happened.
Thursday is a turning point in this week’s story. When Jesus gathered his flock around gospel shares his instructions and prayers on that last teaching moment.
We come to this table on Maundy Thursday, the night Jesus gave the mandate. “Maundy” is Latin for mandate. The message he shared changed them from a boisterous crowd of Sunday to silent witness on Friday. Just as their parade stood in stark contrast to the military parade on Sunday, their response to the world must stand in sharp contrast to the way of violence of the world, as must ours. He does not rally the troops for violent revolt. He does not call them to take up the clubs, sticks or spears. He does not offer a charge to arms; it is a more difficult charge; it is a charge to love.