There were two very different kinds of processions in the city that week, one right after the other. One involved pom and circumstance, military salutes and cavalry. The other was a little bit rag-tag, seemingly organic in nature. The first was tightly orchestrated with great expectations. The other surprised everyone and surpassed all exceptions. Both were highly political, but they couldn’t have been more different.
I am of course talking about the Presidential Inauguration and the Women’s March on Washington on January 20 and 21 earlier this year. I participated in the Women’s March in my hometown of Olympia, WA where over 10,000 people gathered on the grounds of our state capitol. Around the world an estimated at five million people gathered to advocate for legislation and policies regarding human rights.
People carried signs, wore pink pussy hats, we sang and danced our way down the street, some people waved scarves in the air, children on their parents shoulders towered above the crowed. It was joyful, it was exuberant, it was emotional, it was a sign of resilience and resistance.
It was the week of passover, and people from all over were gathering in the city of Jerusalem. Passover is one of the most important Jewish holiday, celebrating the exodus from slavery in Egypt. At that time, it drew a couple hundred thousand people to Jerusalem. Because it was a time of remembering the Jewish liberation it had been the occasion for riots and revolts against the occupation of the Roman empire. And so it was Roman practice to increase the presence of imperial troops in and around the temple during the days of Passover. The Roman governor Pontius Pilate rode into the city from the west, the head of a procession of imperial cavalry and foot solders. In The Last Week: What the Gospels Really Teach About Jesus' Last Days in Jerusalem, New Testament scholars Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan describe it as , "A visual panoply of imperial power: cavalry on horses, foot solders, leather armor, helmets, weapons, banners, golden eagles mounted on poles, sun glinting on metal and gold. Sounds: the marching of feet, the creaking of leather, the clinking of bridles, the beating of drums. The swirling of dust. The eyes of the silent onlookers, some curious, some awed, some resentful.” Pilate and his army arrive in Jerusalem to maintain order and the status quo.
Rejoice greatly, Daughter Zion.On the over side of Jerusalem, coming in from the east, Jesus and his disciples arrive in a very different kind of procession. Jesus asks two disciples to go into the village outside of Jerusalem and find a young donkey and borrow it. In the Gospel of Mark Jesus says that he will return the donkey to its owner which assuages concerns about holy theft. This donkey really is very important to this story. It speaks volumes about who Jesus was and what message he was preaching. It was a prophetic act, acts that Marcus Borg says, “...were provocative public deeds performed for the sake of what they symbolized, and were called prophetic acts because they are associated with he prophets of ancient Israel.” Jesus is intentionally calling on the prophetic association of the words of the prophet Zachariah, chapter 9 verses 9 and 10,
"Sing aloud, Daughter Jerusalem.
Look, your king will come to you.
He is righteous and victorious.
He is humble and riding on an ass,
on a colt, the offspring of a donkey.
He will cut off the chariot from Ephraim
and the warhorse from Jerusalem.
The bow used in battle will be cut off;
he will speak peace to the nations."
The one who comes riding in on a donkey will bring nonviolent peace. I believe that Jesus knows the people will recognize this prophetic imagery as a symbol that speaks of a kingdom of peace through nonviolence. Across town a parade of pomp and circumstance reminded the Jewish people of who was really in charge, it was an act of intimidation and warning. Jesus enters on the most humble and lowly of animals, the least militaristic animal and the polar opposite of the military warhorses of the Roman empire across town. While many of us grew up with Palm Sunday as a celebration Sunday with parades of children down the isles waiving palm branches is actually a political protest. Borg and Crossan, write "What we often call the triumphal entry was actually an anti-imperial, anti-triumphal one, a deliberate lampoon of the conquering emperor entering a city on horseback..” Jesus’s entry was a planned political demonstration. It was a counterdemonstration to the oppressive empire.
The followers of Jesus, those who traveled with him, those who joined along the way, those who recognize the symbolism and significance of what is happening join in the procession, the protest, they wave they coats, they lay them on the ground to join in the anti-imperial protest, they shout “hosanna” and sing as they march down the street towards Jerusalem. Hosanna is a Greek word with the root meaning, “help, save or rescue” and a suffix that indicates urgency. “Save us now” the people shout, in a literal, save us from our oppression. It is important not to confuse "hallelujah" and "hosanna", hallelujah is praise and hosanna is a cry, save us.
These dueling processions articulate the conflict between the kingdom of Caesar and the kingdom of God, the kingdom of cooperations and the kingdom of human rights. It is another manifestation of the things of the flesh and the things of the spirit. It is this conflict that ultimately kills Jesus. It is this conflict that we still struggle with today.
As the processions marches on, Pharisees come up along Jesus and insist that he disperse the crowd, “tell them to stop”. Are they concerned for everyone’s safety? Are they aware of the prophetic symbolism? Surely they are aware of the danger, but are they followers of Jesus concerned about him or just giving him a “friendly warning”? Either way, Jesus responds, “I tell you, if the people were silent, the stones would shout out.” The beloved kin-dom has been unleashed, there is no going back now, we are walking forward heads-held-high, prepared for days ahead.
As Jesus arrives in Jerusalem he surveys the city and only in the narrative as told in Luke do we have this rich moment, where Jesus weeps over the city. Dismayed and heartbroken, “if only you knew the things that make for peace.” I found myself weeping and saying those same words earlier this week as I heard of the chemical attack on Syrian children and families and again only a day later as I heard that the United States had retaliated with bombing. If only we knew the things that make for peace. Global conflict has no easy solutions, neither did the conflict throughout Judea and in Jerusalem. Even Jesus is dismayed at the state of the world and he grieves for the future the people cannot see, the threat of war, the city of Jerusalem conquered and destroyed. Which happens fifty years later, around 70 CE. Just as Jesus and the Prophets before him, we too weep and cry out for the future our world seems blind to. By not knowing the things that make for peace we are ensuring for ourselves, and the most vulnerable in the world, a future of destruction.
Jesus continues on into the temple, a sprawling courtyard area with a small temple at the center. It was not a sanctuary like we know now, instead it was considered the literal “house of God”, the place where the Divine resided. Out in the courtyard where pubic worship would take place, Jewish pilgrims could purchase animals for sacrifice and exchange their roman-issued coins for “holy” coins, without the face of the emperor. Here Jesus threw out those who were selling sacrificial animals and exchanging money and he turned over tables. Yet, as Marcus Borg writes, “It is inadequate to refer to this as his ‘temple tantrum’…rather, the act looks very intentional.” While this act was very intentional and planned, another prophetic act, it was not intended to be an occupation or take-over and was likely very quick. It is unlikely the source of his outrage were the money changers and sellers, instead Jesus had a deeper message. In Mark’s version, Jesus says “Is it not written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all nations’?” Elsewhere in scripture “nations” refers to “Gentiles”, meaning non-jews. Jesus is proclaiming that the Temple should be open for all people, not just the chosen Jewish people. He is flinging open the doors and proclaiming that no one is to be excluded from the temple. This is the moment where the Government and Jewish leaders begin to plot to kill Jesus. His mockery and counter-protest is offensive and certainly doesn’t gain him any government support, but daring to open the doors of the temple to all people is straight up threatening. A struggle we too know well.
If only we knew the things that make for peace. All are welcome in the temple, God’s holy ground, all are welcome in God’s Kin-dom.
Jesus riding a donkey, making a mockery of empire, and weeping over a city lost to ways of peace and proclaiming the temple open to all people is a powerful message in these days of resisting our own institutions of empire. Crossan and Borg write, “Holy week and the journey of Lent are about an alternative procession and an alternative journey. The alternative procession is what we see on Palm Sunday, an anti-imperial and nonviolent procession.” These weeks of Lent we have been on an alternative journey, these weeks since January I feel I have also been on an alternative journey.
I am not going to head down the slippery slope of projecting which January gathering Jesus would have attended. I can only ask which procession into Jerusalem I would have joined. And you better believe I would have been waiving my coat and shouting hosanna.