Sermon, March 20

Imagine the scene, as Luke tells it in his Gospel. Jesus is seated on a young donkey – maybe his feet nearly scrape the ground. A few cloaks tossed over its back offer a makeshift saddle. His friends and followers are crowded around him, a ragtag bunch,men and women and kids, people of all ages and all stations in life. They’re just outside one of the gates of Jerusalem, the city of David with its ancient walls of golden stone. A crowd has gathered to greet him – the poor, the desperate, the hopeful, the angry. They’ve heard so much about Jesus, this preacher and wonder-worker from Galilee.They hope he may be the promised Messiah, who will throw out the Romans and bring them the fulness of God’s saving power. In excitement and hope, they’re casting their cloaks down on the road. The other three Gospels say they cast down branches, too. Think of the red carpet for royalty or movie stars,the ancient symbolism of creating a special pathway for an honored person.

The donkey stumbles unwillingly forward, crushing leaves under its hooves, grinding cloaks into the dirt, while the gathered crowd cries out, Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven! (That last bit is only in Luke’s account of this scene; he is intentionally inviting his readers to remember the words of the angels announcing Jesus’ birth, way back in chapter 2 – ‘Glory to God in the highest heaven,   and on earth peace among those whom he favours!’)

So: is that scene in your mind? The dusty road strewn with clothes and branches?The chaotic eager shouting crowd? The solemn man seated awkwardly on the too-small donkey?…

Now, place that scene, that little cluster, on a stage. A big stage. Big enough to dwarf this little gathering. And behind our cluster of the humble and hopeful, there is a huge, brightly-colored backdrop,showing another scene happening that very day, elsewhere in Jerusalem, outside another city gate. The Roman governor of the province of Judea,the territory of the Jews, is arriving in Jerusalem. Leaving his luxurious seaside villa up north to put in an appearance at the capital. No donkeys here; big, fine horses for the Governor and his generals, while the soldiers march on foot – that disciplined, steady, united march that carries Roman troops and Roman rule inexorably into Israel, Egypt, Syria, France, Germany, Britain, and beyond.

Today the Great Empire arrives in Jerusalem – to make sure the presence of Rome is felt as the Jews celebrate their feast of Passover. Keep your little customs, says Rome, they do no harm; but as you celebrate this feast of freedom from bondage,as you remember thwarting Pharaoh and escaping Egypt, just remember who’s your master now. The God-Emperor on his throne in Rome recalls the God-King Pharaoh, and his hardness of heart; but Rome will not make Egypt’s mistakes. Rome is stronger than Egypt ever was.

Today the Great Empire arrives in Jerusalem – embodied in Pontius Pilate, the Governor, seated high on his horse,dressed in clean bright colors. Hard-eyed and unimpressed. Embodied in the golden letters SPQR on tall standards carried among the troops, the letters that proclaim Rome the capital of the world, the center of civilization and power. Embodied in the pounding rhythm of the soldier’s feet, the creak of leather armor, the clank of helmets and weapons, the blinding flash of bright impassive sunlight on shields and swords and spears.

There is a crowd here too, to witness the panoply, the power. I don’t think they’re shouting words of welcome or praise – or maybe only a few, those currying favor with the power that rules the world, those who believe their own people don’t deserve independence and appreciate the Romans’ strong law and order approach. Most stand silent, unwilling to praise this “heresy on horseback,”  the god of Roman imperial might, that dares to stand against the God of the Jews, who is the God of everything, all places, all peoples. Most stand silent, children held close lest they dart out in front of that remorseless force, and be trampled underfoot. The people watch the Governor arrive. Awed. Curious. Resentful. Afraid.

See how humble, how tawdry, Jesus’ parade and welcome seem, against that backdrop of color, power, and pomp. But see, too, with both Triumphal Entries on the stage – see the light that Pilate’s arrival casts on Jesus’s. See the irony of the plainly-dressed dusty man on the donkey. See the dark and risky joke that Jesus is telling.

Placing the backdrop of Pilate’s ceremonial arrival behind Jesus on his borrowed donkey is the work of New Testament scholars Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan. They remind us – as Palm Sunday and Good Friday should always remind us – that Jesus’ teaching, his actions, the witness of his life,was both spiritual and political. That Jesus, God among us, was deeply concerned with both the ordering of human hearts and the ordering of human societies.

Debie Thomas wrote about Borg and Crossan’s vision of the day in a 2015 essay called “The Clown King.” She writes that Jesus’ little parade was “an act of political theater, an anti-imperial demonstration designed to mock the obscene pomp and circumstance of Rome…a procession of the ridiculous, the powerless,[and] the explicitly vulnerable.”

Did word of Jesus’ little joke reach Pilate, once he’d settled in at the Governor’s palace in Jerusalem? Did spitting in the face of Rome help ensure that Rome would say Yes to Jesus’ execution, when the chief priests appealed to Pilate for help? Maybe.

I wonder, looking at the smaller scene, the dustier, livelier scene: Did the crowd get the joke? I’m sure many of them did – maybe all of them. You could hardly be unaware of the power of Rome and its symbolic enactment in events like the Governor’s arrival in the city. Everyone would have known Pilate was on his way. These are the people who chose to come meet Jesus, instead.

I find that changes how I imagine the mood, the faces of the crowd. It turns their enthusiasm from tent-revival innocence to a fierce bitter hopefulness not unlike what you hear and see and feel in the the crowds that gather in downtown Madison from time to time.These are people who understood that Jesus was holding up a mirror to the soulless and heartless power of Rome, the power of all human kingdoms. That with his toes dragging the ground on that poor little donkey, he was showing them the emptiness, the absurdity, of all that nonsense.

I think that crowd got the joke. Do we? Two processions, two crowds, welcoming two leaders, representing two very different kingdoms. Thomas writes, “Stallion or donkey? Armor or humor? Emperor or clown? Which will I choose?”

Remember how much Jesus’ choice cost him. Which will we choose?

You can read Debie Thomas’ essay in full here: