The Politics of Passion Week: The Royal Procession
March 20, 2016 § 3 Comments
Some people want a personal and spiritual Jesus who loves and acts above the messiness of the political sphere. But Jesus openly declared his political goal: to establish the kingdom of God. You can’t get much more political than that, especially since a ‘kingdom’ already existed in Judea under the governorship of Rome. You can’t preach and even inaugurate a ‘kingdom’—the kingdom of God—and spend years building a movement around the idea without thinking, talking and doing politics. You don’t actively promote a ‘kingdom,’ however spiritual its central message, when an established kingdom already exists, and not expect political opposition and struggle. You can’t associate with a political dissident who was executed for treason (John the Baptizer) and not have the secret police after you. You can’t publicly (if obliquely) challenge the great imperial power of your time without incurring its wrath. You don’t get tried and then executed for insurrection (Jesus was charged, sarcastically, as “Jesus, King of the Jews” at his crucifixion) by that imperial power unless you are seen as a political threat.
Jesus had been challenging the authorities throughout his ministry. But he had done so in the backwaters of Galilee and the outer corners of the old ideal boundary of Israel, territories not directly under Judean jurisdiction. Against this ‘establishment’, Jesus had, until the last week of his life, wielded only the word and the sign as weapons. Even his most dramatic signs he usually performed on the lost sheep of Israel, not their ‘shepherds’, their religious/political leaders, who almost always rejected his ministry. Against his enemies, he spoke, preached, taught, debated, rebuked or cursed. This ministry of words and signs had tremendous authority and power. But finally, upon arrival at Jerusalem, the time for a ministry of acts had come, a kairos time for Jesus the nazirite.
In the last week of his life, Jesus assailed every one of the functions of the temple state (legal, judicial, governmental, economic and law enforcement) on their home ground with outrageous public acts of defiance. He staged these acts so as to include obvious religious and prophetic elements designed to make his intention clear: he was calling the powers-that-be before God’s bench and proclaiming heaven’s verdict—they were guilty of usurping God’s authority (Rome) and of betraying their charge as shepherd of God’s flock (the Quisling Judean government). The Powers struck back with their own earthly persecution, with prosecution inspired, according to the gospels, by the daemonic prosecutor himself, the Satan. (See the important and fascinating work by Walter Wink on the Powers, here (his website) and here (Amazon.com).)
So let’s follow the events of Passion Week to see how Jesus directly assailed the powers in Jerusalem and their seat in the temple through a concerted campaign intended to invoke the apocalyptic overthrow of the entire establishment. We’ll start with the signature event of Palm Sunday.
The Inaugural Procession: declaring a new government under God
Jesus deliberately orchestrates his entrance on the stage of Jerusalem’s public life around a prophecy: Zechariah 9:9-13. (Many of the other events of Passion Week also revolve around passages in Zechariah.) Jesus has arranged for a mount, an ass—or two, for Matthew seems to have misunderstood the parallelism in Zechariah’s couplet and taken the second line literally; or perhaps Matthew deliberately harmonizes Jesus’ use of two mounts with the gift of two asses to King David in 2 Samuel 15-16, as we discuss below. Either way, the mount clearly ties Jesus to a claim of kingship, a kingship whose mission is to set free the prisoners and throw off the yoke of Roman/Hellenistic domination.
These arrangements for asses as mounts for the king carry a double allusion to Jesus’ royal status. In the episode just before this one in Mark and Matthew, blind Bartimaeus (or two blind men—the accounts differ) hails Jesus as “Son of David.” This takes place just outside Jericho and recalls an episode that occurred in a crisis moment in King David’s career.
In the little village of Bethphage a thousand years before, as David was fleeing his usurper son Absalom’s rebellion, he was met by Ziba the servant of Mephibosheth, the crippled son of Jonathan, Saul’s son, whom David had befriended after Saul and Jonathan’s death. This Ziba met David on the Mount of Olives with two asses and provisions for the royal entourage’s escape. With this help, David rides away from Jerusalem and into temporary exile.
Now, Jesus, the Son of David, rides into Jerusalem into certain confrontation with the latest usurpers of the throne of Judah, the new Absaloms. Both ‘kings’ receive two asses as mounts for their journeys here at the same spot on Mt. Olivet, in Bethphage, the “house of the early ripening fig.” (Jesus will later curse a fig tree for not bearing fruit, even though it is too early in the season. We’ll talk about this later in the week.)
From Bethphage, the procession gets under way. Climbing to the crown of the Mount of Olives overlooking the Temple mount, the familiar yet dramatic pageantry of Palm Sunday unfolds. The people sing a hymn—Psalm 118, a king’s hymn of thanksgiving for his delivery from death and for his military victory–or rather, Yahweh’s victory (see Ps. 118:15-16).
Psalm 118:19-29—the source of the procession hymn on ‘Palm Sunday’
Open for me the gates of righteousness; I will enter and give thanks to the Lord. This is the gate of the Lord; the righteous shall enter through it. I thank you that you have answered me and have become my salvation. The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone. This is the Lord’s doing; it is marvelous in our eyes. This is the day that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it. Save us, we beseech you, O Lord! O Lord, we beseech you, give us success! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord. We bless you from the house of the Lord. The Lord is God; and he has given us light; bind the festal procession with branches, up to the horns of the altar. Your are my God, and I will give thanks to you; you are my God, I will extol you. O give thanks to the Lord , for he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever.
In the poem, the king’s procession enters the gates of the city, the gates of righteousness, and proceeds to the Temple, as Jesus’ procession will do a thousand years later. In verses 23-27—those quoted by the gospels—the voice shifts from first person (the king) to third person, the people. The poem has close affinities with Exodus 15, the ancient victory hymn celebrating Israel’s delivery from their primeval enemy, Egypt.
As the procession approaches the gates, the crowds bestrew the roadway with branches, in fulfillment of the psalm, and also with their cloaks, perhaps as a sign of their commitment to the economics of the reign of God, since cloaks were used as collateral for debts (Mt 5:40).
The city was filling up with pilgrims arriving for Passover, and this street demonstration may have been just one more event at the busy gates, lost in the surge of urban commerce and goings-on—or it may have caused quite a stir. It may have ignited some buzz in the always politically charged atmosphere of this festival, dedicated as it was to remembering Israel’s deliverance from imperial dominance. We know the Romans were in the habit of bringing an extra legion in from Syria to help with crowd control during Passover week.
But Jesus is only warming up. His next stop is the temple and its currency exchange. There, in the very shadow of the primary legion’s fortress, he stages a second demonstration: the spillage—and pillage—of the coinage of the Temple. But that’s tomorrow’s entry.