Palm Sunday has an irony that can hardly be borne. Jesus entered Jerusalem like a king, riding a young donkey, which was supposed to symbolize a triumphant king in peacetime. His disciples formed a large courtly retinue. The people spread palm branches before him and shouted praise. By the following Friday he was dead, rejected by the people of Jerusalem who chose the life of Barabbas, a murderer and insurrectionist, over his and abandoned at least temporarily by even his own closest disciples. If ever there were a failed coup, this was it.
Let us not mistake the seriousness of this point. The people who welcomed Jesus into Jerusalem did indeed treat him like a legitimate king, a descendent of David, who would free Israel from the Romans and establish it as a sovereign kingdom under his own leadership. What Jesus himself really thought about that, we do not know, but he surely did let the people believe that. After finishing the ride into Jerusalem he went straight to the Temple, according to Luke’s account, and drove out the people who made a profit on selling animals to be sacrificed, a kind of cleansing that asserted his own royal authority over the Temple. Whether this Temple incident really happened during his last week or at the beginning of his ministry, as the Gospel of John says, its effect was to convince the Roman governor and the Chief Priests, who had a delicate collaboration, that Jesus was challenging their authority. They expressed no fear of some vague spiritual authority in Jesus. If that were their worry, they would have arrested his major disciples too so as to squelch his religious movement. The civil and priestly leaders were worried only about his rival political authority, which might be given him by the mob of people already upset by the Roman occupation.
The disciples too were expecting a royal victory for Jesus, according to Luke. Remember how they argued about which of them would have the highest status in Jesus’ kingdom. Jesus told them that they would be something like viceroys in his government, each judging one of the twelve tribes of Israel. Pitiful as it seems in contrast to the power of Rome, the disciples on the last night carried swords like a royal bodyguard and attempted to defend Jesus by force when he was arrested. Jesus had asked them to arm themselves before leaving the Passover supper, knowing that the authorities were looking for him.
All of this royal revolution business came to nothing. The Roman authorities stamped out the little threat Jesus posed by arresting and summarily executing him. His disciples abandoned resistance and went underground. Lest we think that the resurrection reversed Jesus’ political fortunes, remember it did not. The resurrection-appearances of Jesus to his disciples constituted brief stops on the way of his ascension into heaven, however you interpret that. Jesus left the field of earthly political combat, and the movement he started remained small and politically weak until it became the established religion of the empire under Constantine three centuries later.
Now perhaps Jesus himself did not intend a political kingdom. Perhaps his popularity as a teacher and healer was exploited by others who did want such a kingdom. According to the Gospel of John, Jesus told Pilate that his kingdom was not of this world, and that if it were his disciples would still be fighting. In Luke’s account, Jesus coyly refused to admit to being the king of the Jews, saying only that “you have said so.” When Jesus was baited about paying taxes to Caesar, he took a coin, pointed out Caesar’s image, and said to give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s, effectively separating political from religious authority and ducking the issue. When his enemies tried to get him to say something seditious to the authority of either the Temple leaders or the Romans, he wiggled out. Of course the gospel accounts we have of all this were written a full generation after the events, and the writers were trying to deal with the fact of the devastating end to any political aspirations Jesus’ early movement might have had. We simply do not know what was in Jesus’ own mind.
Nevertheless, the early Christians drew a clear moral from the events: the authority with which we should be most concerned is God’s authority, not that of political power based on force of arms. When Christians do become engaged in political affairs and exercise political authority, as we should, the power to be sought should not be force of arms but the power of peacemaking. Within the New Testament itself, there is no clear ground for an absolutist pacifist position. I read the New Testament position to be that those with power have the responsibility to protect those without power from harm. This was an elementary meaning of the notion of the messiah from the Hebrew Bible. Having said this, we need to acknowledge Jesus’ consistent preachments to overturn the ordinary worldly power relations. The first shall be last and the last first. The greatest, our text says, meaning the elders, should be like the youngest. The leader is the one who serves, and the Gospel of John illustrated this with the story of Jesus washing the feet of his disciples.
For us Christians today, reflecting on the triumphal entry into Jerusalem and the utter collapse of that project, several conclusions follow.
First, political dominance by force of arms is not a Christian project, however much that might seem tempting to those who have enough arms to overthrow their oppressors. Should they have enough arms to do that and more, we can be practically certain that they would quickly assume the role of oppressors themselves.
Second, Christian engagement in political affairs should be directed by an aggressive campaign of strategic pacifism. By “strategic pacifism” I mean the use of non-violent techniques of the sort employed by Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., to raise consciousness, to embarrass oppressors, and to force the primary issue of hypocrisy, namely, oppression disguised as benevolence. The grace in the world is so rich, and the depths of conscience are so powerful, that strategic pacifism often works. If only the Jewish and Muslim traditions contained strong elements of aggressive non-violence aimed at change for justice, the situation between Israel and Palestine in the Middle East would have been resolved long ago. They do not contain such traditions, however, and we recently have seen Israelis in a helicopter gunship assassinate an old, paraplegic in a wheelchair while leaving his prayers, not an innocent grandfather but the leader of Hamas who had sent children to their deaths as murderous suicide bombers, who in turn justify their actions with something like Nathan Hale’s sentiment, “I regret that I have only one life to give to my country,” outraged by the Israeli occupation of their land, which is deemed necessary to prevent the Palestinians from attacking Israel itself, which was planted by colonial forces that did not respect the 1300 years of Muslim culture in the land, and so forth. Violence breeds violence and the cycle escalates even in the face overwhelming military force on one side. That the United States has adopted the policy of enforcing an occupying power’s political agenda by force in Afghanistan and Iraq after seeing the power of patriotic political insurgence in Palestine, not to speak of remembering the founding years of the United States, boggles the mind.
Third, despite our best Christian efforts at peacemaking, when our own quest for power has become a mirror image of our opponents and the evil consists in the situation of violence itself, we still might have to engage in Christian battle to protect the weak. Reinhold Niebuhr was right that everyone loses in this situation, and the best alternative is the one that loses least in the m
oral scale. Public responsibility to the weak trumps personal virtue in a religion like Christianity that says the self is to be subordinated to the good of others. Glory be to God that Christianity is a religion designed for sinners.
Fourth, even the best strategy of peacemaking and reluctant war-making has no divine guarantee of success. The lesson of Palm Sunday is that even the best political legitimacy, the loftiest ideals, the craftiest peacemaking, and the most strategic mix of persuasion and force can end up on the cross. Christianity does not count on success in the terms of this world’s kingdoms. And we cannot abandon our responsibilities to this world, or draw back from making ultimate sacrifices like Jesus. Despite our best efforts, we might fail to protect the weak and secure justice.
Fifth, the Christians’ real success story has to do with binding our historical lives to God rather than winning on history’s terms. Moreover, the meaning of Palm Sunday is that we cannot relate ourselves to God without full engagement with the world. For Jesus, commitment to the world was a bitter cup. He did not want to drink the cup that God and history had given him. But had he snuck into Jerusalem rather than entering triumphantly, or snuck out of Gethsemane in the dark of night, it would have taught his disciples that the world does not matter. Jesus must have cried when he rode in triumph, knowing he would lose the world’s game. But he bound himself to God in love and turned the losing of the world’s game into truly winning the world. For, to become God’s lover in the midst of history’s confusions and alarms, its blind inertial forces and unbreakable cycles of violence and hatred, is to complete God’s creation in our local place. To be God’s lover means not giving up on the world, for God does not abandon the world. Jesus drank that cup, and so may we. When we are crucified, we each should still be able to say, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” Amen.