Back when the Temple still stood in Jerusalem, before the year 70 CE, when Rome put down an uprising by turning it into a pile of rubble, it was the Jews’ sacred duty to make the pilgrimage to Jerusalem every year at the time of the Passover. Imagine a main road into the city, into which paths from all the villages between Galilee and Jerusalem fed, so that, at first, it is a trickle of people… you might see the same numbers any day people went from one place to another to go to market. But the nearer to Jerusalem the road winded, the thicker the crowds became, as villagers met with other villagers on their pilgrim way. As they neared the city, the mood became festive—this was, after all, their great festival week! It was then the pilgrims began to sing psalms of celebration, and one of the psalms they sang together was Psalm 118: “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!”
“Hosanna!” the people cry, a Hebrew word meaning, “God save us! Save us, Lord!”
One year, around the year 30 CE, Jesus was a part of those crowds. And the gospels tell us, those crowds—largely crowds of peasants, the same people Jesus has been teaching, preaching to, feeding, and healing—these people were singing the psalm as they neared the city, as they climbed the Temple mount. “Hosanna!” they sang, and as Jesus approached, riding on a donkey, they waved branches at him. Mark says they waved “leafy branches,” but all the other gospels tell us, they were palm branches, palms, which are symbols of peace, and victory, and everlasting life.
It is a glorious scene. It is a carnival, it is a parade, it is a protest march, they are marching for their very lives. And Jesus is their champion.
But there was another procession that day in Jerusalem, too. Because this was the time of the year when Jews returned to Jerusalem on pilgrimage, the Roman government fretted over their numbers flooding the occupied city. And so, while Jesus descended the Mount of Olives from the east before the road rose again to the Temple mount, the Roman legions were marching into the city from the west. The authors of the book, The Last Week: write:
Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor of Idumea, Judea, and Samaria, entered Jerusalem at the head of a column of imperial cavalry and soldiers… They did so, not out of empathetic reverence for the religious devotion of their Jewish subjects, but to be in the city in case there was trouble…Imagine the imperial procession’s arrival in the city. A visual panoply of imperial power: cavalry on horses, foot soldiers, 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.[i]
One city. Two parades, processions. On the one hand, the procession of the poorest and humblest people—the people you might call the “losers”—is the place where we find Jesus. On the other hand, the procession with the military power and the economic power—the horses, the weapons, and the gold—is the place we find the government, Rome’s representative, Pontius Pilate.
Pilate isn’t in our reading this morning. But without doubt, he and the power he represents is troubling the hearts of the people who wave branches and throw down their cloaks to make way for Jesus. In ancient literature outside the gospels, Pilate is known for his harsh and unyielding rule, for putting down uprisings and insurrections with an iron fist. In fact, he is so harsh that the Emperor Tiberius eventually relieves him of his duties as governor and recalls him back to Rome.
Pilate’s purpose in Jerusalem at this precise moment is to keep order. After all: the Jews are celebrating the Passover. They are gathering in Jerusalem to commemorate a time when they were liberated from oppression. They are remembering when Moses led the Hebrew slaves out of Egypt, leaving the Egyptians with significant military and financial losses, not to mention the deaths of their firstborn sons. Pilate’s presence and the occupying forces signal this: no such insurrection will happen under their watch. They have their eyes on everything and everyone connected with this Passover celebration.
They have their eyes on Jesus.
No wonder the people’s expectations of Jesus have risen to such heights. This man, who preaches good news to the poor and release to the captives, walks his talk and welcomes children and blesses them, who heals the sick and binds up the broken-hearted, who gathers at table to share meals with outcasts and who welcomes sinners… of course the expectations on Jesus have exploded. He is the one, he is the one from the house of King David whom they believe to be anointed for this moment, to overthrow this government. He is the Messiah.
But if we have been listening to Jesus these weeks of Lent, or even before, we suspect his plans don’t align with the people’s hopes for a military action, for the overthrow of this brutally efficient government. A bloody coup is not the mind of Christ. In fact, his plans are better described in our first reading from Paul’s letter to the Philippians.
Jesus’ plan is not to fill the shoes of King David, but to empty himself, to pour himself out.
Jesus’ plan is not to rule, but to serve, to become a slave.
Jesus’ plan is not to exalt, but to humble himself.
Jesus’ plan is to stand up to Rome, but not in search of power. His plan is to remain obedient to God, whose Spirit has been guiding him every step along this journey to Jerusalem.
Jesus’ plan, much to his disciples’ dismay, is to be obedient even to the point of death, death on a cross.
This is because the mind of Jesus is somehow attuned to the mind of God, and God’s way is not the way of parading armies. It is the way of humility. It is the way of gentleness. It is the way of truth-telling—and that is what Jesus will be doing throughout the days to come. He will be standing in the Temple, teaching what he knows to be the truth, even though it enrages everyone with the weapons of war and of religious power at their disposal.
Jesus will be speaking the word of God, that word that is living, and active, and sharper than a double-edged sword; that word that has the ability to pierce the heart, to peel away falsehood and to reveal, at last, God’s truth.
Two processions, two parades enter Jerusalem this day. One of them comes from Rome to the west, and the other, from the Mount of Olives to the east. One parade features the sound of boots marching and the clanking of weapons; and the other, the sound of singing. One of them possesses the weapons of fear, and is designed to threaten and intimidate; and the other is a spontaneous celebration of hopes and dreams for a future that is free from fear, whose secret weapon is love divine, all loves excelling.
“Hosanna!” the people cry, “Hosanna! God save us! Save us, Lord!”
And Jesus rides the little donkey into the great city and prepares to do just that.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
[i] Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan, The Last Week: A Day-by-Day Account of Jesus’ Last Week in Jerusalem (San Francisco, CA: HarperSanFrancisco, 2006), 2-3.