Posted: April 4, 2022 in Uncategorized

‘Which Procession?’

Our title is where Palm Sunday begins and ends. The hermeneutic concern or the message for us is clearly ‘which procession are we in?’ Is it one of empire or one of sacred realm? Is it blind faith in the faith of the systems of power and control or is it a n alternative approach? Which procession will we choose? The one of power, control, correctness, and certainty or one of humility, ambiguity, mystery and novel? One of rights and regulation or one of love and grace and inclusion? Is it blind acceptance of a system of adversarial reality or one of hopeful peace? Is it Roman theology that God favours the mighty or one where God is within the fragile, the weak and the poor? Which procession do we choose?

We perhaps need to acknowledge here that the conflict that brought about the crucifixion of Jesus was not a conflict between Jews, Christian Jews and other Jews, nor was it a conflict between Jesus and Judaism, Jesus was a devout Jew and this conflict was a conflict between Jesus and a dominant system that was in conflict with what the dream of God was and could be. It is an alternative social political and military governed world hidden behind the need to protect the populace from the minority by means of power over and control of. Jesus claimed that there was another way and it was so plausible that he was executed by those who would lose the most.

It takes place at the beginning of the most sacred week in the Jewish calendar, the week of Passover and it is the event of two processions, one peasant and one imperial, Both processions about the understanding of the kingdom of God but one a God of the poor, of compassion and love and one a kingdom of power over, control of and empire. These two processions do more than demonstrate the difference, they embody it. Last week I shared David Galston’s take on the war in Ukraine. His view is that Putin has erred in that he has been seduced by the power of empire and he wants to recreate it whereas the Ukraine is similar to the middle east and there is no historically justifyable nationhood. Its history has always been a melting pot of difference and never been a nation controllable by an empirical order.

Another significant thing to note is the place of Jerusalem in this conflict. It begins with the fact that on almost every occasion of a Jewish festival, Roman imperialism was present and participated, not out of reverence for Judaism but as a threat of imposition. Make trouble and we will crush you. We are in control here. Why was this important? Well it was important because Passover was a festival that Celebrated the Jewish people’s liberation from an earlier empire. An anathema to those who depended upon empirical power.

The Roman garrison was permanently stationed overlooking the Jewish Temple and its courts and it was seen as a chore to be stationed there. He mission there was a no win situation because of its resistance to empire-ism. So much so that it was always a stationing that needed adding to at festival times. Pilate and the main cohorts were stationed at Caearea on the Sea, a far better stationing some sixty miles to the West. It was a new and splendid city and far more pleasant that Jerusalem which had become insular, provincial and partisan and often hostile. It was somewhat of a chore to go to Jerusalem and this inevitably led to the imperial nature being flaunted with a very visual panoply of power, cavalry with war horses, soldiers, armour, weapons along with banners and eagles mounted on poles glinting in the sun. One can imagine the sounds of leather, clinking of bridles and the beating of drums all in the face of people with dust swirling around their eyes some awed by the spectacle of power and others resentful of the assumed power. Many silenced by the show of power.

But let’s also be clear here. This was not only a display of imperial power. It was also a show of imperial theology. The emperor was not simply the ruler of Rome but the Son of God. This idea had begun in 31BCE, 0nly 60 years before this day with Augustus whose Father was the god Apollo and Augustus was the saviour, the one who had brought peace on earth. The continuance of this was that he was seen ascending into heaven to take his permanent place among the gods. His successors continued to bear divine titles including Tiberius who was emperor during Jesus time. Palm Sunday then is a political, military and theological confrontation of epic proportion for a small portion of the Roman Empire. However small it was in the scheme of world domination by Rome it was not only a time of rival social order but also a rival theology.

We note here that the gospels differ a bit. Mark tells it as a prearranged ‘counter-procession’ and Jesus planned it in advance. The colt story makes this look like a planned political demonstration and this is reinforced with the link to Zechariah story where the king riding a donkey will banish war from the land, The king will be a king of peace. Implicit almost is the importance of Jerusalem as the place of the sacred temple. We remember here that Jerusalem has been central to the sacred imagination for a millennium. It is the City of God like Rome in the time of Augustin and it was the faithless city, a city of hope and a city of oppression, a city of joy and a city of pain. Sounds familiar does it not? It began its journey around 1000bce when under David all twelve tribes were under one king. We recall also that under David Jerusalem was not only a time of power and glory but also of justice and righteousness. He was associated with goodness, power, protection and justice. This is why the hoped-for deliverer was expected to be the Son of David, a new David indeed a greater David.

We remember here also that Jerusalem was not new to the domination matrix. In the half century after David Jerusalem become the center of a domination system, in this case the organization of a society marked by three features. By Political oppression, the many ruled by the few, the powerful and wealthy elites. Ordinary people had no voice in the shaping of society. By economic exploitation where the greatest percentage of a society’s wealth came from agricultural production, in this case in a preindustrial society where the wealth went to the Roman economy to feed R0me and the elites within Palestinian society in support of that. The gospel’s highlighting of tax collectors and collaborators indicated their influence within the society structures of ownership and commerce. The third aspect was the religious legitimation. These systems were legitimated or justified with religious language. The king or emperor ruled by divine right, the king or emperor was the Son of God the social order reflected the will of God and the powers that be were ordained by God. Of course, religion can also become the source of protests against these claims but in most cases, religion has been used to legitimate the place of the wealthy and powerful in the social order over which they preside.

We remind ourselves about now that none of this is unusual. Most human civilizations operate this way in the case of a non-religious society it is the way things are and the religious society is one where God has set it as that way. Again the empirical power of fear becomes the mainstay of religious thought and practice, believe or die, abbey the call or be the lost sheep. For our story then of Jesus’ last week Jerusalem it is a very significant setting that had come about through the centralization and the building of the single Southern Kingdom of Judah with Jerusalem at its core. We are also aware of its persistence in that for several centuries Jerusalem had been ruled by foreign empires and under them Jerusalem was the center of local government falling in 63BCE under the control of Rome. Here the significant change was that Rome abolished the Jewish monarchy and installed the high priest, in other words the temple as the primary place of collaboration. The Palm Sunday story is a challenge to this systemic power. The primary qualification for inclusion was wealth. Rome trusted the wealthy families as local collaborators with a free hand except for the collecting and paying of the annual tribute owed to Rome.

Of course, we can guess how this went as we are aware of what greed and power over, do, to us and so we hear of Herod executing his own class in the interests of power and control. His goal was to centralize power and control and he made Jerusalem the most magnificent in the Roman Empire. The trouble was that when he too overstepped the mark and spent too much money, he was forced to put pressure on his own sources losing their support to the point that when he died revolts erupted throughout the kingdom. Again, this meant a change for the Temple as Rome having burnt its bridges with local politicians e.g. Herod, it transferred control to the temple. It was of course very likely that the elite families created by Herod had provided the Priests and so the domination system continued this time under the umbrella of the Temple. Here the economics of society became intertwined with the economics of religion and local taxes became tithes paid to the priesthood amounting to over 20% of production. Another plus was the festivals when the 40 thousand Jerusalem inhabitants would become hundreds of thousands during festivals. All this meant that the temple authorities had a balancing act on their hands. How to make sure the annual tribute to Rome was paid while maintaining the domestic peace and order. Rome did not want rebellions. It was better that one man die than the whole nation be destroyed.

This was the Jerusalem that Jesus entered on Palm Sunday. His message was deeply critical of the temple and its role in the domination system. Alongside this is the Essenes who rejected the legitimacy of the present temple and priesthood and who looked forward to the day when they would be restored to power. Here we have the environment for the 66CE revolt that was directed as much against the temple collaborators as it was against Rome itself.

Again, this is the Jerusalem that the two processions enter into on Palm Sunday. The City of God is in trouble and we know it did not survive the first century. One of those processions was about the empire of Rome and the other was about the empire of God.

Borg and Crossan write: “Jesus’ procession deliberately countered what was happening on the other side of the city.  Pilate’s procession embodied the power, glory, and violence of the empire that rules the world.  Jesus’ procession embodied an alternative vision, the [empire] of God…  The confrontation between these two kingdoms [or empires] continues through the last week of Jesus’ life” (Borg & Crossan 2006:4-5).

Well, all that is about way back then.  What about now? What can we resonate with in 2022? There continues to be two visions of how we are to be human, religiously politically and socially. However the reality is that the current generation is a now generation with no interest in what was and no energy for what might be. They understand change and they now that it is beyond current systems of order and hope.  I asked an eighteen year-old what he saw as hopeful in his world and his response was I don’t know I just get on doing the now. Sometimes the vision from both the empire and the church seem very similar. As in the prosperity theology of such places as Destiny Church and the like.- the mega-church models that we hear have got it right and from such people as those of the “hysterically religious” (Spong 2007:9), such as those who preach a violent God. They say that “Some day we may blow ourselves up with the bombs… But God’s going to be in control… If God chooses to use nuclear war, then who are we to argue with that” (Jones, Quoted in Crossan 2007:199).

Sometimes the church has just got it wrong about Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem, which has resulted in a racist theology and overt racism. Sometimes the church has got it wrong socially and Priests and powerful religious exploit the vulnerable and the gentle. Sometmes churches get it wrong and become overwhelmed by economic greed and wealth. Again the downside of empire-ism. Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem was not against Judaism, not against the Temple as such, not against the priesthood or Temple leaders. It was, suggests biblical scholar Dom Crossan, a protest by one within Jewish society “against Jewish religious co-operation with Roman imperial control” (Crossan 2007:132).

And there have been many within the Global society who have protested against imperial control which has led nations to detain refugees in prison-like conditions. To wage war on countries through the spectacles of terrorism, but really through the hip pocket of ‘oil’ 
and to abandon citizens overseas, for political expediency. Most times the church has misunderstood Jesus’ journey, calling it ‘the triumphal entry into Jerusalem’. It was not triumphal.  Actually it was an anti-triumphal entry in its core expression. It was metaphorical. But regardless, sections of the church decide to take to the city streets to ‘march… demonstrating the power of Easter’ in gatherings of piety and triumphalism! But… and you will probably suggest I often have a ‘but’. But this is all very serious. 

I want to finish with a flourish by asking what if there is just a touch of humour in all this. Jesus’ stories – we call them parables – often had a humorous side to them. So, what if his particular  ‘Palm Sunday’ procession also had a touch of humour to it? Was the peasant procession taking the mickey’ out of the other, pompous procession? Maybe the emperor is not wearing any clothes after all!

What if Palm Sunday, if it is anything, draws us into the reality of this world. It is an invitation to continue to view the world differently. Barbara Brown Taylor in an article in The Christian Century, wrote: “When I listen to the most devoted followers of Jesus, they tell me what it costs to love unconditionally, to forgive 70-times-seven, to offer hospitality to strangers, and to show compassion for the poor.  These are essential hallmarks of Jesus’ ministry, which no followers of his can ignore…  What I hear less about from Jesus’ followers is what it costs to oppose the traditions of the elders, to upset pious expectations of what a child of God should say or do, to subvert religious certainty, and to make people responsible for their own lives. Yet all of these are present in his example too” (Taylor 2007). And, sometimes that can take some real doing! Amen.

Notes:
Borg, M; J. D. Crossan. 2006. The Last Week: A day-by-day account of Jesus’ final week in Jerusalem. New York. HarperSanFrancisco.
Cox, H. 1969. The Feast of Fools. A Theological Essay on Festivity and Fantasy. Cambridge. Harvard University Press.
Crossan, J. D. 2007. God and Empire. Jesus Against Rome, Then and Now. New York. HarperSanFrancisco.
Patterson, S. J. 2004. Beyond the Passion: Rethinking the Death and Life of Jesus. Minneapolis. Fortress Press.
Spong, J. S. 2007. Jesus for the Non-religious. New York. HarperSanFrancisco.
Taylor, B. B. 2007. “Something about Jesus” in The Christian Century, 3 April. Web site.

rexae74@gmail.com

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