Understanding What Was at Stake


A sermon preached on Palm Sunday, March 28, 2010, based upon Luke 19: 29-40.

I have become convinced that, for the most part, we have been kept from understanding exactly what was going on when Jesus arrived in Jerusalem on that original Palm Sunday.

For one thing, there were, in all likelihood, two processions that entered Jerusalem that that day. From the east side of the city came the one we are familiar with, consisting of a wandering preacher whose ministry up until that point had been exclusively in the towns and villages, the countryside of the Israel. He came riding a lowly donkey, and he was welcomed by peasants.

On the west side of Jerusalem, Pilate, the Roman governor, would have led a awe-inspiring military procession with cavalry on horses, helmets glistening, banners rippling, drums beating, the swirling of dust. This demonstration of military power was intended to intimidate the Jewish people with an explicit message: do not challenge this power or you will be crushed.

Pilate did not live in Jerusalem; he preferred the splendor of his palace down by the seashore, but he made a point of being on hand whenever the people over whom the Emperor had given him dominion were having a major festival.

And Passover was the greatest of all Jewish festivals. In those days, approximately 40,000 people lived in the city of Jerusalem; during Passover the population would briefly swell to 200,000 as Jewish pilgrims from all parts of Israel and beyond would descend upon the city. The potential revolutionary meanings of Passover could not have been missed by the Romans: the festival revolves around the ancient story of the Exodus, describing how the Jewish people had once been oppressed by another great political and military power, Egypt, led by Pharaoh, and how God with a mighty hand had delivered the people from the hands of their oppressors. Given the combination of the stirring themes of Passover and the crowds of pilgrims, if there was going to be an uprising against the authority of Rome, this would surely be the time for it to happen. You don’t get to be an empire without making a habit of being well prepared for all contingencies, and so the procession that Pilate led that day brought massive reinforcements of soldiers into the city.

A theology was on display that day with the Roman procession, one declaring Caesar as the son of God. All people within the empire were required to acknowledge his divinity and the authority of his kingship or be destroyed.

Jesus would have been well aware of this other procession, and in the light of it, his procession was something of a counter demonstration, which the Gospels clearly describe him organizing in advance. In a bit of street theater, Jesus comes riding not on an armored battle horse like Pilate, or Caesar, but rather a lowly donkey — the fulfillment of a prophecy in Zechariah (9:9 – 10), proclaiming not the Kingdom of Caesar, but rather the peaceable Kingdom of God.

Both processions that day converged in the vicinity of the Temple: the Roman procession would have found its destination in the garrison permanently stationed at Fortress Antonio, overlooking the Jewish temple and its courts. Jesus, Luke tells us, went directly to the Temple itself, pausing only to weep over the city and to lament the fact that they were unwilling to embrace the “things that make for peace.” At the Temple Jesus drove out those who were selling things there. Angrily he quoted from the prophets: “It is written, “My house shall be a house of prayer”; but you have made it a den of robbers.”

In doing so, Jesus sealed his fate: death upon the cross. In order to understand why this was so, we need to appreciate the place the temple held in ancient Jewish life. Over time, it had become the very center not only of their religious life, but of their economic life as well.

The Jewish law, with its complex system of 612 laws governing every aspect of daily life was pretty much impossible to keep, especially for the poor peasants who, unlike the Pharisees, did not have the resources required to devote themselves to the keeping of the Law in all its intricacies. The burden of the law meant that the mass of peasants were consigned to essentially exist in a constant state of sin and guilt. The Temple mediated not only God’s presence but also God’s forgiveness. It was the only place where the animal sacrifices required by the Law could be made that re-established a right relationship with God. And so the religious system of the day required that these poor peasants make annual pilgrimages to the Temple in Jerusalem in order to be released from the burden of their guilt — pilgrimages that they hardly could afford.

The massive arrival of all these peasant pilgrims brought an enormous influx of money to Jerusalem. Once in the city, pilgrims would need to exchange their forms of money for the local currency, for a fee, of course, in order to pay their Temple tax, as well as purchase the required animals — ritually unblemished, as required by the law. Hence, the presence of both the money changers and the merchants selling animals in the courtyards of the Temple, turning a profit at the expense of the poor.

And so you see, there were a whole class of people — thousands of establishment people, largely located there in Jerusalem — who lived off the system as it had evolved over the years. A tacit understanding had developed between the Romans on the one hand — whose only concern was that the authority of Rome not be challenged — that there be no rebellions — and the wealthy elite of Jerusalem on the other hand who profited so nicely from “the way things were.” Together they conspired to keep the status quo in tact, because it meant stability for the Romans and wealth and power for the Jewish authorities who lived at the top of the system that dominated the people.

The Romans were happy to turn over authority for collecting the taxes required to fuel their empire to the wealthy elite of Jerusalem, which, of course, provided yet another opportunity for those on the inside to turn a profit: Collect more than Rome required, and well, the extra would get to remain in their pockets.

Now here is something you may not have thought of before: the people who profited from this system were largely located in the big city of Jerusalem. It was out in the villages and in the countryside that the peasants lived, scratching out an existence off the land, suffering under the oppression of this system. And it was in the villages and countryside that Jesus’ ministry had exclusively operated up until this moment of confrontation when on Palm Sunday Jesus entered Jerusalem for the very first time.

And consider again what Matthew, Mark and Luke tell us was Jesus’ basic message from the outset: The kingdom of God is at hand; forgiveness is available, right now. You don’t have to travel all the way to Jerusalem; all you have to do is turn your heart to God who is merciful and begin a new walk with God.

To the peasants in the villages and countryside, this truly was good news, and they responded enthusiastically to his message. For those tied into the present system — the scribes and the Pharisees and the Temple authorities and the merchants whose business operated in relation to the Temple — Jesus’ message was a big time threat. There was a lot of money, a lot of power, at stake here.

You remember that time Jesus was preaching in the house in the village of Capernaum and they lowered the paralyzed man on the stretcher and Jesus said, “My son, your sins are forgiven”? You remember the reaction of the Scribes, invested as they were in the system: “This is blasphemy! Who can forgive sins but God alone!” The implication was, of course, that the only way God would forgive sin was by the whole grueling process of the pilgrimage to the Temple, which, curiously enough, meant money in the pockets of those who operated the system.

John the Baptist had preached something quite similar, announcing that forgiveness of sins were available through repentance — there was no need for the trip to Jerusalem. And you remember what had happened to him? He got beheaded. (Talk like that just can’t be allowed to go on.) This is what happens when you confront the system.

For some time, Jesus had been slowly making his way to Jerusalem. Everyone recognized that when Jesus arrived he would confront the very religious, economic and political system that existed at the heart of Jewish life, oppressing the poor both spiritually and economically while making the rich fat and happy, not to mention richer.

Jesus knew he would die in the process. He’d been telling his disciples, but they couldn’t hear him. They had hoped that when Jesus arrived in Jerusalem, God would intervene, bringing down both the religious elite and the Roman overlords. Given the power of God they had witnessed in Jesus’ ministry, it wasn’t an altogether unreasonable hope. After all, they were convinced he was God’s messiah and had witnessed extraordinary power in his ministry.

But Jesus came on a donkey, not a warhorse. This is a critical point. Although he came speaking truth to power, refusing to back down, he also came with a commitment to love the enemy and not to engage in violence. He saw clearly that you cannot fight evil with evil.

The most plausible theory for why the disciple Judas betrayed Jesus was that he was refused to follow Jesus in the way of non-violence. He recognized a critical moment with city filled with Jewish pilgrims filled with resentment for Rome’s domination. Judas figured that when word spread that Jesus had been arrested, the spark that would ignite the forest fire who had been struck. Tens of thousands would take to the streets and a violent revolution would be underway.

When Jesus was arrested the Gospels record that a disciple raised a sword to fight back, and Jesus admonished him to give up the sword. Jesus knew that those who lived by the sword would die by the sword.

In 313 AD the Roman Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity, and the Church suddenly found itself a part of the establishment, a position it would hold essentially up to the present. From that perspective, the original context of Jesus’ challenge to the establishment got obscured.

Too easily we call ourselves “Christians” without taking seriously the radical nature of his message that we are to both challenge the social injustice of this world, and love our enemies. It remains, however, the only path that leads to peace.

Walter Wink tells a powerful story of Jew following the way of Jesus in our modern society:

On a Sunday morning in June 1991, Cantor Michael Weisser and his wife, Julie, were unpacking boxes in their new home, when the pyhone rang. “You will be sorry you ever moved into 5810 Randolph St., Jew boy,” the voice said, and hung up. Tow days later, the Weissers recevied a manila packet in the mail. “The KKK is watching you, Scum,” read the nate. Inside were pictures of Adolf Hitler, caricatures of Jews with hooked noses, blacks with gorilla heads, and graphic depictions of dead blacks and Jews. “The Holohaux was nothing compared to what’s going to happen to you,” read one note.

The Weissers called the police, who said it looked like the work of Larry Trapp, the state leader, or “grand dragon,” of the Ku Klux Klan. A Nazi sympathizer, he led a dadre of skinheads and lansmen responsible for terrorizing black, Asian and Jewish families in Nebraska and nearby Iowa. “He’s dangerous,” the police warned. “We know he makes explosives.” Although confined to a wheel chair because of late-stage diabetes, Trapp, forty-four, was a suspect in the firebombings of several African Americans’ homes around Lincoln and was responsible for what he called “Operation Goodk,” the March 1991 burning of the Indochinese Refugee Assistance Center in Omaha. (He later admitted to these crimes.) And Trapp was planning to blow up the synagogue where Weisser was the spiritual leader.

Trapp lived alone in a drab efficiency apartment. On one wall he kept a giant Nazi flag and a doube-life-sized picture of Hitler. Next to these hung his white Klan robe, with its red belt and hood. He kept assault rifles, pistols, and shotguns within instant reach for the moment when his enemies might come crashing through his door to kill him. In the rear was a secret bunker he’d built for the coming “race wars.”

When Trapp launched a white supremacist TV series on a local public access cable channel — featuring men and women saluting a burning swastika and firing automatic weapons– Michael Weisser was incensed. He called Trapp’s KKK hotline and left a message on the answering machine. “Larry,” he said, “do you know that the very first laws that Hitler’s Nazis passed were against people like yourself who had no legs or who had physical deformities or physical handicaps? Do you realize you would have been among the first to die under Hitler? Why do you love the Nazis so much?” Then he hung up.

Weisser continued the calls to the machine. Then one day Trapp picked up. “What the f___ do you want?” he shouted. “I just wanted to talk to you,” said Weisser. “You black?” Trapp demanded. “Jewish,” Weisser replied. “Stop harassing me,” said Trapp, who demanded to know why he was calling. Weisser remembered a suggestion of his wife’s. “Well, I was thinking you might need a hand with something, and I wondered if I could help,” Weisser ventured. “I know you’re in a wheelchair and I thought maybe I could take you to the grocery store or something.”

Trapp was too stunned to speak. Then he cleared his throat. “Thart’s okay,” he said. “That’s nice of you, but I’ve giot that covered. Thanks anyway. But don’t call this number anymore. “I’ll be in touch,” Weisser replied. During a later call, Trapp admitted that he was “rehinking a few things.” But then he went back on the radio spewing the same old hatreds. Furious, Weisser picked up the phone. “It’s clear you’re not rethinking anything at all!” After calling Trapp a “Liar” and “hypocrite,” Weisser demanded an explanation.

In a surprisingly tremulous voice, Trapp said, “I’m sorry I did that. I’ve been talking like that all of my life… I can’t help it… I apologize!” That evening the cantor led his congregation in prayers for the grand dragon.

The next evening the phone rang at the Weissers’ home. “I want to get out,” Trapp said, “but I don’t know how.” The Weissers offered to go over to Trapp’s that night to “break bread.” Trapp hesitated, then agreed, telling them he elived in apartment number 3. When the Weissers entered Trapp’s apartment, he burst into tears and tugged off his two swastika rings. Soon all three were crying, then laughing, then hugging.

Trapp resigned from all his racist organizations and wrote apologies to the many people he had threated or abudsed. When, a few months later, Trapp leanred that he had less than a year to live, the Weissers invited him to move into their two bedroom, threechildren home. When his condition deteriorated, Julie quit her job as a nurse to care for him, sometimes all night. Six months later he converted to Judaism; three months after that he died.

Most people who are violent have themselves been the victims of violence. It should come as no surprise, then, to learn that Larry Trapp had been brutalized by his father and was an alcoholic by the fourth grade.

Loving our enemies my seem impossible, yet it can be done. At no point is the inrush of divine grace so immediately and concretely perceptible as in those moments when we lot go of our hatred and relax into God’s love. No miracle is so awesome, so necessary, and so frequent. (“The Powers that Be,” by Walter Wink pp. 172 – 175)

We may not find ourselves confronted with the sort of blatant violence that Michael Weisser contended with, but in our own way, we can follow Jesus, and in our own little corner of the universe, to speak truth to power, to love our enemies, and embody forgiveness.

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