A sermon preached on Palm Sunday, 2007 based on the 19th chapter of Luke, entitled “Why Jesus Had to Die”.
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, perhaps 40,000 people lived in the city of Jerusalem, but 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 revolved around the ancient story of the Exodus, of how the Jewish people had once been oppressed by another great political and military power, Egypt, led not by Caesar but 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 were 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, and the requirement that all people acknowledge his divinity and the authority of his kingship or pay the price. 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 note he pre-arranged. 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 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, where he proceeded to drive 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 of not only their religious life, but their economic life as well.
The Jewish law, with its complex system of 612 laws governing every aspect of Jewish 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 profited 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 enter, right now, into 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 arrives 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.
But Jesus came on a donkey, not a warhorse, confronting the system, but refusing to engage in violence to overthrow it. Central to his message was that violence is wrong — that violence, and the threat of violence, is how the system of oppression is enforced, and he refused to use violence. Years later, others: Gandhi, and Martin Luther King, to name a couple, will follow his example, and they too would be murdered.
(One plausible theory of why Judas betrayed Jesus was that he was looking to trigger a violent rebellion by the hundreds of thousands of Jews in the holy city.)
Why is it that the social and political dynamics at work that conspired to bring about his death are so little understood in the Church? Perhaps it is because with Emperor Constantine’s conversion to Christianity in 313 AD, Christianity essentially became the establishment religion of Western Culture. Up until then it had been on the outside looking in; from then on, the Church could no longer identify with those who were being crushed by the status quo. To large extent, the Church became invested in the status quo. And so the ancient story of Jesus’ death was detached from its context. Jesus, the champion of the oppressed, was given a makeover: he became the patron saint of the status quo.