First Sunday in Lent
Sunday: A Tale of Two Parades
I am sure that some of you were wondering what is going on. We never hear the story of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem on the first Sunday of Lent. This is the scripture we read on Palm Sunday when we have a palm branch in our hand. Some time ago, I read how the Gospel of Mark is the only one of the gospels to mention events for every day of this last week of Jesus’ life. Reading Mark with that focus, it becomes clear that Jesus understood the implications behind each thing he did during this tumultuous time in his life. This Lent I encourage each of us to journey with Jesus through this week and see how his words and actions lead to his arrest and crucifixion. Even more, we will see how they continue to challenge us and our beliefs.
With this intro to the series, let us look at the first day of the last week in Jesus’ life. More than likely there were two processions that entered Jerusalem on that long ago day. The one, led by Pontius Pilate, is not reported in the Bible. We do know that most of the time the Roman governor lived on the Mediterranean coast in the city of Caesarea. Caesarea was a thoroughly Roman city with its arenas, horse racing stadium, and baths. The governor lived there but always came to Jerusalem whenever there was a major religious festival. He brought additional troops and was there to keep an eye on things. If there was going to be an uprising, it would likely occur during these times when the city was packed with religious faithful from all over the world. You have seen in movies how these Roman officials moved with great pomp. Everything about Pilate’s coming to Jerusalem that day would proclaim that here is the one who represents the established order.
We know well the other procession led by Jesus. It represented a different world and faith view. Jesus, entry was a deliberate lampoon of Pilate’s grand entry. Pilate, we can assume, entered Jerusalem either in a large and ornate war chariot or upon a warhorse. Jesus came on a donkey. Pilate had soldiers surrounding him to keep him safe from the sullen crowd. These soldiers would force the crowd to pay their respects to their Roman conquerors. Jesus had disciples walking with him and people surrounding him celebrating his coming to Jerusalem. In all ways, he was drawing a contrast between himself and Pilate.
The High Priest and the temple authorities had a difficult task. Their primary obligation was to Rome. If they wanted to stay in power they had to be seen as loyal, and this meant collaborating with Rome. They made sure the annual tribute to Rome was paid. They maintained domestic peace and order. Their role was to be the intermediaries between the people and Rome. It was a delicate balancing act. They needed to collaborate enough with Rome to keep Rome happy, but not so much as to anger their Jewish subjects. They were in an awkward spot. Jesus’ coming as he did to Jerusalem did not make their job any easier.
Many of the Jews were already angry at the priests for their collaboration, Jesus among them. He often talked against the temple, not because of its religious functions, but because its leaders were the ultimate collectors of the taxes and supporters of Rome. The revolt of 66 C.E., which led to the destruction of the temple and the famous stand at Masada, was first an attack against the temple. The leaders of that revolt removed the high priest, burnt the debt records, and cleansed the temple before they launched an attack against Rome.
The leaders in Jerusalem, wanting to keep their wealth and power and knowing of the anger of the populace, would not have been happy to see Jesus’ prominent entry into the city. They knew any little thing could set off a riot. His entry was a challenge to their power. Jesus clearly understood what he was doing. His entry symbolizes another step on his journey to the cross.
Think again about these two parades. The religious leaders likely saw both. They may not have liked Pilate but they were comfortable with his parade. It represented order and was a reminder that they, along with Pilate, were in control. Jesus represented change and they were uneasy about anything that could upset their place and power. We are always going to struggle between support for what we are comfortable with and words from people calling for change.
In the early church, a call to discipleship was seen as also being a call to pick up one’s cross. The cross had a twofold meaning by the time of the Gospels being written. On the one hand, it represented execution by the empire and usually for the crimes of treason or rebellion. This is how everyone in the empire saw the cross, a reminder to not challenge Rome. But in the early church it had also become a symbol for “the way,” a symbol of one’s willingness to suffer and, if need be, die for one’s beliefs. Being on the way was an invitation to enter into new life by dying to an old life. The cross was seen as the way of transformation. It was a symbol of your commitment to Jesus and to following his teachings no matter the cost.
We need to remember that the conflict we are talking about was not Jesus against Judaism. Jesus was a part of Judaism not apart from it. The conflict is not about priests and sacrifice. Rather his protest was against a temple that focused on compliance instead of faithfulness. His was a Jewish voice about what loyalty to the God of Judaism really meant. Others, like the Essenes of Qumran, were also challenging the actions of the high priest. This dissent is what the leaders did not want voiced. They wanted people to pay their taxes, follow the rules and believe the High Priest when he said that this was also being faithful to God. Someone who talks about true faithfulness, a willingness to stand against systems that oppress, and was willing to sacrifice for his beliefs was threatening. This is how the High Priest came to view Jesus. His entry was a challenge to them, and we will see that he continues to challenge the status quo throughout the rest of the week until his arrest.
The question posed is, which procession are we in this day? Much of what we hear in society and sometimes in the church would encourage us to get in line behind the high priest and accept the parade of Pilate as being the norm. He represents stability and how we have always done things. He represents a system that rewards the wealthy and powerful while ignoring the plight of the poor. The High Priest represents religion that is more concerned with surviving than with being faithful. It is a parade that tells its believers to just go along, do what you are told and God will bless you.
To join Jesus’ parade means that you are willing to speak up for justice for all. It means a willingness to challenge the status quo. It is a faith that causes you to reach out to all with love and not judge. It means you are willing to sacrifice and to risk.
It is hard to join Jesus’ parade. Let me give you a little example of what I am talking about. When I was in Missoula, MT as a seminary intern I went to a meeting of the clergy in the community. It seems that for a number of years there had been an unofficial end-of-the-year party and concert sponsored by the fraternities and sororities. It met at a farm outside of town and the beer flowed in endless rivers. They charged an entrance fee and the proceeds, usually several thousand dollars, had gone to the university library for new book acquisitions. Everyone at the school had turned a blind- eye to this event, pretending not to notice the flyers pasted all over campus. The county Sheriff had given the opinion that it was a private party and what happened at the farm stayed at the farm. The previous year a very drunk student driving back from the event rolled her car and she and her three friends were killed. The school now had decided to try and eliminate the party. They came to see if the churches would host the first alternative event. It seemed like an easy thing to say yes to. I was young and naïve and was astounded at what I heard. The ministers all agreed that the party was a bad thing but they were hesitant to come out publicly against it. They were afraid of retaliation.
Some of their business people might be affected. They were happy to support the alternative party being proposed but didn’t want to be in charge. Finally one pastor, and I am sorry to say he wasn’t a United Methodist, said, “We are a small church but this is the right thing to do. We will make it happen.” His willingness to risk caused others to finally go along. There was an alternative celebration that I believe is still going. The feared backlash from the students didn’t happen. The big party never happened that year, at least that we knew about. The sororities and fraternities did alternative fund raising for the library. But this event shows that most wanted the easy, don’t rock the boat parade and the one that challenged us to risk to be faithful had few early joiners.
There were two parades that day. Which one would you have been a part of? Is it the one you feel called to be in? There is still time to grab a palm branch and get in the right parade.