I am teaching a Religious Education class again for a few weeks this term. I did this for over twenty years but took a break a while back. This time round I have Year Four, the class my oldest grandson is in, (at another school) so it's easy for me to get down to their level. We had lots of fun talking about the Easter cupcakes they had all made and why bunnies and chickens have anything to do with Jesus. We''ll revisit that next time but for this week our story was the Entry into Jerusalem - Palm Sunday - which I had preached about on Sunday, so the stuff was fresh in my mind. We spoke about my memories of welcoming the Queen (in 1953!) and about today's heroes, the All Blacks or the Hobbit movie stars, and we reflected on a man who rode into the Holy City on a humble donkey.
We often think of Palm Sunday as a children's event – and this week the kids at our church joined the end of our service in an enthusiastic palm-waving parade to "Hosanna Rock". But the story is far from innocent; its profoundly political. There is a huge amount of symbolism and it takes us from the gates of Jerusalem right into the heart of the gospel.
The Bible tells us (eg in Luke 19) the crowds welcomed Jesus with palms, cheers and coats laid on the ground. Passover is a season of religious fervour and national identity, and they would have had in mind another Jewish hero from 200 years before. Simon Maccabeus was a Jewish leader in the reign of the brutal Greek king Antiochus Epiphanes. The Maccabees - which means "hammers" - had led a full-scale revolt against this pagan king. The campaign was eventually successful and Judean independence was restored for 100 years. In the year 170 BC the Jews celebrated by entering Jerusalem "with praise and palm branches, and with harps and cymbals and stringed instruments, and with hymns and songs, because a great enemy had been crushed and removed from Israel" (I Maccabees 13:51, in the Apocrypha)
Palms had become a symbol of Jewish nationalism, a political statement like a flag is today. Knowing the story of the Maccabees held us understand the thinking of those who brought palm branches to welcome Jesus. They are hoping that he is coming to "crush and remove" another great enemy of Israel, this time Rome. The people shouted Hosanna – a call for salvation – and blessed the king of Israel. Jesus had been teaching about the kingdom in the days leading up to Passover - a risky thing to do because Israel was under the occupation forces of Rome. Caesar was the new bad guy and he was just as bad as Antiochus. For the subjugated citizens of Israel, the Roman emperor was to all intents and purposes king, and not only King but God; that was how Caesar Augustus saw himself. Coins of his day were stamped with his image and the wording ‘son of the divine.’ People were expected to declare ‘Caesar is Lord’ and give him honour and even worship. So to call Jesus king was provocative, because there wasn’t such a king. There was only Caesar the emperor, Pilate the Roman governor and Herod the tetrarch, seen by many as a useless puppet.
Jesus is engaged in some symbolism of his own. He has entered by the East gate, the golden gate. It is now sealed but in Jesus’ day it was the direct way into city from the Mount of Olives, and it was the way the promised Messiah was expected to come. He rides through that gate – something a king or general would do. But he rides a donkey, a gentle animal of peace, rather than a horse, the powerful beast of war. Jesus came into Jerusalem as the Prince of Peace foretold by Zechariah, not as the warrior king for whom the people longed.
John Ortberg writes in his 2012 book "Who is this Man?" (that we have used for our Lenten sermon series this year) that there were three main ways Jews of that day responded to this regime. The Zealots wanted to revolt – to use violence to overthrow the Romans. They were freedom fighters, whose intentions were not felonious; they had God’s purposes at heart. One of the disciples was Simon the Zealot.
The Essenes wanted to withdraw. We know them from the Dead Sea Scrolls, they were a desert-based community who devoted themselves to a life of purity, which meant taking ritual baths many times a day. They are not mentioned explicitly in the gospels but it may well be that the man carrying a jug of water to the upper room was an Essene; anyone else in Jerusalem would have used a woman to draw water but the Essenes were a male-only group.
The Sadducees wanted to assimilate. They were pragmatic. The best way to maintain their influence was to collaborate with those who held the power. So they cooperated with the collecting of taxes for Caesar. Most of them were aristocrats, men with high social, political and religious status, like the priests in the Temple at Jerusalem.
Three options: Revolt Withdraw Assimilate. Ortberg notes how Jesus got into strife with each of these groups. He healed a Roman soldier’s servant and praised his pagan master’s faith. Jesus didn’t serve Caesar but neither did he hate him. That didn’t go down well with the Zealots. But they were not the only group he offended. When he seemed to ignore the Jewish purity regulations, by touching lepers, eating with prostitutes and associating with Gentiles, he not only enraged the Pharisees but challenged the Essene way of life. And he also refused to join in with the elite Sadducees, who leveraged power by collaborating with the Roman forces of occupation. So what did Jesus think of political power? The answer to that question helps explain why after a glorious welcome he ends up dead by the end of the week. In Luke 20, just after Luke’s description of the triumphal entry, we read of a question about political power and hear the astute response Jesus gave:
“Then give back to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” Luke 20:20- 26)
John Ortberg says that second phrase was to change the world. There are things that are not Caesar’s. This carpenter from Galilee, we have learned this term, changed the world’s thinking - about women and children and slaves and learning and dignity and humility. In chapter 8 of Ortberg's book, see see how Jesus changed people's thinking about politics and religion, which in ancient world were closely intertwined,. Jesus says Caesar is not the top of the heap. Caesar is not the one who decides the value of human being. Caesar is not the one to whom ultimate allegiance belongs. In Jesus’ economy, Caesar is not Lord. Religion and politics were no longer intertwined.
This was a major breakthrough in human thought. It's called "limited government" or the "separation of church and state". Ortberg quotes historian Robert Wilken:
“This was different understanding of religion, a loosening of the ties that bound religion to the social and political world."
And another (second century) writer who wrote this of Christians:
"They dwell in their own country, but only as sojourners… Every foreign country is a fatherland to them, and every fatherland is a foreign country."
Followers of Jesus had to wrestle with this and they didn’t always get it right. Down through history the tension between the Jesus community and the earthly rulers created unease and persecution and shameful abuse of power on both sides. But it is also a legacy that helped shape the Western world. It is inherent in documents like the Book of Dooms, the Magna Carta, and the US constitution. Read the book if you want to grasp this philosophical concept more fully.
There are things that are not Caesar’s. In Jesus, said Ortberg, "the uncontested power of human rulers had met its match. And Jesus had signed his own death warrant." Powerful people were deeply discomfited by this man who, they said to Pilate, was not a friend of Caesar. By the end of the week, the tide of popularity had turned. Our Good Friday contemplative service today took us down a winding path strewn with withered branches. The same people who shouted Hosanna, cried Crucify. Jesus was accused of blasphemy by the religious establishment and convicted of treason by the politicians, and put to death on a Roman Cross.
Jesus could have fought; that’s what the Zealots wanted. He could have run away and joined the Essenes. He could have collaborated like the Sadducees. He could have called down the hosts of heaven. He did none of those things, because every one of those options would have meant dead Jews or dead Romans or both. Jesus didn’t want anyone to die. Jesus loved everybody and it cost Him His life.
He sized up the situation, says Ortberg in a 2011 sermon, and did exactly what would be needed to fulfil God’s purpose of redemption. Your will not mine be done. Or as Caiaphas said, unwittingly announcing the gospel of Christ: "It is better that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish." Jesus embraced his destiny and died, and the little community he founded had a chance to grow and flourish and, like their Master, to change the world.
When we see the children wave their branches and enjoy the fun and laughter, let us also remember that the reason we still celebrate with palms and children is because of what happened the rest of this week, because of the God-given destiny of this man Jesus, a man who changed the world.
To Chew Over: The ancient Romans declared "Caesar is Lord". What do I mean when I say "Jesus is Lord?"
What makes Good Friday good?” you ask.
A challenge! A rather daunting task.
Some may dismiss it with a shrug and a smirk,
And consider it another day off work.
Others, religious, pious as such,
Take a few minutes for a mournful watch;
Merchants unlock their doors with glee,
Anticipating the pre-Easter shopping spree.
A bunny here, a chocolate egg there,
Symbols of a society that doesn’t care.
“Care?” you say, “Do you mean me?”
“What’s there to care; how can this be?”
It’s the cross, you forget, that rugged wood,
That makes Good Friday eternally good.
What’s so good about the death of an ancient man,
Who died long before my life began?
This man, who on this earth once trod,
Was not only man, but the Son of God.
That wood, that tree, that old rugged cross,
Was the symbol of gain and the symbol of loss.
To those who believe, it is the promise of gain;
The hope that, like Jesus, we’ll rise again!
For the skeptic, the doubter, the meaning is loss;
An eternal gulf, which no one can cross.
Good Friday is good, because of the death
Of Jesus the Savior, who gave His last breath
So you, friend, and I, could be cleared of our guilt,
Redeemed by the blood of the Lamb that was spilt.
Mourn not, my dear soul, for the death of the Lamb,
For that cross made the bridge to the Great I AM.
Christ paid the price, rose again to God’s side,
And brought us next Sunday: the Resurrection-tide!