Palm Sunday Politics and Planet Earth
David R. Weiss – April 11, 2019
The Gospel in Transition #20 – Subscribe at www.davidrweiss.com
In just two days we’ll remember Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem at the beginning of what we now call Holy Week. Often commemorated as a “triumphal entry” followed by the Temple “cleansing,” both frames understate the power of Jesus’ actions. By seeing them for the richly provocative actions they were, we might also see them as suggestive for our response to climate change.
Jerusalem. Not just any place on Earth, in Jewish tradition the city—especially the Temple—stand as an axis mundi (literally: “Earth axis”), a point where transcendence and immanence touch; where Mystery and mundane meet. Such points are known in every faith tradition. That the events we consider today play out here makes them more than history: they’re holy drama.
Additionally, they’re located in time as well as space. Jesus doesn’t enter Jerusalem in a vacuum. It’s Passover, the Jewish festival of liberation, no doubt “celebrated” with bitter irony under Roman rule. Still, the memory of liberation is so fresh at Passover, that Rome dare not let it be celebrated under anything other than a watchful and well-armed eye. Thus, Pilate (Rome’s appointed governor for Jerusalem) would’ve ALSO made his entrance into Jerusalem around the same time Jesus did, though coming from the opposite direction.
And his entry would’ve been triumphal in the most militaristic way: soldiers on foot and on horseback, weapons, drums, banners, and poles bearing a golden eagle—symbol of Jupiter, the god of Rome. His procession and presence during the week was meant to remind Jews that the Passover meal would be the only liberation they could expect to taste anytime soon.
Once we realize Jesus’ palm-strewn pathway into the east side of city happens over against Pilate’s procession from the west, it becomes evident that Jesus is making a visibly anti-triumphal entry. He comes, mounted on a donkey in a deliberately embodied echo of Zechariah 9:9-10. His “kingship” is marked by humility … and the promise of genuine (that is, just) peace. As with his parables on the “kingly activity of God,” his Palm Sunday procession makes an intentional critique of Rome and its regal pattern of domination. Though some of his listeners may have wished otherwise, Jesus presents no call for violent revolution, but offers an unmistakable summons to a whole different way of life.
But Jesus wasn’t just taking issue with Rome or with Pilate. In 6 CE (during Jesus’ youth) Rome made the Jewish Temple authorities responsible for collecting imperial taxes and maintaining the debt records frequently invoked to foreclose on Jewish land. Even prior to this, the Jewish Temple had been twisted to serve those holding religious power and economic wealth, but from 6 CE onward it also became the religious edge of Rome’s political-economic oppression. Even if they did somewhat begrudgingly, the Temple elites were chaplain to Empire. (How deeply the Jewish public resented this is shown at the start of the Jewish Revolt, when besides driving out the Roman army, they immediately burned the records of land debt kept at the Temple.)
So when Jesus clears the Temple on Monday, he isn’t just temporarily displacing money-changers and animal vendors. Something much more decisive is playing out. He’s pronouncing a judgment against the Temple for having allied itself with the forces that are stealing both land and life from God’s people. As much as the Temple was seen as the very throne of God, a whole string of Hebrew prophets spoke out in the harshest words possible whenever they saw Temple rituals carried out in the absence of justice in Jewish society. They knew God wanted nothing to do with worship cut off from justice.
Some 700 years before Jesus, Jeremiah accused the people of presuming the Temple somehow guaranteed their security despite rampant social injustice, saying “They have treated the wound of my people carelessly, saying, ‘Peace, peace,’ when there is no peace.” (Jer. 6:14 || 8:11) Thus, when Jesus invokes Jeremiah’s words about “a den of robbers,” (which, his original hearers knew, culminated in the threat that God would destroy the Temple), there can be no doubt in the mind of anyone present: this is no mere “cleansing.” It’s a prophetic action that symbolically destroys the Temple. Not the building itself, but the systemically twisted relations it had come to divinely authorize. If you’ve heard Black Lives Matter protesters shout “Shut It Down!” as they move on to an interstate highway, you’ve heard the same tone of protest that Jesus used to shut down the Temple that day.
It’s hard to overstate the provocative depth of Jesus’ action at the Temple. No doubt, even some of his own followers were uneasy. It was a symbolic act that reached DEEP into primal emotions, not unlike burning an American flag. Or, to “bring it home,” like pulling the vestments off your local church altar and burning them if your church has been silent (or, worse, complicit) in any of Rome’s more recent deeds: caging immigrants, bashing queers, killing black bodies, or belching CO2. Most of us would hesitate to go there. Jesus does not.
Let’s be clear. Palm Sunday was no innocent pageant of Jewish peasants lining the road with palm branches as Jesus rode through on a donkey. There was, I’m sure, genuine joy in the air. But every cheer of “Hosanna,” every cry of “King,” every salute to “Son of David”—these were all dangerous words. No wonder some of the Jewish leaders tried to get Jesus to quiet the crowds. But recall his reply: “I tell you, if these people were silent the rocks and stones would cry out.” (Lk 19:39-40) Earth itself longs for a rule other than Rome’s. And that scene in the Temple? It isn’t a judgment of someone else’s religion. Jesus is calling out our religious tradition anytime it offers even silent complicity to rulers or systems that plunder land, impoverish people, imperil ecosystems, or promises “Peace, Peace,” while catastrophic climate change comes at us. And there’s plenty of both of those going on in churches today.
These two events at the start of Holy Week remind us there are real choices in front us, too. And they don’t show up out of nowhere. From Jesus’ first announcement that God’s kin-dom had come near, his ministry consistently posed a stark alternative to the politics of Rome and the Temple. One grounded in compassion toward and reverence for all life. That alternative asks for our allegiance still today.
Palm Sunday’s politics long to be good news for planet Earth. But it will take more than a few half-hearted Hosannas while we wave our palm fronds to convince the rest of creation we’re ready to show up … for all of us. So if you find yourself feeling a bit foolish, limply waving a palm frond in church just a day before our President’s “triumphal” visit to Minnesota, remember, for Jesus, Palm Sunday was neither triumphant nor tame. It was confessional and confrontational: the communal enactment of pledging loyalty to God and, on that account, withholding it from Caesar.
For Jews, eating the Passover makes that experience present to them right now. For New Zealanders grieving the mosque shooting last March, the Maori haka dance joined the mourners (across their diverse cultures) to New Zealand’s deepest past. Our Palm Sunday worship ought to have the seriousness of a Jewish Seder and the resolve of a haka dance. Dare we? The rocks and stones will be waiting.
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The Gospel in Transition by David R. Weiss is a year of reflections on facing climate change, finding hope, and the alchemy of Christian community. My weekly blog posts will consider climate change, Transition, and faith—using biblical images, liturgical seasons, science, and theology, as conversation partners. Writing in a voice a bit too restless to call “devotional”; my aim is to be insightfully evocative and usefully provocative. I’d be delighted to have you join me on this journey. In fact, I hope you’ll subscribe (go to the top right sidebar!) Thanks for reading and see you next week!
 The texts are Mk 11:1-22 || Mt 21:1-21 || 19:28-48. For a full treatment, see Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan, The Last Week, HarperOne, 2006, pp. 1-53.