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Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Palms of Prophetic Proclamation
distributed 3/23/18 - ©2018

This Sunday is Palm Sunday in the Christian calendar. It is that happy day when we remember Jesus coming into Jerusalem in the midst of celebrating crowds.

The biblical accounts tell us about Jesus and the people who joined in the event, but the gospels don't tell us another part of the story that is really important. What isn't mentioned was probably self-evident at the time those books were written, but the extra factors are not well known to us.

Learning those extra details has transformed my feelings -- not only about Palm Sunday, but about the roots of Christianity as a prophetic faith in our troubled world.

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I have learned that the city of Jerusalem -- with a population of around 30,000 at the time of Jesus -- exploded in size every year for the festival of Passover. As many as 80,000 folk might have been packed into the city. What an astounding and exciting time that must have been.

Because of those big crowds coming to celebrate the Jewish liberation from Egypt, the occupying Roman authorities got nervous every Passover. So it was normal, as the multitudes began to gather each year, for the Roman governor and an extra contingent of imperial troops to come to Jerusalem in case things got out of control. They'd make their way into the city in a visible and blatant show of force.

It is quite likely that Jesus planned his entry into Jerusalem for the same time that Pilate was entering the city. With that in mind, the parade of a donkey and palms doesn't sound like the innocent celebration that we act out in our churches.

Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan do a marvelous job of detailing what was going on in Jerusalem during what we now call Holy Week in their well-named book, "The Last Week: What the Gospels Really Teach About Jesus's Final Days in Jerusalem." They write about Palm Sunday:

What we often call Jesus's triumphal entry was actually an anti-imperial, anti-triumphal one, a deliberate lampoon of the conquering emperor entering a city on horseback through gates opened in abject submission.

Many of us have long known of the symbolism of Jesus riding on a donkey, instead of a war horse. The strong possibility of Jesus's carefully planned entry happening at the same moment that Pilate and his troops were entering the other side of the city changes this from a bit of street theater to an act of sedition. Rather than happy crowds waving palms, I can now imagine nervous followers ready to scatter if the authorities show up.

For the book's second chapter, dealing with Monday's events, Borg and Crossin dig into the complicated issues about wealth and power in Israel, and the meddling of Roman politics in the Jewish temple's priesthood. What we call "the cleansing of the temple" is described as a carefully scripted symbolic action, deeply rooted in the prophetic tradition. It is the second act of Sunday's entry into the city.

Taken together, and they must be taken together, those action-word combinations proclaim the already present kingdom of God against both the already present Roman imperial power and the already present Jewish high-priestly collaboration.

These two biblical scholars do a meticulous job of working through the all-too-familiar texts, and breaking open new insights. Specifically, they break open for me the clearly political aspects of Jesus's words and deeds as he came to the culmination of his ministry.

With this reading of Holy Week events, it is impossible to claim that the liberating good news of Jesus Christ is somehow divorced from political and social realities. Jesus came to the holy city of Jerusalem with an explicit challenge to the powerful forces that opposed the kingdom of God.

If we claim to be followers of Jesus, if we try to live according to the good news of his gospel, if we see ourselves first and foremost as citizens of that already present kingdom of God -- well, shouldn't we be just as clear about our rejection of contemporary powers that contradict the realm of God in our society?

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For several years, my home church has included the history of two processions in our Palm Sunday liturgy. We happily wave our green ribbons during the opening hymn, but later on in the service, we've had various ways of enacting the drama of dueling entries.

As that story of explicit, prophetic conflict has soaked into our congregation's awareness, Holy Week doesn't seem like such a roller coaster ride. The joyous acclamation of waving palms isn't reversed by the betrayal, judgment and death at the end of the week. Good Friday's violence is the anticipated outcome of Jesus's symbolic overthrow of the city's conjoined powers.

When Palm Sunday worship puts before us the stark conflict between God's realm and the "powers and principalities" that oppose it, the members of the congregation have to wrestle with the choice -- at least for a moment -- of which side to take, even as we are deeply complicit in the evils of our day.

As I try to immerse myself in this radical Holy Week perspective, I ponder contemporary ways that Christian witness might proclaim the already present realm of God, and the overturning of contrary systems.

The image of Pilate riding into Jerusalem with his best troops and impressive weapons makes me think of the call by President Trump for a glorious parade of US military might -- just in case somebody didn't recognize this nation's obscene armaments. That parade in Washington, DC, is scheduled for Veteran's Day, November 11. Will Christians -- and others -- stage contrasting events as an act of witness?

Jesus overturned tables to shut down, for a moment, the cheap grace and distorted message of the Jerusalem temple. The movement to divest from fossil fuels, and from the banks that finance the industry's infrastructure, is one way to "revoke the social license" of planet-destroying business.

A culture of violence -- where school shootings have become routine, and where sexual harassment is commonplace, to name just two of a long list of pervasive issues -- such a culture clearly does not represent the realm of God. Tomorrow, many faith groups will be participating in the "March for Our Lives" against gun violence in schools. That's a good first step. In the dramatic style of Jesus's prophetic actions, what can Christians be doing to announce even more boldly the already present realm of God which does not tolerate such violence?

This Sunday is Palm Sunday. The carefully planned entry of Jesus into Jerusalem is not a cute and happy event. His arrival deliberately countered Pilate's power and the corruption of temple worship.

If we dare to wave our palms in church this Sunday, know that doing so aligns us with the radical, world-changing good news of the realm of God present among us. May our joyous affirmation of Jesus be an act of commitment to the transformative realm of God.

Shalom!

Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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