Today is Palm Sunday. Christians worldwide will commemorate Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem on a spring day sometime during the first half of what we have come to refer to as the first century of the Common Era. Much can be said here about the social, political, and historical context of what the Gospel accounts portray as a momentous (if ironically so) event. I propose a reading of this story* for which one particular element of the sociopolitical context is especially relevant: Jesus’ “triumphal” entry was not the only procession into Jerusalem that day.
From the east side of the city, hailing from the peasant village of Nazareth, a healer and holy man called Jesus, accompanied and celebrated by his followers of impoverished rural peasants, out-of-work fishermen, politically and economically marginalized and socially outcast, made his entry (his first and only such visit according to Mark) into Jerusalem. Through the western gate, traveling at the head of an imperial cavalcade and a column of legions of soldiers, entered Pontius Pilate, Procurator of Judea, Idumea, and Samaria. One procession proclaimed the Kingdom of God on earth; the other, the unmatched, violent power of Empire, of a civilized sociopolitical order imposed by the sword on the benighted peoples of the world with a thoroughness and brutality not felt to this point in human history. The festival that brought these two diametrically opposed processions face to face at the seat of the Jewish temple was Passover, the celebration of Israel’s liberation from an earlier empire.
The spectacle that attended the Procurator’s entrance into the city—footsoldiers and cavalry, armor and weapons, banners and emblems—would have been a sobering, intimidating demonstration of raw imperial power and a visually poignant extension of the theology of Caesar’s Empire. A marble stele in a temple built for and dedicated to the Emperor Augustus and his Empire bears the following inscription:
Whereas Providence…[has] adorned our lives with the highest good: Augustus…and has in her beneficence granted us and those who will come after us [a Savior] who has made war to cease and who shall put everything [in] order…with the result that the birthday of our God [Augustus] signaled the beginning of Good News for the world because of him…
The mighty Emperor, the Son of God, was believed to have ushered in a new era of world peace, of a kind not unfamiliar to us two millennia later: peace through strength.
Jesus’ counterprocession, staged in advance with careful and secretive planning, culminated in his entrance into the city gate, riding on a colt, “the foal of an ass” (Mark 11:7; Matt 21:5). For this demonstration, Jesus (and his chroniclers) drew on powerful imagery from the writings of the Hebrew prophet Zechariah. Marks account (written earlier) alludes to the fulfillment of the prophetic text. Matthew is more to the point, quoting the relevant passage verbatim (see verse 5; compare Zech 9:9). Zechariah prophesies the coming of a king, and in the verses that immediately follow, tells Israel what kind of king he will be:
And I will cut off the chariot from Ephraim, and the horse from Jerusalem, and the battle bow shall be cut off: and he shall speak peace unto the heathen: and his dominion shall be from sea even to sea, and from the river even to the ends of the earth (Zech 9:10).
Israel’s messianic king, riding on a donkey, will banish war from the land; a Prince of Peace, the starkest possible contrast to the procession headed by Pilate. The imagery and the prearranged timing bespeak a deliberate commentary upon and lampooning of the decadent array of ostensibly divine authority, arrogated through the most awesome and terrifying means, masquerading on the other side of the city. It was also a powerful message to His disciples, who accepted His identity as Messiah, but were still partially blinded to the meaning of Jesus’ messianic practice and its implications for Israel’s political future.
For centuries since, followers of Jesus have been subject to the same confusion, the same complicated and difficult pulling in the opposing directions embodied in the processions of that first Palm Sunday: the seduction of worldly power derived from the ordered, unmatched violence—the peace through strength—of which Roman rule was exemplary; and the uncompromised commitment demanded from disciples, culminating even in the possibility of a fate for which Jesus, by absorbing with His body the violence that underpinned collaboration with Roman occupation, stood as the Great Exemplar. The former promised a kind of immortality—the legacy of the great men of the world, etched into monuments of stone. The latter holds out a wholly different kind of immortality—the promise that death at the hands of the wicked is not an end, that resurrection will defeat and banish it.
For us this Palm Sunday, in a world where the demands Christian discipleship and the requirements of empire-sustaining cause many to stumble, we must ask ourselves the question:
To which procession do we belong?
*My interpretation here draws important insights from J. D. Crossan and Marcus Borg’s analysis of the Markan account