Luke 19: 29-40
April 14, 2019 – First Congregational Church of Meredith NH
I want to begin with a footnote. The historical information in this sermon about Pontius Pilate comes from the book The Last Week, by Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan. This is the book that the Bible study group has been reading during Lent. I want to give credit where credit is due.
There was a parade in Boston last month. About a million people were there. A lot of people wore green, even though they don’t have a lot of green items in their closets. People sat in bars along the parade route, drinking green beer until the revelers came by, then they ran out to the streets to watch. There were marching units and floats and folks dressed up like leprechauns.
We recognize all these symbols, of course. The green clothing and – strangely – the green beer are supposed to symbolize a cultural connection to Ireland. Or, actually, to Catholic Ireland. The Protestant color is orange, not green. Wearing green on St. Patrick’s Day is supposed to identify you as an Irish Catholic, even if you have to look back generations and generations in your family to find your link, and even if you have to pretend a connection to be in on the party. The leprechaun, of course, is the imaginary character who sits at the end of the Irish rainbow, guarding his pot of gold. We understand all these symbols because they are just part of our culture, even if we aren’t Irish. They are symbols we grew up with.
But imagine that you are an anthropologist a thousand years from now, and you find some sort of evidence of this parade. A scrap of a newspaper article, perhaps, or a snapshot. What would you think? Green beer? Really? What is that about? For that matter, why on this day of all days does everyone suddenly wear something green? And who is that little guy with the tall hat carrying a pot of something-or-other? Imagine how confusing it would be to encounter the Boston St. Patrick’s Day parade if you didn’t have a clue about what all these symbols mean.
When we read today’s scripture passage about Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, we are a little like those anthropologists. We are looking back on a parade that happened a long time ago, and we can’t understand it unless we know something about the symbols – symbols that everyone at the time understood with no problem.
Let’s start with the fact that there were two parades, actually, not just one. You saw us act them out during the children’s time. At the beginning of the week of Passover, the Roman governor Pontius Pilate customarily processed into the city of Jerusalem from his seaside compound to the west.
Passover was the holiest week of the year for Jerusalem’s residents. It celebrated the escape of the people of Israel from oppression in Egypt thousands of years before, and the start of their journey toward ownership of the Promised Land, this land now ruled by Rome. Pilate wanted to be present in the city with all his military forces in case the memory of that escape from bondage in Egypt should give anyone any ideas about overthrowing Roman rule now. He used all the symbols of imperial military and religious authority to make it clear that Rome was still in charge.
As Pilate entered the city, the people of Jerusalem saw Roman military might on display, the kind of thing you have seen in every Hollywood movie ever about this period: Pilate himself rode on a war horse. He was accompanied by cavalry and foot soldiers. They wore leather armor and carried weapons. There were golden imperial eagles mounted on poles. There were the sounds of marching feet, clinking bridles, the beating of drums.
The parade reinforced not just Roman military might but Roman imperial theology, too. The Roman emperor was called “son of God,” and “lord” and “savior.” He was said to have brought “peace on earth.” Pontius Pilate was the emperor’s representative in Jerusalem, and anyone who asserted faith in a god other than the emperor was directly repudiating Roman imperial theology.
So, Pilate and his army marched into Jerusalem from the west. He was just daring anyone to start something, to resist Roman authority, and he was making it abundantly clear that if they did, they would suffer the consequences. Can you picture this parade? Can you imagine what the people of Jerusalem felt when they saw Pilate and his soldiers march by?
On the same day, from the eastern side of the city, comes Jesus with his parade of scruffy peasants—people with no hope in this life and not much to eat, people who don’t smell so good. Lots of them, making lots of noise as Jesus enters the city. Jesus uses all the ancient symbols of Israel’s cultural and religious authority, too. Let’s look at a few of them.
He sends his disciples into the city to get a colt, the foal of a donkey, for him to ride on. According to the Old Testament prophet Zechariah, a king would come to Jerusalem “humble, and riding on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” Perhaps even more importantly, we read in the Old Testament book of 1st Kings that after Israel’s great King David died, there was a big dispute among his sons about who would succeed him. In the end, his son Solomon was recognized as David’s successor because he rode into Jerusalem on David’s own donkey.
King David had essentially created the united kingdom of Israel. He had established Jerusalem as its capital. He had put Israel on the international map. He had made Israel great, and no foreign power controlled them when David was king. God had promised to raise up for them a king from David’s lineage. Everyone longed for a return to the days of Israel’s greatness, and a king like David was the way they understood that this would happen.
So, entering Jerusalem at the head of a procession and riding on the colt of donkey is a sign not just of kingship, but of being a king in the lineage of David, and all the people of Jerusalem would have recognized this, just as clearly as we recognize the symbols of the St. Patrick’s Day parade today.
Entering from the Mount of Olives had symbolic importance, too, and again from the writings of the prophet Zechariah. He had said,
On that day his feet shall stand on the Mount of Olives, which lies before Jerusalem on the east…. On that day, living waters shall flow out from Jerusalem…. And the Lord will become king over all the earth.
Even the peasants who followed Jesus into the city that day would have recognized these symbols.
But think how different these symbols of kingship are from the ones displayed by Pontius Pilate. Pilate rides a great steed, a horse that has been tested in battle. Jesus rides the foal of a donkey, one that has never even been ridden before. Pilate enters Jerusalem from his fortified compound on the Mediterranean Sea to the west. Jesus enters Jerusalem from the undefended Mount of Olives to the east. Pilate is accompanied by the greatest army anyone had ever seen at that time, the army that keeps the people of Jerusalem under Rome’s thumb every day of the year. Jesus is accompanied by a disreputable band of peasants, people with nothing left to lose in this life and no power over anyone.
Jesus is symbolically claiming kingship, but not the kind of kingship that Rome represents, even if the people accompanying him don’t understand that. Jesus’ whole ministry, and especially his actions in the coming week, are a repudiation of the earthly understanding of imperial power.
The Kingdom of God is not like the Roman Empire. God’s power does not oppress. It lifts up. God’s power not military. It is nonviolent. God’s power is not vested in the people who seem great. It is vested in poor people, outcasts, people with disabilities and unexplained illnesses, people with mental health disorders, people who never ever get a break in this world.
The Kingdom of God is coming for the Roman Empire this week. You can feel it in the air. Pilate knows it. Anyone who hears the excited crowds around Jesus and the silent resentful ones around Pilate can tell you what is about to happen. Even if you had never heard the rest of this story, you would know: There’s about to be a fight. The Kingdom of God is coming, and Rome – and the local religious officials who collaborate with Rome – are going to bring every bit of earthly power that they have to crush the Jesus movement.
Come back on Thursday evening this week, or on Friday, and for sure next Sunday morning to see who wins that fight. It will be glorious! Amen