20 March 2016

Confronting the Powers

Luke 19:28-40

Palm Sunday

20th March 2016

Why didn’t Jesus just stay in Galilee? Why did he have to go up to Jerusalem?  Knowing what happened that week, knowing what happened within the walls of the city—and then what happened outside them, at a place associated with death, a place called, ominously, Kranion, meaning Skull—why did he have to go up to Jerusalem?  Jesus knew his history, he knew what happens to Yahweh’s prophets and messengers and teachers there.

But Galilee wasn’t a safe place either.  We’re told earlier in Luke’s Gospel that some Pharisees in Galilee actually helped Jesus. They tried to warn him that Herod Antipas (20 BC-39 AD), the Rome-appointed ruler of Galilee, was trying to kill him.  Jesus said to them, “Go and tell that fox for me, ‘Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work.  Yet today, tomorrow, and the next day I must be on my way, because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem.’  Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it!  How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!  See, your house is left to you.  And I tell you, you will not see me until the time comes when you say, ‘Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord’” (Luke 13:32-35).

Yes, Jesus was determined to bring his mission to Jerusalem. As early as the ninth chapter of Luke’s Gospel we’re told that Jesus “set his face to go to Jerusalem” (9:51).  Why there?  Couldn’t he have been equally effective in Galilee?

Maybe you think my questions are odd or confusing.  Perhaps you’re thinking, Of course he was supposed to go to Jerusalem and to die there for our sins.  That’s the plan.  Jesus knew he was going to die.  That’s why the people are rejoicing when they see him approaching, that’s why we call it Jesus’ triumphal entry, and that’s why they’re throwing their cloaks on the road to make a royal carpet, as it were, for the king. That’s why the multitudes of disciples are singing.  That’s what I thought.  That’s what I was taught in Sunday school.  That’s what I was told.

Well…maybe.  Except, that’s not what the text says.  But before we get to the text there are things we need to remember, things that Luke’s readers would have known but which are unknown, invisible to us.

First, for centuries the Church has over-spiritualized Jesus’ life and ministry, preaching that Jesus was born to die to save us from our sins and, if we believe this, accept him, then we get to go to heaven and be raised like him.  For many, this is what Christianity is about; it’s a good news message for the soul.  Now, at some level all of this is true, of course, but it’s not the whole story, it’s only part of it.  But when we think the message is only about our souls or our spiritual lives or how we behave it’s easy to completely miss what should be staring us in the face when we read the New Testament, namely, the socio-political context of the Gospels, the fact that Judea and Galilee were occupied by the ruthless, violent, oppressive, Gentile, and, therefore, godless Roman Empire.[1] We tend to see the Roman Empire in the background, lurking in the shadows, off in the wings, becoming slightly more visible in the drama of Holy Week.  Even during Holy Week they seem to be props that help to move the plot along.  Actually, the presence of the colossal power of the Roman Empire needs to be brought out of the shadows into the light, onto center stage, placed in the foreground.  

Yes, we know that Jesus went into Jerusalem to celebrate Passover.  And because as Americans we separate church and state, because we like to separate religion and politics, it’s natural for us to view Passover as only a religious holiday, with no apparent political overtones.  But think about it.  No political overtones?  Tell that to Pharaoh!  Isn’t Passover the celebration of Israel’s exodus, their way out of slavery in Pharaoh’s empire?  Isn’t it a celebration of God’s determination to liberate God’s people?

Now, consider Jerusalem during Passover.  All of this celebrating is going on in the Temple in Jerusalem, the holiest center of Judaism, with Caesar’s legions nervously looking on—literally. Every Passover additional legions were brought up to Jerusalem from Caesarea Maritima along the Mediterranean coast, which was the headquarters of the Roman occupation of Palestine, not Jerusalem (Jerusalem was considered a backwater, inconsequential city to the Romans).  Caesar’s legions were garrisoned in the Antonia Fortress, built for the Romans by Herod the Great (74/73-4 BC), named for Herod’s patron Mark Anthony (83-30 BC), situated directly next to the walls of the Temple precinct so that the Romans could look down into the Temple area and make sure nothing anti-Rome was going on there—and there was often something anti-Rome going on there.  The Romans needed to do this because Jerusalem was a powder keg, especially at Passover, just waiting to explode.

And what we also need to know is that the leadership of the Temple in Jerusalem, the Sadducees and the Pharisees, were in collaboration with the Roman Empire and even that the Chief Priests where chosen by the Roman governor, who was appointed by Caesar.  The Temple had control over the religious life of Judea and, later, over Galilee.  In the Temple sacrifices were offered both to Yahweh—and, we know, sometimes even to Caesar, who believed himself divine.  The Jewish historian Josephus (37-100), who worked for the Empire, he was on their payroll, tells us that “it was the will of God…that Rome should rule the world and that the Jews should always cooperate and never resist that divine mandate.”[2]

If Jesus just wanted to focus on local politics he could have stayed in the province of Galilee and taken on the seats of Roman power in cities such as Tiberius or Sepphoris.  If Jesus had been arrested in one of those cities he wouldn’t have been crucified.  Herod Antipas didn’t have that kind of authority.  Jesus would have been stoned.  The fact that Jesus was executed on a Roman cross, after being tortured by Pontius Pilate (d. 37) should always remind us that it was an empire that crucified him, a form of death that was reserved only for enemies of the empire, reserved exclusively for enemies of the state.  We should remember this every time we see a cross or, maybe, wear a cross.

Yes, the New Testament is definitely political (so is the Old Testament)—the Bible is making all kinds of claim about power and how power is used and it judges the misuse of power.  It’s so easy for us to miss this.  Our eyes aren’t trained to see it, primarily because we tend to spiritualize the gospel.  Therefore we often miss what’s going on, especially here.  Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem wasn’t “triumphal.”  It’s actually an anti-triumph.  It was what we would call to today a demonstration, a political demonstration, a religious demonstration.  Pay close attention to the text—it was carefully planned street theatre.  It was all staged.  Orchestrated.  But for what end?

Luke tells us—and he’s the only one to share this—that as Jesus approached Jerusalem, “the whole multitude of the disciples began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the deeds of power they had seen” (19:37).  Prason dunameōnDeeds of power. Dunameōn is the root of the English word “dynamite.” What are these “deeds”? What kind of “power”? Against what or whom?  Jesus’ deeds of powers consisted of healing, extending mercy and compassion, forgiveness, justice, grace.  With these powers Jesus confronted the powers that be, both religious and imperial authorities oppressing God’s people—and distorting God’s intentions for the world.  It’s imperative for us to see, too, this was not a demonstration against Judaism—we have to be emphatic about this.  Far too much damage has been done, for centuries, because of that view.  As New Testament scholar John Dominic Crossan writes, “It was a protest from the legal and prophetic heart of Judaism against Jewish religious cooperation with Roman imperial rule.”[3]

Still not convinced of the political dimension of this text?  What does the crowd shout out?  “Blessed is the king [!] who comes in the name of the Lord!”  Only Luke’s Gospel inserts the word “king.”  King?  King Jesus?  Really?  The only king in the eyes of Rome is Caesar Tiberius (42 BC-37).  You might say, Well, Jesus is a king in a spiritual sense.  That’s not what the text says.  And, anyway, what does that really mean? 

The crowds don’t let up with the next protest chant, “Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven.”  This sounds innocuous enough, sounds even more “spiritual,” doesn’t it?  Except, from a Roman perspective, the only one that grants peace is Caesar and Caesar’s peace comes through the point of a spear, through violence, sheer, raw power.  The crowds are not praising the peace of Caesar, but the peace of “heaven,” which is the Jewish way of speaking of the peace of Yahweh.  For did we not hear the angels sing to the shepherds in a field outside Bethlehem, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors” (Luke 2:14). Here’s another text that’s only found in Luke’s Gospel. 

Are you beginning to sense the theological bias of Luke’s Gospel?  The good news has a social, political, even economic dimension.  There’s no escaping this.  Luke isn’t talking about a kingdom realized “up there” or “out there” some place, but here and now.

It’s no wonder that the Pharisees said to Jesus, “Teacher, Rabbi, order your disciples to stop.”  Tell them to stop!  Shut them up, Jesus. You’re going to get all of us in trouble.   

Jesus was a threat to both the religious establishment and the political establishment; they were really one and the same.  The gospel is always a threat, both then and now. 

Yes, this is a politically charged text.  You might be tired of politics, given this year’s zany primary season and the race for the White House.  November seems like a very long way away!  Maybe you come to church to get away from politics, as a refuge.  Perhaps all of this makes you feel uncomfortable.  Maybe it feels inappropriate to talk about all of this on Palm Sunday, but then I wouldn’t be faithful to the text. 

God cares about governments and how power is used.  The gospel is always political, but never partisan.  God doesn’t favor Republicans or Democrats, capitalists or socialists.  Every political ideology and economic theory stands under the judgment of God and each one is judged inadequate. 

What is clear, though, is that God is always for the people.  God is always on the side of the marginalized and the weakest, God is always on the side of the most vulnerable members of our communities, such as children. God is always for the poor, both the poor in spirit and the poor in resources.  As that great American prophet and mystic Howard Thurman (1899-1991) said, the gospel of Jesus is for the “masses of [women and] men who live with their backs constantly against the wall.”[4]  That’s where Jesus always is and that’s where his followers are needed most today.

Remember how Jesus began his ministry?  According to Luke (and, once again, only in Luke’s Gospel), we’re told that after Jesus’ ordeal in the wilderness he began his ministry in worship on the Sabbath in the synagogue in Nazareth.  He read from a scroll of the prophet Isaiah.  And what did he read?  “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.  He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:16-20).

Jesus rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down.  With all the eyes of the synagogue fixed on him, he said, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 4:21).

This is the one who entered the city that day—the one who would be betrayed, arrested, tortured, tried, falsely accused, and executed by the powers.  And yet—and yet!—this one, this one God will raise up from the dead, vindicating his mission and his message!  It’s as if God is saying, “See, I’m with him!  I’m on his side.  And all who follow his way.”  

In Christ we see God demonstrating 
deeds of a different kind of power, 
the power of life over death, 
the power of God that liberates and sets free, 
the power of love, 
the power of peace, 
the power of grace to redeem and restore, 
to heal and make us whole—whole!  

Even when the Caesars of this world try to shut him up 
or shut him down or even try to kill him, 
God always stands with the Resurrected One, 
who continues to bring good news to the poor, 
release to the captives, 
recovering of sight to the blind, 
liberation for the oppressed, 
declaring the Lord’s favor—the Lord’s favor! 
Causing joy, Easter joy to break forth from every dark, cold, lifeless tomb!  
That’s the good news!  
Thanks be to God!


[1]  On the religio-political power dynamics of Roman Palestine in the first century, see Marcus J. Borg & John Dominic Crossan, The Last Week:  A Day-by-Day Account of Jesus’ Final Week in Jerusalem (HarperSanFrancisco, 2007); John Dominic Crossan, God & Empire: Jesus Against Rome, Then and Now (HarperSanFrancisco, 2007), 128ff; Richard A. Horsley, Jesus and the Powers: Conflict, Covenant, and the Hope of the Poor (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2011), 155ff;
[2] This is John Dominic Crossan’s summary of Josephus’ statement in his Jewish War (5.367), “God who went the round of the nations, bringing to each in turn the rod of empire, now rested over Italy.”   Crossan, 131.
[3] Crossan, 132.
[4] Howard Thurman, Jesus and the Disinherited (Beacon Press, 1996), 13. Originally published in 1949.

No comments: