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from the “Nurture in Time and Eternity” collection

Palm Sunday

Isaiah 50:4-9a
Philippians 2:5-11
Mark 11:1-11

April 9, 2006
Marsh Chapel
Boston University

The involvement of Christians in politics did not begin auspiciously, if we take Jesus’ Palm Sunday entrance into Jerusalem as its beginning. Although Jesus hitherto had tried to down-play people’s speculations that he was the messiah, the rightful king of Israel, when he came to Jerusalem on what turned out to be his last week he flaunted it. He rode into the city like a king, and the next thing he did was to go to the Temple and assert his authority by releasing all the animals and upsetting the money changers. After that, the authorities could hardly ignore him. He taught publicly in the Temple all week, was arrested Thursday evening, and executed the next day for being a danger to the peace. Neither the Roman nor Jewish authorities had much interest in his religious message, only in his pretence to be king of the Jews, which was a volatile assertion in an occupied country filled with Jewish pilgrims from all over the world assembled for the Passover. From the fact that the authorities did not arrest any of his followers, we know that his movement was not regarded as very dangerous. It was only his personage as a political trigger for rebellion during the festival that got him into trouble. In many respects, it seems that he was arrested and executed as something of an accident, a person caught at the wrong place at the wrong time in an inflammatory political situation. Pontius Pilate was trying to keep the lid on violent rebellion, the Temple authorities, associated with the Sadducees, were trying to defend the privilege of traditional Temple worship under an occupying power, the Pharisees (like Jesus) were pressing for a purification of Jewish practice which had been compromised by three centuries of foreign occupation, and Zealots and other revolutionary groups were calling for open rebellion against Rome. About thirty years later, the revolutionary forces did spark a major rebellion, the Romans brought in overwhelming force to destroy them, the Temple was torn down, Levitical Temple worship ended for good, and Judaism went in the direction of the Pharisees who developed synagogue worship throughout the Diaspora. We have to sympathize with Pilate and the Temple leaders, because they knew that peace, the Jewish nation, and traditional religion were at stake, all of which in fact were lost in the next generation when their successors failed to keep the lid on. Because we Americans are playing the role of Rome in Iraq today, which is a situation just as volatile with just as much at stake, we can empathize with the Jerusalem authorities when Jesus rode into town acting the part of yet one more pretender to the throne, or so it seemed to them. Of course, Jesus was not really pretending to be king—he spent the next days in the Temple as a teacher; Pilate knew he was innocent of the insurrection charges, and knew that it was wrong to execute an innocent man. But when so much is at stake, what is a little collateral damage, as we say?

We Christians, of course, have reinterpreted Holy Week to have cosmic religious significance, not merely a successful, if compromised, peacemaking effort on the part of the Jerusalem authorities. We have depicted the Roman and Jewish leaders, not as harassed but successful politicians keeping the peace under trying circumstances, but as symbols of all the evil in the world that crucified Christ. One legacy of this rewriting of history, or perhaps we should say the invention of a Christian saga, is a shameful tradition of anti-Semitism based on the role of the Temple authorities and their crowds in Jesus’ condemnation. Another legacy for nearly three centuries was a kind of anti-establishment bias in the early Christian Church where the establishment, as St. Paul argued, was the source of justice and peace-keeping and the early Christians often were disturbers of the social order. This second legacy was limited by the fact that Christianity itself became the establishment religion under Constantine in the fourth century, and ever after has been in something like Pilate’s compromised position, sacrificing the purity of Christian ideals for trade-offs that are supposed to work.

Set aside these large-scale political ironies for the moment, however, and think with me about Jesus’ intent regarding politics. The most important point to make is that he seemed to care very little about who was in charge, the Romans or the Jews of the Temple or puppet Jewish monarchy. When they tried to draw him out on this point a day or so after Palm Sunday, Jesus said to render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s. We should note that during Jesus’ own lifetime, the economy was doing rather well. The Romans were building a new city a few miles from Nazareth, and Jesus’ family was in the building trades. The families of his friends, Simon and Andrew, and James and John, were in the victualing business with their fishing boats. This situation was radically changed after the Jewish revolt 30 years later when the Romans bore down painfully on the occupied populace. We should remember that the Gospels were written in this later, painful period, reflecting much tougher relations between Romans and Jews. Jesus himself got along well with the Jews, Romans, Greeks, Samaritans, Canaanites, and others who coexisted in his area. So Jesus had no special reason to oppose the Romans, and he did not. He did have special reason to oppose the puppet Jewish monarchy of Herod, who had assassinated his cousin, John the Baptist. But he did not express any significant opposition against the monarchy. As for the Temple, Jesus worshipped and taught there regularly, as did his disciples for a generation after him. He did not attack the Temple leaders in any political way even during his trial. So Jesus was not political in the usual sense, which makes his almost accidental arrest and execution all the more ironic.

What then was Jesus’ complaint? To judge by what he taught during that last week when he was courting trouble, his complaint was about the hypocrisy and corruption of just about all the leadership factions, which will bring about judgment on the whole. The gospels record many bitter parables in his teachings of this week, but Matthew catches the drift with Jesus diatribe of woes, of which I shall quote part:

The greatest among you will be your servant. All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted. But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you lock people out of the kingdom of heaven. For you do not go in yourselves, and when others are going in, you stop them. Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you cross sea and land to make a single convert, and you make the new convert twice as much a child of hell as yourselves. Woe to you, blind guides, who say, “Whoever swears by the sanctuary is bound by nothing, but whoever swears by the gold of the sanctuary is bound by the oath.” For which is greater, the gold or the sanctuary that has made the gold sacred? … Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill, and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. … You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel! Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. … Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which on the outside look beautiful, but inside they are full of the bones of the dead and all kinds of filth. You snakes, you brood of vipers!

Preaching like that did not make Jesus many friends among the leadership community. Yet Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea, members of that community, knew he spoke the truth. When Jesus entered Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, he rode a donkey, the symbol of the King of Israel entering the peaceful city in the humblest way. Had Jesus intended to assert real political authority, he would have ridden in with an army behind him! Riding the donkey, he asserted what true kingship, true messiahship, is about: the honest administration of justice, peacekeeping, care for the poor and oppressed, and healing for the suffering, all in truth and without hypocrisy. Just as he shamed Pilate’s compromises by his acceptance of judgment, so he shamed all of Jerusalem with the donkey bearing a teacher of justice, peace, charity, and healing.

What moral should we draw from this for Christian life today? That we should not care about who is in charge? Not quite, although the politics of winning should never be a matter of ultimate concern itself. We should exercise due prudence with regard to which political parties will do the best, with regard to whether to force democracies on non-democratic nations, whether we should support Sheiks of oil countries who are friendly to Americans, or whether this or that tax plan best helps the poor. These are all secondary and instrumental questions to the basic ones of how best to bring about justice, peace, help for the poor, oppressed, and weak, and healing to those who are suffering; what can we do to value God’s creation? Jesus detailed these and other basic values throughout his teachings. His ultimate goal was to bring about communities of love in every place. And what stands in the way, Jesus taught, is not that these values are not widely accepted, they are. What stands in the way is hypocrisy that allows us and our leaders to think we are promoting them when in fact we are corrupting them with greed, arrogance, power-madness, and love of being honored. Woe, Woe!

So as we contemplate Jesus’ attack on Jerusalem mounted on a donkey, let us ask ourselves some hard political questions. When we say we favor justice, do we add in the secret recesses of our heart that we do not favor any change that would diminish our own advantage? When we say we are peacemakers, do we add in secret that we do not favor taking any risk in that venture? When we say we are charitable, do we add in secret that this cannot put a limit on our own greed for more wealth? When we say we favor liberation, do we add in secret that others’ freedom should not limit our own? When we say we favor healing the suffering, do we add in secret that no resources should be spent for this that might be needed for our own healing? When we say we are not greedy, how can we countenance a foreign policy that justifies any coercion in the name of national interest? When we say we are not arrogant, do we countenance a patriotism that says, America right or wrong? When we say we do not lust for ever more power, how can we increase spending for arms and decrease spending for education and welfare? When we say we do not need to be honored, why is it so hard to be humble?

My friends, a Christian approach to politics is not about winning or losing, nor about any particular policy, although these are important in secular ways. No, a Christian approach to politics asks whether our promotion of the values we largely share and that Jesus so eloquently described is honest. For, the religious dimension of politics is how we behave politically before God. Is our heart clean and honest? Or are we hypocrites, deceiving ourselves and attempting to deceive others? Political issues never have only one side, and all political actions are ambiguous in their results. We should never let the infinite passion of religious commitment become attached to a political program, no matter how important and right it is. No, the infinite passion of religious commitment belongs to the task of presenting our heart honestly to the God who loves us even in our hypocrisy, but who says, Woe!


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