Sunday, 24 March 2013

Jesus and the politics of power: the triumphal entry into Jerusalem

Now and again as a rural reverend I feel called to put something religious on this blog, usually something I consider to be significant in terms of the gospel. So below you will find an imaginary dialogue that formed the basis of our Palm Sunday service today. It takes a somewhat different view from the norm for this event, and presents a Jesus that may have deliberately set out to be provocative and revolutionary rather than the meek and mild figure of Sunday School. It sets Jesus at the heart of political change, a change that aimed to challenge the structures that oppressed and the powers which kept such structures firmly in place. It is meant to help people gain some fresh perspectives on this familar story, and there are questions at the end to ponder.

Luke 19:28-40

28 After he had said this, he went on ahead, going up to Jerusalem.

29 When he had come near Bethphage and Bethany, at the place called the Mount of Olives, he sent two of the disciples, 30 saying, "Go into the village ahead of you, and as you enter it you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden. Untie it and bring it here. 31 If anyone asks you, 'Why are you untying it?' just say this, 'The Lord needs it.'" 32 So those who were sent departed and found it as he had told them. 33 As they were untying the colt, its owners asked them, "Why are you untying the colt?" 34 They said, "The Lord needs it." 35 Then they brought it to Jesus; and after throwing their cloaks on the colt, they set Jesus on it. 36 As he rode along, people kept spreading their cloaks on the road. 37 As he was now approaching the path down from the Mount of Olives, the whole multitude of the disciples began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the deeds of power that they had seen, 38 saying,
"Blessed is the king
who comes in the name of the Lord!
Peace in heaven,
and glory in the highest heaven!"
39 Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, "Teacher, order your disciples to stop." 40 He answered, "I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out."

In this way, Luke tells us the story of Jesus’ triumphal entry into the city of Jerusalem. The details of this exciting acclamation of Jesus are well known: Jesus, the humble king on a donkey, the innocent man of God, enters the holy city of Jerusalem. We can easily picture to ourselves the excitement of the crowd, the waving of the palm branches, the road lined with cloaks, and hear the cries of the crowd as they called out:
“God bless the king who comes in the name of the Lord!”

We may think we are on familiar territory with this story. It is one of the stories of Jesus that has been told and re-told, and we have heard it from our earliest days. We all know who was to blame for Jesus’ death, we all know that Pilate was afraid of the Jews and thought Jesus was innocent, we all know that it was crowd that turned on Jesus after celebrating his arrival. We all know that Jesus did not set himself up as an earthly king, that he was intentionally humble by riding a donkey, and that he died what was considered to be an ignoble death on the cross.

We think we know all this, but do we? Can we be sure this is the real story? Or is there another side to all of this? It may surprise you to learn that the Roman governor had an extensive intelligence network, and kept tabs on all activity within his jurisdiction. It may also surprise you to learn that the Romans had some significant things to say about Jesus and the early Christians in their own letters and documents.

Today, we want you to join us on an imaginative journey. We invite you to imagine that Pilate’s intelligence dossier on Yehoshua ben Joseph has just been discovered by some diligent archaeologists. It contains the full record of an interview between Gaius Scipio, a Roman centurion, and Amon, a Jewish priest. And so we invite you to listen to this interview…


Thank you for agreeing to meet with me, Amon. We have received some quite alarming reports about Yehoshua ben Joseph, the alleged teacher who is now strongly suspected of terrorist activity. We have been keeping an eye on this man, but until recently saw him as just another one of the fanatics that you Jews seem so fond of producing. Sure, there were crowds following him around but while he confined his activity to the countryside we were not too concerned. The incidents of the last week, however, are of a serious nature. I need answers for Pilate, the procurator. He is concerned, as it is your festival of Passover, which always causes problems for us Romans. As you know, the city is more than treble its normal population, the zealots are always ready to stir up trouble, and as usual we have had to put the troops on high alert, and call in extra legions from Syria. The watchtower over the temple courtyard now has to be manned 24 hours a day. So we want some answers.

I want to ask you about what happened yesterday on the roadway leading from Bethphage into Jerusalem. You know what happened, don’t you? Yehoshua ben Joseph led some sort of triumphal march into the city.
I certainly have heard of it. Everyone has. The word spread quickly. It’s been the talk of the Temple precincts since late yesterday evening.

Well, what were the people calling out? Some reports say that they were calling out in prayer. Why were they doing this? It is clear this Yehoshua character has made a mark on the people, and he was recognised and celebrated and hailed as “the one who comes in the name of the Lord.”
They were saying, “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord” What did they mean by that?

They were quoting one of our special festival hymns. We know it as Psalm 118, the last of our special set of Hallel psalms. We sing them every year at the special festivals. This psalm, we sing at the Festival of Tabernacles. But originally, it was used as a hymn to celebrate the arrival of the king in the temple. Long ago, the king used to ride up to the Temple on the top of Mount Zion, for a ceremony to re-enact his enthronement. The king used to do this every year. Yehoshua was wanting to remind the people about the good times in the past, how our people used to celebrate. But I don’t think you should read too much into it, really.

But why did they cry out these words, from this particular psalm? It sounds like it was a political psalm. Yehoshua was riding up to the Temple to be crowned as King.

Well, we haven’t had a king for a long time, now; and the Herods don’t count. After all, they are in your pay – and they are not really true Jews. We’ve been ruled by foreigners like you for such a long time. But I’m not so sure that Yehoshua was wanting to make any kind of political statement with the way that he entered the city. He didn’t want to be King.

How can you be so sure? Wasn’t it his own followers who were stirring up the crowd to cry out these words? Didn’t he plant people in the crowd to try to get them all to acknowledge him as someone special?

Well, it is true that it was some of his followers who started this chant. But others picked it up. They just liked the atmosphere of celebration and rejoicing. They were heading into the city for a festival, for goodness sake! It is coming near to Passover, you know. Lots of people come to the city for this Festival. It’s a happy time.

As far as we are concerned, your festival of Passover is not a happy time – it always causes headaches for us Romans. Do I have to remind you that all of the Caesars have been more than willing to punish any rebellious behaviour on the part of you Jews? Do you not recall the time at the end of the rule of King Herod the Great (a most worthy client king of Rome) when Roman soldiers massacred 3,000 Jews as they celebrated the Passover in the Temple in Jerusalem? And this was just for pelting the soldiers with stones. The disruption of temple activities, and the claims that were made at the time by Yehoshua ben Joseph were all seen and heard by the Roman guard in his tower. And our current emperor, Tiberius, is no friend of the Jews either. Tiberias had the Jews expelled from Rome, and 4,000 Jewish freedmen were deported to Sardinia.

I am not sure that Caesar would not see this as just a fun time. From what you have said, “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord” sounds like a challenge to our Roman rule, to me. Are you sure that the followers of Yehoshua weren’t trying to claim that he was going to take on the role of this king, now?

Well, to do that, he would have to try to provoke some kind of military action. And he didn’t do that. All he did was ride into the city while people sang psalms of celebration.

I’ve heard that the people were crying out “Hosanna”. What does that mean, “Hosanna”?

Well, it’s just an old Hebrew word for praise. They were crying out to Adonai, to our Lord, to thank him for what he had done. It was a prayer of thanks.

A prayer of thanks—I see. But what were they giving thanks for? What had he done, this invisible Adonai god of yours? He hadn’t done anything, really, had he?

Well, no, not really, But the people were happy. They were calling out to our Lord, crying out their “thank you”, so that everyone could hear how happy they were.

But I can’t understand what they were thankful for. You lot are always complaining about being oppressed by Roman laws, taxes and our religious traditions. Did the crowd forget that this day? Come on, what does the word really mean? What are its origins? I can ask the scribes, you know, and they’ll tell me the truth. You wouldn’t be hiding anything from me, would you?

Oh, well, I suppose I have to tell you, it comes from the word hosa, to save. So “hosanna” literally means something like, “save us, now”.

Save us! Save us! That doesn’t sound like it was just a prayer of thanks. It sounds like a call to arms! Save us – from those horrible Romans, no doubt.
Oh, no, I don’t think that was what they meant at all. Save us from doing silly things. Or save us from doing the wrong thing. That’s what they meant.

Well, that doesn’t sound like a very happy thing to be saying. Are you sure they were saying prayers of thanks? Weren’t they really asking Yehoshua to save them from us Romans?

Well, I don’t think I can help you any more on that question.

I am not convinced by your explanations as yet. Well, what about his mode of transport. Why was he riding on a colt?

Oh, he had a long way to go. People often ride on animals when they are going long distances.

But he wasn’t really going very far, was he? Just from Jericho to Jerusalem – that’s only 17 miles, isn’t it – not really a long distance.

Well no, I suppose not.

So why was he riding on a colt? Why wasn’t he walking like everyone else?
I guess it was just the first thing that his people were able to find for him. They wanted to make him comfortable.

Are you sure? Wasn’t there a reason for him to choose a colt to ride on?

Hmm, I’m not sure. I thought it was just by chance that he was riding an animal. But maybe there was something more to it. Hmm… Oh, no, it couldn’t be.

Couldn’t be what? Out with it.

Well, in our scriptures, one of the prophets refers to riding on a donkey – Zechariah, I think it is – and says that it would be a humble person who would ride on a donkey. “Humble and riding on a donkey”, it says. Chapter 9 of Zechariah – Zechariah the prophet.

Listen, whether he was on a donkey, an ass or a colt, he is clearly making a statement. Humble people walk into the city. Humble people don’t draw attention to themselves. People with an agenda ride in triumphantly on beasts, and let the “happy” crowd sing political songs at them.

Well, I don’t know about that. I think you are making a bigger thing of this incident than it is.

Tell me more about what this prophet of yours says.

Well, it is part of another hymn of praise. “Rejoice”, it goes, “rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter, Jerusalem!”

So, it is like your psalm, is it? A psalm of praise, which is really a call for political salvation!

Oh no, not at all. “Rejoice”, it goes, “shout aloud, for lo, your king comes to you, triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey”.

Oh really – “triumphant and victorious”, indeed! Only a Jew would try to be simultaneously triumphant and humble! And what was that reference to a king?

A king? Oh yes, a king. Oh well, I suppose you could argue that there was some small hint about that in his decision to ride into Jerusalem, mounted on an animal.

You must know how we Romans feel about kings. We do not have a king ourselves, you will note. History has shown that kings are always to be associated with arrogance, and misuse of power. Look at Alexander the Great. Great general, dreadful king. He let power really go to his head and of course this leads to bad political decisions, and civil disobedience and unrest. And even the great Julius Caesar – as soon as he set himself up as a king he was assassinated. The only kings we Romans tolerate are our client kings, who do exactly as they are told. The governor will take a very dim view of anyone setting themselves up as a king, you know.

So, onto another matter. The people that were watching your Yehoshua ride along the road – why did they take off their cloaks and throw them over the animal he was riding on?

Well that was just a sign of respect, a sign that they were showing deference to the travelers.

No, I don’t believe it. Isn’t there more to it that than this? If it was a common sign of respect, then we would witness it daily. I want to know where your scriptures refer to this particular sign of respect.

Oh, I think it is in the books of the history of the kings of Israel.

I see, the books of the Kings – indeed this is a surprise!

Well, yes. But this was back in the days when we had our own kings, before your Caesar ruled over us, with all of his soldiers and tax-collectors and so on. Anyway, in the second book of the Kings, in chapter 9, there is the story about when the prophet Elisha anointed the young commander, Jehu, as the new king of Israel. When he came back to his troops in their barracks and announced to them what had happened, all the men took their cloaks off and spread them on the bare steps.

And what did they say to him, I wonder?

Why, the trumpeters blew their trumpets and all the people cried out, “Jehu is king! Jehu is king!”

Well, isn’t that interesting. And so I suppose you don’t expect me to think that yesterday, the people were about to call out, “Yehoshua is king! Yehoshua is king!”? Do you take me for a fool? I can see that their shouts were disguised cries acknowledging Yehoshua as king.

Oh no, not at all!

We hear that some people were waving leafy branches as he rode into the city. Why was this? Was this another royal symbol?
Of course not. It had an entirely different meaning. The branches relate to the Temple. They are part of our celebration, each year, when we remember how the Temple was purified and restored so that we could worship our Lord once again.

And when was this?

A long time ago, many years ago, when Antiochus brought the time of shame to our people, and burned our Torah scrolls and polluted our Temple, and we had to stop offering sacrifices at the altar. The time when the blessed Matthias and his seven sons were victorious over the foreigners and restored the Temple worship. That’s when the people waved their branches and shouted in praise to our Lord. It was a glorious time in the history of our people. You can read about it in the second book of our Maccabees heroes (2 Maccabees 10).

Indeed – a time when armed insurrection took place, when brigands and scoundrels fought against the armed might of the emperor, when they sought to appoint another King!

No, no, no…it was a glorious time because we remember how wonderful it was that we could worship again in our Temple. And that is what we can do now – worship in our Temple, thanks to your wonderful ruler and your brave Roman troops.

Enough – don’t make me sick. I know that’s not what you really think about us Romans. And anyway, since you bring up the topic of the Temple, tell me – what do you make of this? When Yehoshua ben Joseph arrived in Jerusalem, he went straight to the Temple and looked around at everything. Then he came back the next day and caused havoc in the courtyard of the Gentiles. What was he trying to do? It’s a good thing that he settled down and disappeared before our soldiers got there, or else he would be gone by now.

I tell you, the governor and the Herodians are not going to stand for any of this nonsense. The last time general unrest broke out in Palestine, the rebellions were easily put down. It is amazing how the crucifixion of 2,000 Jewish insurgents and the selling of another 20,000 into slavery can quieten a restless population. The zealot movement has been a right headache to us since then. And I did hear that one member of the Yehoshua movement is a zealot. There have been rumours also that Yehoshua disciples carry swords.

Well, travel is dangerous, you know – and the road from Jericho to Jerusalem is particularly dangerous for travel, especially at this time of the year, when lots of people are making their way to Jerusalem for the Passover. With such large crowds moving along the road, it is easy for those robbers to hide behind rocks and under cliffs and spring out onto the road and take what they can from the pilgrims and businessmen on their way to Jerusalem. I reckon that if you stopped every traveler and checked them to see if they were carrying a dagger or a small sword, then most of them would be – or most of the adult males, at any rate. Self-protection is pretty important, you know – and making sure that you could protect your wife and daughters and sons, if you were traveling as a family, would be sensible, too.

But Yehoshua and his friends weren’t traveling as a family group, were they?

Well, no, but that didn’t mean that they wouldn’t be carrying arms. I mean, business people carry swords, too. It’s just common sense. You just never know when someone might attack you. And you can’t depend on other people coming to your aid if you do get attacked. It has been known for people to lie, injured, on the side of the road for some time before somebody stops to help them.

Hmm…you make it sound so matter-of-fact and normal for people to be wandering along the road armed to the teeth with swords and daggers and weapons.

No, not at all. It’s not like we are talking about a full-scale armed rebellion, you know. We would not dare to contemplate such a treacherous activity against the wonderful rule of the Romans. But you have to realize that the Pax Romana doesn’t guarantee full safety for everybody on all occasions. There is still an element of trouble-makers in our midst, you know.

Precisely my point. And how do we tell if someone is a potential trouble-maker, a threat to public order, a secret terrorist? Why, we listen to what the crowds are saying about him, and we keep out ears open for news of political activity. Just like your Yehoshua was doing yesterday. And what about his companion, Simeon the Zealot? Now he is a worry, isn’t he?

Well, he is a bit of a wild card, I must admit. But I don’t know that he is still stirring up trouble, like in the old days. I’ve heard it said that he has reformed – that he has changed, he’s a different person, now.

Well, at this point I’m not interested in Simeon, or in any of the others – until they show their hand in the same way as Yehoshua. For the moment, we have him in our sights, and we will be watching him carefully. And if anyone else steps out of line, we will go after them, too. But it is Yehoshua that we are most interested in. He’s our main target. He’s just been acting too suspiciously. And you know, anyone who claims to be a King is setting himself against the Emperor. Amon, tell me, in confidence, what do you make of him? Do you think that his friends really do believe that he is the King of the Jews, like some of them are saying?

Oh, I think that is stretching things just too far. This man cannot be the Messiah, the Anointed One, the man chosen by God for the special task that is reserved for the Holy One of Israel. He doesn’t have any of the qualities of the Messiah. I know that some of my fellow Jews think that he is a special person. But then again, we have a track record of making this kind of claim. I mean, there was that Egyptian some years ago, and that fellow from Samaria, and the prophet called Hezekiah who gathered quite a following, and there were others; but none of them came to anything. Their movements just fizzled out. They weren’t the Messiah, despite what their followers said.

Yes, but none of them went into the temple courtyard and overturned the tables and caused such a commotion, did they? Most of them went out into the desert, much like that strange man, Johannan, the one who wants everyone to be baptised and to repent and follow him. Yes, they were all strange figures – but they were not political threats. Yehoshua is different. There is something about him, something that worries us. You know, even some of your own race have seen this man for what he is. I have heard that there were moves afoot to have him stoned because he practices sorcery and is leading Israel astray. If what you say about him merely celebrating an ancient custom is true, why have these rumours arisen?

I wouldn’t want to comment on this. I think that it is up to Adonai to judge whether a person is a sorcerer or not. If he is dabbling in this kind of activity, he will get his punishment soon enough. What Yehoshua should be doing is coming to the Temple and making his sacrifices, like an obedient and pious Jew. Like so many of us are doing, even as we speak.

But that is precisely the problem – when he came into the city, with people shouting out and waving branches and singing in praise of him, he wasn’t acting in a humble way – he was acting like the King of the Jews! And when he went into the Temple, he didn’t make his sacrifices like you require. He caused a commotion! And some of his friends carried swords! And this is the man who says, again and again, that he is here to bring in the Kingdom of God. What does that mean? Surely a man who plans a kingdom plans to be King of it. It doesn’t sound to me like he has an obedient attitude towards the Caesar of Rome, our exalted ruler.

Look, Scipio, calm down, will you. You are getting over-excited here. Don’t make too much out of what is really nothing. I’m sure he is no threat to Caesar. I’m positive.

No, I’m not convinced. I think he is more of a threat than you are making out. We have to do something. And if you don’t help us to act, you will find yourself in trouble. Do I have to remind you, that you priests are appointed by us Romans? The members of your Jewish priestly aristocracy retain their powers only by Rome’s grace. We can easily remove them. If you know what is good for you, you will co-operate with us, and you will find a way to silence him.

Well, just let me deal with it. I will ask around and see what we can do. I will take steps to have him silenced. We can work with you. Rest assured, we don’t want to upset you. We are prepared to do whatever it takes to keep the peace with our Roman overlords. Leave it for the moment, and let me see what we can do. I promise. I’ll work out some sort of plan. We can deal with him. Don’t you worry.

No, it is you that has to worry, my friend. It is you that has to do something about Yehoshua. And if you don’t, then we will make sure that he is dealt with. We can deal with your problem people, if you can’t fix it. You well know that Pilate has a serious lack of sympathy for Jewish sensibilities. Don’t you remember the incident of the ensigns in the temple? Pilate ordered us soldiers to bring our ensigns into the temple precincts. We had the images of the emperor painted onto the ensigns. We brought them in by night, but you lot soon discovered their presence. Though multitudes of you Jews hastened to Caesarea to petition Pilate for the removal of our so-called obnoxious ensigns, for five days he refused to even listen to you, and on the sixth day, when he took his place on the judgment seat, he had all the Jews surrounded with soldiers and threatened with instant death unless they ceased to trouble him with the matter. It wasn’t until all the Jews flung themselves on the ground and declared that they preferred death to the violation of their laws, that Pilate, unwilling to kill so many, gave in and removed the ensigns. Do you seriously think that the governor is going to give your terrorist Jew a fair trial? With all this evidence against him?

And don’t forget, either, that Pilate was the one who appropriated funds from your Temple to build the Jerusalem aqueduct – the aqueduct that brings you water for your daily needs. Although the crowd protested against him, Pilate had already planted soldiers dressed as civilians among the multitude, and when he gave the signal, they fell upon the rioters and beat them severely with clubs. It was only then that the riot was quelled – thank goodness Pilate intervened!

And remember, Pilate also arrested and executed many Samaritans during a religious uprising in Samaria. Also, much closer to home for your Yehoshua, Pilate, displeased by the attitude of a number of Galileans, had them killed and their blood mixed with the sacrifices. So don’t for a minute think that we are going to sit back and let things get out of hand! We will act!! And you will be sorry!!!

Alright, Scipio, I get the point. I’ll get the other priests together and work on them. It might take a few days, but let me assure you that we will sort this. You won’t have to intervene. Consider it done. After all, it is surely better that one man die for the people, than to have the whole of our nation destroyed.


As we come back to the twenty-first century, and leave behind our imaginary interview concerning Yehoshua ben Joseph, we are left with lots of questions.

We take for granted so many things about this story.
We assume that Jesus was the Messiah. But there were other ways he would have been seen in his time.
Was he acting humbly? Or was he acting in a provocative fashion?
Did he deliberately set out to become a target of the Romans, when he rode into the city?
Can we afford to keep on talking about “humble Jesus, meek and mild”, if what he really wanted to achieve was a radical re-ordering within society?
At what point would the Messiah have been seen as a serious threat to the Roman Empire and its stability and order?
Is the “job description” of the Messiah actually a threat to the way that society operates today?
Is it better that one man die rather than a whole nation be destroyed?

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