Sunday, April 2, 2023

Phil Kniss: Our convenient fiction: Reconsidering Palm Sunday

PALM SUNDAY: Jesus reveals the nature of his kingship
Psalm 118:25-29

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Sometimes it’s nice to just let a story
mean what we wish it would mean,
instead of what—in all probability—it actually means.
Sometimes life is easier that way.

Our own spin on an event
is often more comfortable to deal with,
than a more complete and honest telling of the story.

This is human nature.
We tell ourselves stories—good stories—all the time.
But in so doing,
we might be avoiding a more difficult truth.
Take climate change, for example.
The evidence is overwhelming and virtually indisputable.
Yet we consistently either deny that it’s happening,
despite clear evidence,
or we admit it’s happening, but soft-sell the consequences.
“It won’t be as bad as scientists say.”
The truth is just too difficult, or too costly, to face.
So we tell ourselves stories.

We do the same with many of our heroes—
favorite athletes, or pop stars, or actors,
or politicians, or theologians, or pastors,
or any one with power and prestige.
When we see them misbehave badly,
we tell ourselves stories,
“It can’t be as bad as it looks.
They’ve done such good work.”

Sometimes we even tell stories about ourselves,
that might keep us from attempting something hard,
or from taking a path less traveled.
We tell ourselves we aren’t smart enough or strong enough,
or good enough at heart,
to take that difficult path, or that high road.

So we adopt all kinds of convenient fictions—
about ourselves, about others, about the world around us.

Today my aim is to uncover a convenient fiction
that many of us hold about Jesus,
and his ride into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey.

We hold on to this fiction, because it works for us.
Because it’s easier and less complicated than the truth.

Tell me if this story sounds familiar to you:
Jesus rides into Jerusalem on a donkey.
He doesn’t encourage, but he also doesn’t stop,
the crowds’ heartfelt shouts of praise, “Hosanna!”
The people want to make Jesus a King,
but Jesus cleverly refuses, by riding a humble donkey,
and by doing so, reveals that
he is a servant to the poor and humble,
and not positioning himself as a conquering king.
Then in a matter of a few days,
this same crowd turns against him and tries to crucify him,
because he is not going to be their king after all.
And then his disciples discover,
after his trial, crucifixion, and resurrection,
that what he is really after is a heavenly kingship,
not an earthly one.
So Jesus invites us all to
receive him as our spiritual savior, not a political one,
and with a pure heart, to him give our spiritual worship,
while we wait for his kingdom to be fulfilled in heaven.

I like that story.
I like it very much.
Because it suits my personality,
suits the theology I was taught, and suits my social position.
I like that story.
It’s just a shame that it’s not the truth.

So let’s take this convenient fiction,
and peel back the layers.
Like an onion, it might make our eyes burn a little,
It might make us uncomfortable.

Where do we start?
Let’s start with this innocent animal, the donkey,
a humble beast of burden,
nothing like a white horse we associate with a conquering king.

This symbol of simplicity and humility,
that reminds us of the rural life,
and of rejecting political power,
is so convenient for Mennonites
who have a reputation and a theology that emphasizes
simplicity, and humility, and suspicion of political power.

The only problem with this fiction
is that in the world of Jesus,
a donkey did not conjure up images of a simple, and rural,
and non-political life.
A donkey was highly esteemed,
and it was often the steed of choice for a king,
especially at politically opportune times.
With an almost semi-divine status,
donkeys and kings belonged together.
Jesus was not the only king in the Bible to have ridden one.
Even the proud and wealthy King Solomon
rode a donkey on the day he was announced
as the new king of Israel.
And there are more kingly examples in the Bible,
and in other ancient literature.

I used to think that seeing Jesus on a donkey
would have been confusing to those who
wanted to make Jesus the king of Jerusalem.
No, Jesus on a donkey did not confuse anyone
who was following and shouting Hosanna.
Nor did it confuse any religious leaders in Jerusalem,
or King Herod, with all the power of the Empire,
inside the city walls in his palace.
They understood the threatening symbolism.
They knew that it was customary in their world,
that when a king returned to his city,
after already securing a victory in battle,
the steed of choice for his victory parade into the city
was a donkey.

A king rode a horse into battle, yes.
But when he came in peace,
or when the battle had already been won,
he rode a donkey.

So, I’m sorry, it is simply wrong for us to suggest
that by choosing a donkey
Jesus meant he rejected political kingship.

I think what Jesus is signaling here,
is that he is, in fact, entering Jerusalem as their Messianic king,
but not a king who will seize his power by force,
or by violence.
Rather, he is a king who comes in peace,
because the enemies are defeated,
the essential battles have already been won.

When looking at the picture more honestly, we can see
that Jesus was not just an imagined threat to Caesar and Herod,
and to his own religious power structures.
He was a real threat.
He already had the crowds and public opinion behind him.
And now he was staging a highly symbolic march,
making an in-your-face statement to the political powers.
Without words, he was saying,
“Give it up. You’ve already lost.”

And yes, he was also making a statement to his followers.
He was telling them, “Make no mistake.
We are not going to win with the sword.
This is not a violent takeover of the throne of David.”
He was saying,
“The powers of the Empire,
and the powers of the religious elite—
they exercise their power by violence.
They take from others,
they accumulate wealth and coercive power,
so they can lord it over others.
In contrast to all that,
I am entering this center of religious and political power,
to show you how the power of God
is about to unseat the powers of this world,
and put them in their place.”

Of the two power structures at play—
Rome was the least worried.
They had all Caesar’s armies at the ready.
I think the religious hierarchy felt the greatest threat.

And this points to two other convenient fictions—
held by different Christians for different reasons.
One fiction is that the Jewish people as a whole turned on Jesus.
That the people shouting “Hosanna!” at the beginning of the week,
made an about-face, and were shouting “Crucify”
by the end of the week.
The other fiction,
is that Jesus’ crucifixion was entirely a Roman act,
not a Jewish one.
There is honorable intent behind that fiction, of course,
because we don’t want to be anti-Semitic.

But the truth is more complicated.
This is not a matter of ethnicity or religion.
It’s about religious power,
and what happens when power is threatened.
Turns out Jewish power structures act a lot like
Christian power structures when they are threatened.

The Jewish people, like Christians today, were deeply divided.
Jesus was immensely popular outside of Jerusalem.
He could thumb his nose at the scribes and Pharisees,
in the outer regions of Galilee, and get away with it.
Because rural Jews were likely already suspicious
of the power elite in Jerusalem—
the temple rulers who taxed and over-taxed them,
the ones who collaborated with the Empire,
in order to maintain what power they had.

But in Jerusalem, Jesus was a threat.
Healing someone on the Sabbath upset the power elite.
And if you lived in Jerusalem, in the urban environment,
you had personal ties to the power elite.
If they weren’t close relatives, they were neighbors,
or you rubbed shoulders daily in the market.

So now, at the beginning of Passover,
the biggest Festival of the Jewish year,
both sides of this great divide were in Jerusalem—
residents, and visitors from Galilee.

There is no biblical evidence that the people shouting “hosanna”
on Palm Sunday,
were the same people shouting “crucify” on Good Friday.
If I ventured a guess,
I’d say it was mostly Galileeans shouting “hosanna”
and mostly Jerusalem-ites shouting “crucify.”
I don’t have hard evidence of that, either.
But to me, it’s a far more logical explanation,
than saying the people just changed their minds.

The power elite in the Jewish world had a lot at stake.
Jesus posed a real and present danger to the status quo.
It would have been an easy thing for the religious leaders
to stir up a crowd of their neighbors and relatives in Jerusalem,
and convince them their peaceable future was at risk,
if Jesus didn’t die.

And one more quick fiction, while we’re at it.
“Hosanna!” is not some generic shout of praise,
like we often make it to be.
It’s kind of a hybrid shout.
Part praise, and part cry for help!
“Hosanna!” literally means “save us!”
This was a political chant being shouted 
by a crowd of oppressed Galileeans.
I have to believe they were staging a march for freedom,
that Jesus actively participated in.

So what does this all mean to you, and to me,
as followers of Jesus in the post-modern and secular West,
in the 21st century?
This truer story makes sense for then,
and makes sense for Matthew’s community of readers.
How does it make sense for us?

Like Jonny Rashid said in his sermons and talks
in our community last week,
Jesus took a side.
Jesus was not a neutral observer.
He confronted injustice.
He confronted oppression.
He confronted hypocrisy.
Wherever it appeared.
Whether in the militarized Empire,
or in the power structures of his own religion.

The convenient fiction of Palm Sunday,
for us contemporary Mennonites,
and for a lot of Christians, for that matter,
is that Jesus was not political.
That Jesus only wants to save us spiritually.
That Jesus desires only an internal and spiritual transformation.
That the primary role of Christians is to have
an internal and personal relationship with Jesus,
so we can go to heaven when we die,
and leave the earth behind,
and all worship around the heavenly throne.

The inconvenient truth is that we are called—now—
to collaborate with God in making THIS world new,
not just the world to COME.
This world is the world God loves,
and is seeking to heal and save.
This is the world where God wants to establish
God’s reign of justice and shalom.
And we are God’s partners in that work.
Like Jesus, we are not called to neutrality.
We are called to commit to the side Jesus is committed to.

It IS a mission of peace.
Like Jesus on the donkey, we reject the path of violence.
Our is a mission of mercy, and grace,
and love, and peace, and compassion . . . and also courage.
Because like Jesus, we must confront the powers that be.
The church of Jesus Christ, even today,
should be making the empires of the world nervous.

Those who wield their power primarily in ways
that protect their own interest—
if they do not in the least feel threatened by Jesus-followers,
we, and they, are probably holding on to Palm Sunday’s
convenient fiction of a faith that is only personal and internal
and harmless to the power structures.
I say, we stop telling that story to ourselves,
and choose the truer one.

Let’s share this prayer of confession together, in your bulletin.
one Jesus Christ, self-giving and generous Messiah,
we confess that we continue to misunderstand who you were;
we continue to make you into our image,
into the kind of ruler we are comfortable with.
all Jesus, lead us where you want us to go.
one Take us with you into the places you still want to save.
Show us the human lives and power structures
you still want to transform . . . including our own.
all Jesus, save us! Hosanna! We beg of you!
one Jesus Christ, our self-giving and generous Messiah,
forgives us, as always, and invites us to continue
the baffling and beautiful journey of the cross.

—Phil Kniss, April 2, 2023

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