Every year at Passover, the Roman governor would travel up from the coastal capital at Caesarea Maritima (literally, ‘Caesar’s City by the Sea’) to Jerusalem. It was a symbolic reminder of Rome’s mastery as much as a practical reinforcement of local troops. And no wonder. It’s hard to imagine anything more unsettling for an occupying power than a religious celebration in which thousands of pilgrims would come to their ancient capital to remember their God’s acts in history to free their people from foreign oppression. And so, the governor would process into the city with the full glory of Rome: mounted on a charger, surrounded by chariots and soldiers bearing their weapons and imperial standards, all in the name of the lord Caesar. Today, on Palm Sunday, we remember a very different kind of procession into Jerusalem — one that tells us a lot about God and our faith.
As Luke tells the story:
After throwing their cloaks on the [donkey] colt, the disciples set Jesus on it. As he rode along, people kept spreading their cloaks on the road. 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, saying, “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!” (Luke 19.35-38)
The contrasts between the governor’s procession and Jesus’ are many. Jesus enters not on a war-horse but on the colt of a donkey. He is surrounded not by soldiers, but by a crowd of everyday people. He is met not with imperial standards and swords, but with palm branches and cloaks. He is hailed and blessed not as the one who comes in the name of the lord Caesar, but as the king who comes in the name of the LORD God: Hosanna in the Highest!
This is a prime example of the major contrast of the New Testament: the kingdoms of this world vs. the Kingdom of God. In the context of the New Testament, Rome stands as the exemplar of the ways of this world. Its emperors sought to be gods upon the earth — even to the point of being hailed as gods after death. This is a far cry from the way of Jesus, who, as today’s Epistle reading reminds us, “did not consider equality with God as something to be held on to, but emptied himself…” (Philippians 2.5f). While Rome is the canonical example of Empire for our Scriptures, it was far from unique; it was not the first Empire, nor was it the last. The kingdoms of this world continue to enforce their will, if not direct rule, over their neighbours, and ‘Empire’, both national and corporate, continues to suck up the wealth of the nations. And this is as evil today as it was two thousand years ago. The fact that in our time, two of the clearest examples — the economic empire of the United States and the neo-imperial aggression of Russia towards its neighbours — self-consciously use Christian language, imagery, and identity is a great and deeply depression irony. To repeat a common refrain from my Lenten series, there is absolutely no room for religious nationalism within Christianity. There is the way of the kingdoms of this world — the way of domination, ‘might equals right’, and wealth accrued at the expense of the poor — and there is the way of the Kingdom of God — the way of peace, wholeness, justice, and love.
In the story of Palm Sunday, the crowds recognize Jesus in this contrast (even if they may not have understood it). They greet him as their true king, the heir to David’s throne and representative of God. When the Pharisees tell Jesus to quiet them before there’s trouble, he says simply, “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would cry out.” Even if the crowds will give into the temptation of ‘the kingdoms of this world’ and by Friday be shouting “Crucify him!” about the same man they hailed as their king on Sunday, truth and justice remain. They are not dependent on popularity or human recognition. And if there’s no one to speak out for them, the very earth will cry out, “groaning in labour pains,” “waiting in eager longing” to be set free from its bondage to the kingdoms of this world, as Paul would write to the Romans.
As we enter this Holy Week, the choice is before us: Do we choose the ways of the kingdoms of this world, or do we choose the ways of the Kingdom of God? Do we ride into Jerusalem in glory and power, or do we enter it humbly, on the back of a donkey colt? Do we welcome as our Lord Caesar — wealth, domination, and lust for power — or Jesus — poverty of spirit, compassion, and justice for all?