There’s something incredibly awkward about the events of Palm Sunday and the week that follows. It’s difficult for us to realize just how awkward a procession of peasants, headed by a carpenter on a donkey, during the holiest week of the year, in a city crowded with thousands of pilgrims might be. Our image of parades is usually celebratory. If you were on Garrish Highway this past Thursday, you saw our first village Saint Patrick’s Day Parade. Everyone had a great time; we walked as a family and even took the dogs. The sheriff gave our small group an escort down the street.
While the crowds lining Jesus’ route appeared to be celebrating his presence; they weren’t sure what it meant. Was he really the promised Messiah? Nor did they know how much, how loud, or how exactly to cheer. Unlike our parade, guided by the Hyde County Sherriff’s Department, the Temple and Roman authorities weren’t there to help or protect Jesus’ parade. Well armed soldiers were everywhere. They had been told to expect a riot, civil disobedience, and disorder. It wouldn’t take much for them to step in and stop the “Hosannas” with clubs, swords, spears, and shields. Parades are fun. Processions can be emotionally neutral. Jesus’ walk into Jerusalem is an awkward combination of the two. Fused with expectation, tinged with fear, cloaked in hope, this procession was an action designed to provoke the watchers to move from the sidelines to the frontlines.
Who are the watchers? People waving palm branches, those singing “hosanna in the highest”, and even in his own disciples were all poised to move from passive spectators of the “Jesus” show to being engaged participants in the kingdom of God. That’s one set of a watchers. That’s us.
There is a second group “watchers”. Represented by the soldiers and temple guards standing over those proclaiming “Blessed is He who Comes in the Name of the Lord”, they are the temple priests, their Roman overlords, and those with a vested interest in maintaining the political, economic, and religious status quo. Jesus wants them come down from the massive temple walls and confront him directly. If they will not come to him then he will go to them.
You see why this is awkward. Jesus does not want to pick a fight. He wants to take the first punch. There is a difference. Jesus wants a confrontation with a system he knows has the power to kill him. Most people, even drunks in a bar will rarely start a fight unless they think they can win. This isn’t a fight. It’s not about winning or losing.
Here’s an idea: the religious system is so out of touch, absurd, and hurtful; what if we let it do its worst to one person? Perhaps that one example would be enough to inspire others and begin to slow down the death-giving inertia he’d been pointing out for three years. Otherwise, people are simply going to keep shuffling along, heads bowed, working for the Romans, alienated from God, and disconnected from their neighbors. What if one person, a person with a following, forced the principalities and powers to reveal their demonic devotion to religious minutiae and love of abject brutality by not fighting back? If you’ve ever wondered why the disciples didn’t get it or the crowds were disappointed in Jesus for not having a better or different plan; you see how it sounds to people who are easily driven by the need for anger, results, and substance.
I love it when a plan comes together. Didn’t Hannibal used to say that on the A-Team? On Palm Sunday, the plan is finally starting to take shape. Whose plan? Let’s be clear: everything that occurs from the moment the disciples take the donkey and Jesus rides into Jerusalem is Jesus’ plan. We can say “It is God’s plan” in a general sense but that doesn’t do justice to the decisions Jesus is making on the ground. God isn’t moving the donkey, waving the palm leaves, or Jesus around the streets of Jerusalem like pieces on a divine chess board. Jesus is on the streets, calling the shots, and controlling the events which will lead to his arrest and execution. He is not helpless. Jesus is in charge of what’s happening to his life, his disciples, and Jerusalem.
Jesus is following through on a plan which, in less than a week, will lead to his death. It’s vitally important to be clear on this point: God did not kill Jesus. Jesus was killed by those principalities and powers (so named by Saint Paul) who found they could no longer tolerate his continued existence.
What do I mean when I say “principalities and powers”? It’s easy to say the “elites” because we hear that word bandied about in the media. It’s hard for us, in a country with a solid middle class to get a sense of what it means to have an “elite”. When you travel to Africa and you realize there exists only the incredibly poor and a few incredibly rich we get a sense of Jesus’ world. The poor were as poor as the most impoverished countries you can imagine. Those in control, the religious leaders, King Herod Antipas, and the Roman occupiers manipulated the people they ruled for every bit of financial, political and religious gain possible. Their actions ate away at the fiber of Israel’s soul and destroyed their ability to remember what God truly valued. Jesus’ teachings about money, hunger, food, healing, and wholeness were direct attacks on these three powerful institutions. In this last week of his life, Jesus engaged all three (Romans, Temple, and King Herod) in a way to guarantee they had no choice but to come for him. Jesus was executed when these three forces combined to end his life. God did not kill Jesus. God did not demand the death of Jesus of Nazareth. Human beings did. You and I did.
The Aztec God Quetzalcoatl could be appeased by the ritual sacrifice of human beings. This isn’t what’s happening here. God’s thirst for blood isn’t being satiated by the death of his first born child. God’s forgiveness isn’t revealed in violence, death, and execution. Grace is unveiled in love. Jesus loved us, so he died for us. Did he die to pay for our sins, as some say? I’ve never liked to monetize salvation. How much torture does one man have to suffer to “pay off” the sins of all people who’ve ever lived or will live? Could Jesus have been beheaded? Would another form of death sufficed? Did my sin require a specific number of lashes? Did each thorn in Jesus’ crown equate to the suffering of billions of people? Is this how it works to “pay” for my sins? There must be some kind of exchange, what he suffered must be economically quantified and equated to sin. I think this theory borders on the absurd. Jesus also suffered a great deal of abuse out the cruelty of human hearts and by human hands. This idea is salvation by sadism, not love. Torture, on behalf of love, is a crime. It’s not a means of salvation.
Jesus is not some divine surrogate, a whipping boy for thousands of years of injustice and Israelite misbehavior. He is so much more. That’s what got him killed.
David starts the story by saying, “Sacrifice and offering you do not desire, burnt offering and sin offering you have not required.” (Psalm 40:6) Throughout the Old Testament, people begin to pick up on the message that God is not interested in sacrifices and blood as sin offerings. What’s in your heart is more important than the cow you bring to the altar.
Hosea says much the same thing when he tells us that God desires, “steadfast love and not sacrifice”. This is the same God we’re talking about with Jesus and the cross. Love not sacrifice.
Then in the Book of Hebrews (10:5-9), the writer says:
Consequently, when Christ came into the world, he said, “Sacrifices and offerings you have not desired, but a body you have prepared for me; 6in burnt offerings and sin offerings you have taken no pleasure.
7Then I said, ‘See, God, I have come to do your will, O God’ (in the scroll of the book it is written of me).” 8When he said above, “You have neither desired nor taken pleasure in sacrifices and offerings and burnt offerings and sin offerings” (these are offered according to the law), 9then he added, “See, I have come to do your will.” He abolishes the first in order to establish the second.
In other words, the ritual sacrifices of the distant past are no longer needed. God isn’t interested in those for us, or Jesus, or anyone at all. Loving each other, as we love our neighbors, and doing God’s will in the world takes the place of the sacrifice. That’s what we embodied in Jesus. We see someone who loved so much, forgave with abandon, and desired mercy to the point he sacrificed his own life. This week does not mark our annual observance of a scapegoat who paid God off in the form of a tortured ritual sacrifice. That’s not God’s plan. Jesus’ death didn’t buy our forgiveness from sin. You don’t purchase forgiveness. You live forgiveness. So what I’m saying is this: Jesus died to show us how to live.