Jesus and the Nuclear Option (Palm Sunday Matthew 21:1-11)

By now, I’m guessing most of us have heard of the “nuclear option”.  If you haven’t, that’s OK. It means you’re living beyond the day to day stresses and crises emanating from Washington, DC.  However, for the purposes of this morning, I need to put us all on the same page.  The nuclear option is part of the national discourse and debate concerning the confirmation of Judge Neil Gorsuch to the United States Supreme Court.

Currently it takes sixty United States Senators to vote “yes” for a person to be confirmed and take their seat on the Supreme Court.  Judge Gorsuch is not going to get sixty votes.  Forty-one senators have said they’ll vote against him.  One hundred minus forty-one leaves you fifty nine.  The Senate rules say one party can filibuster the other and block the appointment.  Here’s where it get’s “nuclear”.  The majority party can change the rules.  It can become so that only 51 votes may confirm a judge; a simple majority of the 100 senators.  Rightly or wrongly, this is referred to as the “nuclear option”.   (The semantics do bother me.)

Our politicians act like they are the first to use grand schemes and machinations.  Sure the Democrats used the “nuclear option” when they were in power and Republicans did it in the past as well.  But neither invented the idea of drastic changes which altered the way business was done on legislative, political, moral, and ethical terms.  Have they not heard of Greece and Rome?  Their arrogance is breathtaking.  Why do I say this?

I believe Jesus was one of the first leaders to use the nuclear option.  He did so on Palm Sunday.  The authorities, the Romans, even his disciples told him what he could not do, how many “votes” he needed, and what support he must garner.  Jesus could save his life by following a carefully proscribed series of legal, theological, religious, and parliamentary steps.   This was the message he had received since well before he arrived at the home of Mary and Martha:  tick our boxes and you will live.  Thomas’ comments, while Jesus agonizes over returning to save the dying Lazarus, point to the nuclear option, “If you go back, they may kill you.  Let us all go back and die together.”  Mark tells us from the beginning of his Gospel:  following Jesus means following him on “the way”.  “The way” leads to Jerusalem.  Jerusalem is where the authorities and options narrow.  Jerusalem is a place of both death and resurrection.  As the disciples moved from Bethany to Bethpage, Jesus knew “the way” was his only option.

When Jesus gets to the Mount Olives, he has already decided to change the rules.  God is going to upend the rules.  We all have boundaries and limits in which we operate.  Most of those structures are there to keep the fine line from civilization and chaos from blurring any further.   Those are not the rules of which I speak.  Jesus is about to alter our perception of God’s identity, what God represents, and what God will do for humanity.

Jesus’ nuclear option is about contrast.  The last thing a politician, whether that’s Pontius Pilate, King Herod, or a United States Senator, wants is the public to contrast their statements, identities, and ideas.  When you identify contrasts, inconsistencies are soon to follow.  Pontius Pilate knew this.  Jesus knew it too.  Jesus wanted to embrace contrast.  He wanted to contrast himself, God, against the assembled power, money, and might of the most powerful people on Earth.  The road to our Salvation lies in the contrast. But contrast also leads to conflict.

It’s the option Gandhi and Mandela used in freeing India and South Africa.  Gandhi and Mandela were borrowing from Jesus.  The contrast of active nonviolent resistance against the massive brutality of the British and South African governments showed that the moral legitimacy of either regime couldn’t stand forever.  The world saw the contrast and how evil the colonial powers were.  The contrast ultimately saved lives.

Two vastly different groups entered Jerusalem to mark the beginning of Passover.  One led by a Roman governor, the other led by an itinerant Galilean carpenter.  It is in the contrast between these two processions, where we find the meaning of Palm Sunday.

From the eastern side of the city, coming down from Bethpage on the Mount of Olives, Jesus of Nazareth rode a donkey.  They didn’t line up just outside the gate and figure out their places the way we start a Fourth of July parade.  Despite the detours in Bethany and elsewhere, this procession started over a hundred miles away in Galilee.  Surrounding Jesus were those he had taught, healed, and ministered to in Galilee over the past three years.  Others joined them as they made the journey south.  These were peasants; not working class artisans alienated by Jerusalem’s income gap.  Jesus’ followers, for the most part, were the poorest of the poor.  Jesus spoke of life not death and a kingdom where prodigals, Samaritans, and tax collectors all got a fair deal.  He may not have been the Messiah temple wanted.  But who wanted to reject someone who said God was the embodiment of unconditional love? You’d be surprised.  Love was like gold.  If you controlled God’s love, you controlled the keys to hell and death.

Just across town, on the western side of the city, at the same time Jesus was crossing the eastern gate, Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor, walked into the biggest political and religious tinderbox of his career.  Imagine Ferguson, Missouri the day after Michael Brown was shot.  Pilate is the police.  No one wanted him there.

When you’re under occupation, the presence of an occupying army at your most important religious festival is a reminder of how, if given the chance, you’d like to kick that army out.  Especially if that festival is centered on the celebration of God freeing your people from another evil empire.  The Passover atmosphere is tense.  While Pilate wants to keep the peace; his troops, his arms, and his soldiers only makes things worse.  How many years have we been trying to do the same thing Baghdad and Basra?

Remember Pilate is not only a representative of the Roman army but also Roman theology.  Caesar is God.  His procession proclaims the divinity of Caesar Augustus.  This is what his banners proclaim.  Augustus is referred to as the “son of God”, “lord”, “savior”, and the one who “brought peace to all mankind”.  Sound familiar?  Could the contrast be any greater?  Who is God?  Is it the man on the white charger, with any army, called lord, and savior, the bringer of peace with a sword?  Or is it the man on the donkey with no army, fickle followers, who some call lord, savior, and brought peace with words?   On the surface, it seems like a ridiculous choice.  The only option is the former.  Who would choose the latter?

Jesus has created nuclear options his entire life.  He ate meals with sinners.  He touched the untouchable.  He proposed an alternative vision of the kingdom of God on Earth.  Jesus was always doing an end run around our sanctimonious practices with symbolic actions of divine obliteration.

Through this dramatic gesture, Jesus is sending a signal that he and his followers are prepared to choose options other than the dominant cultural, religious, and social choices offered to them by those who call the shots.  The man on the donkey allows us to see the hollow shell of Roman authority and a corrupt temple system.  He does this at the cost of his own life.  Salvation itself lies at the heart of the contrast Jesus creates by choosing this option.

Today we have the opportunity to watch Jesus use the nuclear option.  On Thursday and Friday, as Irvine Welsh reminds us in his novel Trainspotting, it is up to us to “choose life” or not.