The ‘Liturgy of the Palms’ as Political Street Theater

Palm SundayBy Ched Myers, for Palm Sunday

Note: This is part of a series of Ched’s occasional comments on the Lukan gospel readings from the Revised Common Lectionary during year C, 2016.

Luke’s Jerusalem narrative commences with the so-called “Triumphal Entry,” a misnomer for several reasons. For one, Luke’s version of the story omits the Hosannas and the palms—indicating that these are not the most important parts of the “Palm Sunday” parade (even though that’s all most First World Christians focus on). For another, this carefully choreographed political street theatre is designed to repudiate Messianic triumphalism.

Let’s take a careful look.

Arriving at the suburb of Bethany, Jesus prepares to enter the Holy City (Lk 19:29)—not as a reverent pilgrim demonstrating allegiance to the Temple, but as a subversive prophet challenging the foundations of State power. The setting of this parade is as significant as anything else. Luke frames this section by making it clear that Jesus goes up (v. 29) and down (v. 37) the Mt. of Olives. Separated from the Temple Mount by the Kidron Valley, this 2,900-foot hill has served as one of the main burial grounds for the city from the 3rd millennium B.C.E until the present.  The fact that Luke’s parade is firmly associated with the Mount of Olives would, for biblically literate readers, have brought to mind Zechariah’s vision of the apocalyptic battle between Israel and her enemies:

For I will gather all the nations against Jerusalem to battle… Then the LORD will go forth and fight against those nations as when he fights on a day of battle. On that day his feet shall stand on the Mount of Olives, which lies before Jerusalem on the east… (Zech 14:2-4)

Luke’s allusion thus heightens the political tension of the march to come, invoking Judean hopes that their God would finally come and liberate them from their enemies. After all, Jerusalem at this moment was thoroughly occupied by Rome, an empire at the height of its power. Heavily armed legions kept things locked down in the peripheral colony of Palestine. And we’ve seen how Luke from the outset sets his story in the real political space of this world, naming its rulers: Caesar and Quirinius (2:1-2), Pilate and Herod (3:1).

It is significant that well over half of Luke’s Palm Sunday narrative—like Mark’s version upon which it is based—is devoted to the instructions given by Jesus to two disciples to procure him a mount!   This is uncharacteristic detail, the entire scenario even being repeated (19:30-35), meaning to communicate that everything is being deliberately choreographed. So we are justified in viewing the march as carefully and strategically planned “political street theater.”

But this scene also gives conflicting signals. While the Mount of Olives’ setting alludes to divine war against the nations, the fact that Jesus is mounted upon a colt redirects our attention to a different Zecharian oracle: “Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem! Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey” (Zech 9:9). Bracketing that beloved verse is Zechariah’s promise of an end not only to oppression for God’s people (9:8), but to all political violence and war: “God will cut off the chariot from Ephraim and the war-horse from Jerusalem; and the battle bow shall be cut off, and he shall command peace to the nations” (9:10). This “midrashic corrective” undermines any fantasies of military revenge that ancient hearers of this story might have harbored.

Though the donkey symbolism is nonviolent, it is still clearly political. From here on, each detail in Luke’s account invokes memories of Israelite sovereignty. For example, the donkey signified the ancient triumph of the tribe of Judah (Gen 49:11). People lay their garments on the road in front of Jesus (Lk 19:36), invoking the populist declaration of Jehu as an upstart king (2 Kg 9:13). The chants that arise around Jesus’ parade (Lk 19:37f) echo the royal processional and coronation hymn of Ps 118:25f, further fueling the crisis over legitimate kingship in Israel in Jesus’ time.

This theater also alluded to more recent events. It recalled the victorious military procession of Simon Maccabaeus, the great guerilla general who liberated Palestine from Hellenistic rule some two centuries before. According to I Maccabbees 13:51, Simon entered Jerusalem “with praise and palm branches…and with hymns and songs.” On top of that, there was an incident of messianic posturing at the beginning of the Judean revolt against Rome (66-70 C.E.) that Luke would certainly have been familiar with. According to the contemporaneous Jewish historian Josephus, the guerilla captain Menahem marched through Jerusalem, heavily armed and “like a king,” in an unsuccessful attempt to become the sole leader of the rebel provisional government.

The Pax Romana is also challenged in the crowd’s declaration of “Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!” (Lk 19:38)—exactly what the angels proclaimed to peasant shepherds at the birth of Jesus (2:14). In Roman propaganda it was customary for Roman poets and orators to declare peace and prosperity at the birth of one who was to become emperor—but this is a decidedly Israelite messianic proclamation. Luke’s street theater, therefore, communicates strong claims to political sovereignty for a nonviolent messiah, which would not have been lost on his contemporaries, friend and foe alike.

Marcus Borg and Dominic Crossan, in their 2006 book The Last Week: A Day-to-Day Account of Jesus’ Final Week, argue that actually there were likely two processions into Jerusalem during this Passover week. Passover in Jerusalem was a volatile time, in which Jewish pilgrims celebrated their deliverance from the past Egyptian Empire, though currently living under the boot of Rome. The Roman authorities, trying to manage the simmering nationalist discontent that sporadically broke out into armed insurgency, were ever wary that the populace would get stirred up by all the talk about freedom from bondage.

TriumphAs Jesus was entering the city from the east, claim Borg and Crossan, a military cavalry led by the Roman governor Pilate would have been arriving in the city from the west, bringing troops to the city to quell any over-zealous demonstrations of Jewish nationalism. In fact, such Roman processions (triumphus) were civil and religious rites of empire that celebrated and sanctified the military achievements of a successful army commander (a spectacle that is parodied, however, by the writer of Colossians 2:15). A victorious general would wear regalia identifying him as kingly and near-divine, riding in a chariot through the streets of Rome or the conquered city with his army and the spoils of war. We can see this today in the Arch of Titus in Rome (left). Constructed in 82 C.E. by the Emperor Domitian shortly after the death of his older brother Titus, it commemorates General Titus’ victories, including the Siege of Jerusalem in 70 C.E. Roman soldiers marching into Jerusalem during the High Holy days would have been an effective show of force designed to intimidate dissent.

Jesus’ “counter-demonstration,” therefore, was subversive stuff indeed. Pilate rode into the city on a war horse, Jesus on a borrowed donkey symbolizing peace, but also sovereignty. The procurator claimed the Pax Romana, the Nazarene a Pax Christi. Little wonder that Luke reports that some of the Judean authorities try to silence the crowds, wishing to avoid a political scene (Lk 19:39). But Jesus’ response is sharp and pointed: “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out” (Lk 19:40). This alludes to an oracle from the prophet Habakkuk (2:6-11), a critique of the exploitive rich who try to insulate themselves from the restive masses they oppress. Jesus takes the sides of the latter, refusing to suppress this popular resurgence of hope.

PosterAt left is a favorite poster, which hangs in our BCM office: James Ensor’s “The entry of Christ into Brussels in 1889”—painted in 1888! It captures the political energy that surely characterized the first “Palm Sunday.” It is clear from a study of Luke why Jesus was a political threat to the colonized status quo of occupied Palestine in the first century. Why then are our churches so often politically domesticated, afraid to speak out on issues of justice and take sides with those who protest today?

Peace ParadeGratefully, some intrepid Christians have properly restored Palm Sunday liturgy to the streets through a “peace parade” tradition. Begun through the “public liturgy” work of people like Bill Wylie Kellermann, such parades are spreading around the world, including here in southern California (right). I encourage us all to “join such parades”!

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