By Ched Myers
Note: This is a re-post from an ongoing series of Ched’s brief comments on the Markan gospel readings from the Revised Common Lectionary during year B, 2015.
Jesus’ long march to Jerusalem takes Mark’s story from the margins of Palestinian society (the Jordan wilderness and Capernaum in Mk 1) to its center. Arriving at the suburb of Bethany (11:1), Jesus prepares to enter the Holy City not as a reverent pilgrim demonstrating allegiance to the Temple, but as a subversive prophet challenging the foundations of State power. Mark 11-12 narrates Jesus’ second “campaign of direct action.” In the first campaign in Galilee (1:20-3:35) he confronted the status quo with his powerful actions of exorcism and healing. Now he takes on the Temple system and its stewards: the Jerusalem clerical establishment. This campaign, like the first, will culminate in polarization and rift, and will conclude with Jesus’ withdrawal to further reflect upon his mission in a second sermon about revolutionary patience (13:1ff; see 4:1ff).
Mark’s Jerusalem narrative commences with the so-called “Triumphal Entry” (11:1-10). But this is a misnomer; this carefully choreographed political street theatre is designed to repudiate Messianic triumphalism. The scene would have been loaded with political significance for Mark’s original readers. Jesus marches into the City accompanied by an army of peasants (11:7f), whose rapturous cries escalate the acclaim of Bartimaeus (10:47f) into a full-blown revolutionary chant: “Blessed be the Kingdom of our Father David” (11:9f). Images from the parade called to mind several biblical precedents: the colt signifying triumphant Judah (Gen 49:11); the return of the Ark to Israel (I Sam 6:7ff); the declaration of Jehu as upstart king (2 Kg 9:13); a royal processional hymn (Ps 118:25f). And the fact that the parade began “near the Mount of Olives” (11:1) would have brought to mind the final apocalyptic battle between Israel and her enemies spoken of by Zechariah (see Zech 14:1-5).
This theater also alludes to more recent events. It recalls 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.” And there was an incident of Messianic posturing contemporary to Mark as well. Mid-way through the Judean revolt against Rome (66- 70 C.E.), according to the Jewish historian Josephus, the guerilla captain Menahem had marched through Jerusalem heavily armed and “like a king,” in an unsuccessful attempt to become the sole leader of the rebel provisional government.
But Mark uses all of these popular Messianic images precisely in order to subvert them. This is the point of the odd story about “commandeering” a colt, which occupies fully half the parade narrative (11:2-6). Mark is consciously re-organizing the symbolism of this parade around a different Zecharian image which is expressly anti-military:
Shout aloud, daughter of Jerusalem! Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding upon…a colt, the foal of a donkey. He will cut off the chariot from Ephraim and the war horse from Jerusalem…and shall command peace to the nations (Zech 9:9f).
This king, who has already rejected Hellenistic power politics (10:42ff), enters Jerusalem quite unarmed—though just as dangerous.
The donkey also signified the ancient triumph of the tribe of Judah in Gen 49:11. It is not just a ride for Jesus; it represents a symbolic fulfillment of ancient dreams of Israelite sovereignty, and thus is tantamount to a declaration of independence. That’s some pretty powerful political street theater. Jesus’ “nonviolent siege” will not follow the Messianic script that equated national liberation with the rehabilitation of the Davidic Temple-State. When Jesus comes to the Temple it is not to defend it, but to disrupt it.
Biblical scholars Marcus Borg and Dom Crossan, in The Last Week: A Day-to-Day Account of Jesus’ Final Week (Harper, 2007), argue that there were likely two processions into Jerusalem. The Feast of Passover was a volatile time, during which Jews celebrated their divine deliverance from the Egyptian Empire of old—thus focalizing their dissatisfaction under the current Roman boot. The Roman authorities thus feared that nationalist Jews would get stirred up with all the talk about freedom from bondage. So as Jesus was entering the city from the east, Borg and Crossan contend, a military cavalry led by the Roman governor Pilate may well have been arriving in the city from the west, bringing troops to the city to quell any over-zealous Jews who might be calling for freedom from the Roman empire.
The imperial triumphus was both a civil ceremony and religious rite, held to celebrate publicly and to sanctify the achievement of Roman commanders who had won great military successes. We can see this depicted in Trajan’s Column in Rome (ca. 113 CE), commemorating emperor Trajan’s victory in the Dacian Wars (right). On the day of his triumph, the general wore regalia that identified him as near-divine or near-kingly. He rode in a chariot through the streets of Rome (or of the conquered city!) in procession with his army and the spoils of his war. It is this imperial spectacle that the writer of Colossians later parodies in Col 2:15—in which the risen Christ parades the principalities and powers who have been defeated by the cross—an intentionally ironic image. 
Make no mistake: Roman soldiers marching into west Jerusalem during the High Holy days was a show of force meant to intimidate any opposition to their occupation—something that still happens today in that city to quell dissent, usually with tragic consequences. (Left: Heavily armed Israeli Defense Force disperses a demonstration in a-Nabi Saleh, May 21, 2010; photo Oren Ziv)
At right is one of my favorite posters, hanging in our office here at BCM. It is a painting by Belgian artist James Ensor that captures the political dynamism of the Palm Sunday march. “The Entry of Christ into Brussels in 1889” was painted (note carefully) in 1888.  Considered “a forerunner of 20th century Expressionism,” in its composition a vast carnival mob in grotesque masks advances toward the viewer: a sea of frauds, clowns, and caricatures of public, historical, and allegorical figures, including Belgian politicians and members of Ensor’s family. Nearly lost amid the teeming throng is the haloed Christ on his donkey (circled in yellow)—mostly ignored, a precarious, isolated visionary amidst the herd-like masses of modern society.
Joel Pelletier’s “American Fundamentalists (Christ’s Entry into Washington in 2008),” 2004, is a contemporary re-presentation of Ensor’s work (right). It is a searing critique of the political influence of American Christian “Dominionism.” Note Bush and Cheney in the upper right, with Baghdad burning behind them, while banners praising John Winthrop, John Nelson Darby, Calvin, Francis Schaeffer and Rush Limbaugh are paraded at left, and at upper left, Osama bin Laden & other notorious terrorists watch from windows.
We need to undomesticated Palm Sunday in our churches. Jesus was staging a kind of counter-demonstration. While Pilate rode into the city on a military stallion, Jesus entered on a borrowed donkey, symbolized sovereignty—but also Zechariah’s promise that Yahweh would one day banish the war horse forever! The procurator claimed the Pax Romana, the Nazarene a “Pax Christi.” Pretty subversive stuff—and our churches have the habit of recreating that “demonstration” in our Palm Sunday liturgies. But to really represent this gospel story in our world, we need to re-contextualize its symbols into our political moment, and re-place our witness back into public space.
 For more details and images, see my archived webinar “Revisioning Palm Sunday: Jesus’ March on Jerusalem in Political and Economic Context” (BCM Webinar Series, March 20, 2013; order at www.chedmyers.org/node/276).
 Although Ensor was an atheist, he identified with Christ as a political spokesman for the poor and oppressed. This controversial piece was rejected by Les XX, the artists’ association Ensor had helped found; it was not exhibited publicly until 1929. But Ensor displayed the painting prominently in his home and studio throughout his life.