Politics on Palm Sunday and todayby Jon Heinly
I saw Palm Sunday in a different light this year. As I do each year, I imagined Jesus’ journey toward Jerusalem. But as I pictured the scene on Palm Sunday, I didn’t see the same happy throng waving palm branches and laying colorful cloaks in the path of a young donkey ridden by the Messiah. Instead, I imagined the riveting video footage of the masses gathered in Tahrir Square in the midst of the Egyptian uprising.
Is it possible that the emotion-filled images from the Arab Spring are more accurate depictions of the scene in Jerusalem? A faith-filled people living under the rule of a foreign regime gather as a miracle-working rabbi enters the holy city. People line the streets, calling on Jesus, “Hosanna, save us, Son of David.” They cry out for him to reclaim his rightful kingship as the descendent of a great and mighty military leader.
Gatherings of urban masses are never to be taken lightly, as we have seen so vividly in the past year. This was a cause for concern for both the Roman rulers and the Jewish religious leaders. No one wanted a riot, especially during an important religious festival. Those types of situations had ended in tremendous bloodshed before. Caiaphas wisely recognized that it was in everyone’s best interest for this one man to die than for everyone to pay the consequences of revolt. Rome wanted to maintain the peaceful submission of the people, and the Jewish religious leaders looked to prevent loss of life and to maintain their limited power and religious freedom.
But as Zechariah prophesied, Jesus did not ride into Jerusalem on the white war horse of conquest. Instead, he entered on an unbroken, young donkey. It was in stark contrast to the style of Roman rulers; it was satirical, underhanded, humorous, shocking, mocking the status quo and the standard approach of temporal powers. His odd style didn’t end there. Later that week, instead of calling on angels to come to his defense or even allowing his disciples to fight on his behalf, he was taken into custody and put on trial.
Picture again the images of the protesters demanding change throughout the Arab Spring. Like them, the Jews who had gathered in Jerusalem were ready for change. Jesus was a great teacher who had shown tremendous power, even the ability to raise the dead. The people knew he was capable of overthrowing Roman rule. Why else would he include zealots in his band of followers? Their hopes were elevated, gladly receiving this new reign that had long been prophesied, for which they had waited and prayed.
These hopes climaxed in the so-called Triumphal Entry and in a matter of days became disillusionment, frustration and anger. They quickly discovered that Jesus was not coming to fulfill their plans and desires. The mob turned from praise to condemnation as their political hopes were dashed before their eyes. Disappointment, especially of that magnitude, is hard to deal with. It makes us angry.
The kingdom that Jesus was ushering in was not what they imagined.
The events of the Arab Spring were not the only reason I experienced Lent and Holy Week differently this year. I was also reflecting on our own political climate in the United States. I was thinking of the polarization over politics I see within Mennonite Church USA, both locally and nationally. With a presidential election coming in a few months, political hopes and anxieties rise to the surface again. I fear that, regardless of political affiliation, we, too, may be caught up in the misguided hopes for a political hero to solve the problems of our nation or our world.
As it turns out, the kingdom of God is, to borrow from Donald Kraybill, an “upside-down kingdom.” Like those Jews who gathered, shouting hosanna to a triumphant Messiah, we, too, will have our hopes dashed if we call on a political hero to save us from the world’s woes. Perhaps instead we should answer the call to follow a rabbi “who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage” but “made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant.”
Jon Heinly is youth minister for Lancaster (Pa.) Mennonite Conference and Lancaster Mennonite School.
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