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Politics of Scripture

From Hosannas to the Cross

The pairing of Jesus’s celebrated entry into Jerusalem with the story of his Passion by many churches this Sunday presents a kind of emotional whiplash. It offers a warning to how we treat the prophets and revolutionaries of our own time.

When I used to teach a class titled “Encountering Christ” for undergraduates, I often asked them at the start: who are people that you would compare to Jesus in the twentieth or twenty-first century world? Many of the usual figures appeared in this conversation: Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Mother Theresa, Oscar Romero, Nelson Mandela, etc. It was always notable how few living figures they chose.

When we got to the passion story in the class, I then revisited the figures they chose, looking at the ways those activists were criticized and persecuted. I would ask them to reflect on why someone like Dr. King, or Bishop Romero, who were once seen as politically dangerous – are now held up as heroes. Usually, the response ended up being some version of: “well, we know better now.”

Or so we hope. It’s tempting to believe that we can always identify the right side of history. This week’s readings challenge that by pairing Jesus’s celebrated entry into Jerusalem with the telling of his final hours in the passion story. For many in the congregation, this can present a kind of emotional whiplash, but it can also invite the reader to reflect on how they respond to the prophets of today. 

My discussion in this post is influenced by my own Roman Catholic liturgical tradition, which includes many practices that physically and symbolically recreate both Jesus’s procession and passion. Typically Roman Catholics begin the Palm Sunday liturgy with a blessing of palms and Matthew’s story of Jesus’s procession:

A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. The crowds that went ahead of him and that followed were shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!” When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, “Who is this?” The crowds were saying, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.”

Matt 2:8-11

In many churches, this is recreated with palms, flowers, handmade aprons or skirts. Congregations are invited to sing their Hosannas as if they lined the roadside at Jerusalem.

Not very long after, the gospel for the mass brings the congregation to the passion story. When I was a child, the reading of the Passion story was often presented dramatically, with readers assigned to roles (Jesus, Pilate, Narrator, etc). The congregation would play the role of “the crowd,” who in Matthew’s version of the story selects Barabbas for freedom. We would read  along closely in hymnals with a script that looked something like this:

NARRATOR:  Now the chief priests and the elders persuaded the crowds to ask for Barabbas and to have Jesus killed. The governor again said to them,

PILATE:  “Which of the two do you want me to release for you?”

NARRATOR:  And they said,

CONGREGATION:  “Barabbas.”

NARRATOR:  Pilate said to them,

PILATE:  “Then what should I do with Jesus who is called the Messiah?”

NARRATOR:  All of them said,

CONGREGATION:  “Let him be crucified!”

Matt 27:18-21

I have always found it interesting how these liturgical traditions invited us to play specific roles in the story – contrasting roles, at that. The congregation that celebrates Jesus at the start of a 9am service condemns Jesus to death less than a half hour later.

Even though such dramatic readings of the passion story are less common than they used to be, I think they offer a valuable lesson – and warning. Palm Sunday is not just an imaginative reenactment of a long-past history. The experiences of Jesus in Matthew’s gospel continue today in the many ways those who pursue justice are persecuted and forsaken. 

It can be tempting for Christians to see themselves waving palms, but to also forget they choose Barabbas. If these scriptures do provide a warning for us, I want to delve deeper into how that might play out in today’s world. 

Yet, this can also be where the analogy of the reenactment breaks down: few people today are in the position to choose freedom for one revolutionary and death for another. Nonetheless, as the many examples my undergraduates offered shows, Jesus is not the only person who pursued justice to great applause by some, only to be killed when he became too radical, or posed too great a threat to the existing lines of power. 

For example, Dr. King was lauded with a Nobel Peace Prize, and then assassinated four years later. But this also complicates what I ask of the reader: the people who gave King the Nobel prize were not the same people who killed him. Some contemporaries clearly viewed King as a hero, but those with power still found him dangerous.

If we back away from the specific moment the crowd calls for “Barabbas” and instead look at the larger system in which the choice was offered, the warning becomes more clear. Matthew’s account of Jesus’s trial and death involves a lot of actors, but the person with actual power in the scene is clear: Pontius Pilate. The very choice laid before the crowd was orchestrated and dictated by Pontius Pilate. Jesus’s death ultimately comes from the Roman rule of law.

It is true that (like the other synoptic gospels) the Matthean Pilate seems to believe in Jesus’s innocence, and yet condemns him anyway. In this particular gospel, he is even depicted as washing his hands and claiming “I am innocent of this man’s blood” (Mt 27:24). For today’s reader, this moment may even feel like a piece of political theater – a politician absconding from responsibility that clearly only he holds.

Unfortunately, these depictions of Pilate as a reluctant participant in Jesus’s trial and death have often been used (intentionally and unintentionally) to support antisemitism, to blame “the Jews” for the death of Jesus. So it’s important to know that other historical sources tell a slightly different story about Pilate. 

In fact, first-century historian Josephus and philosopher Philo both view Pilate as a leader who was quick to violence, and often misunderstood the religious views of the Jewish community under his oversight. For them, he was no innocent bystander but someone who forced order on the region at any cost.

Both the gospel and Josephus’s account were written around the same time, and within living memory of Pilate’s rule. Despite their differences, they share something in common with their depiction of Pilate as someone who wanted to stop resistance and riots, and wanted to get there as easily as possible. Whether that meant the violence of using his troops to quell an uprising, or crucifying a single, potentially innocent man, he saw it all as necessary to achieve the goal of upholding the status quo.

Leaders like Pilate are familiar today. We see Pilate in the institutional leaders who fear the protests and agitation for justice more than they fear the existence of injustice. They are the Bishops who say they want racial justice, but only on their terms. They are the politicians who elide the differences between nonviolent protests and a violent siege. They are the governors who, even today, execute men convicted by discredited evidence.

Most people do not hold these kinds of hard, coercive power. Still, I would challenge the reader to think about how these dynamics are replicated on a smaller scale. 

We may not condemn someone to death, but we might uphold an unjust law, policy, or practice. We might insist, “it’s out of my hands,” instead of advocating for change. In a case like this, perhaps we listen to and even celebrate those who call for justice, as on Palm Sunday – but when the Passion comes, it’s easier to wash our hands and claim helplessness.

Or perhaps we resist the messy gears of change through actions like protests and civil disobedience because we find safety in the order of the status quo. We’re open to the message of justice, but object when acting on that message requires risk and sacrifice. 

Or, we listen without question to leaders when they call someone who works for justice “dangerous.” We allow our ability to imagine a more just world to be limited by the boundaries our leaders set. 

This week, the liturgy invites Christians to see themselves lining the road in Jerusalem, and then to follow Jesus along the road to his death. Like my undergraduates, it’s easy for today’s Christians to read these stories and “know better.” After all, they know the ending. Christians know the hope of the empty tomb and liberating resurrection that lies ahead in Holy Week. 

But for now, I ask Christians to linger in the story that comes before. To examine our conscience, our community, even our rules and laws and ask: how would one such as Jesus fare under these today? 

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