The Politics of Plots & Pilgrimage—John 12:12-17 (Amy Allen)

The Politics of Scripture, Lectionary

One plots and schemes in order to exert control. One embarks upon a pilgrimage in order to relinquish control. Entering Jerusalem as a lowly king, Jesus foils both the plots of those who would capture him and those who rally around him as a political revolutionary.

John 12:12-17
12 The next day the great crowd that had come to the festival heard that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem. 13 So they took branches of palm trees and went out to meet him, shouting,

‘Hosanna!
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord—
the King of Israel!’

14 Jesus found a young donkey and sat on it; as it is written:

15 ‘Do not be afraid, daughter of Zion.
Look, your king is coming,
sitting on a donkey’s colt!’

16 His disciples did not understand these things at first; but when Jesus was glorified, then they remembered that these things had been written of him and had been done to him. 17 So the crowd that had been with him when he called Lazarus out of the tomb and raised him from the dead continued to testify.

One plots and schemes in order to exert control. One embarks upon a pilgrimage in order to relinquish control. However, in today’s reading, the Pharisees’ plot and Jesus’ pilgrimage come up against one another with the resultant demonstration that God is in control.

First, the Pharisees’ plot. After they drove Jesus out of Jerusalem and into Perea following the winter Festival of Dedication, the Pharisees had the illusion of control (John 10:22-42). They believed that they had the upper hand on Jesus, and plotted to take Jesus’ life (John 11:53). Their plot, like any good scheme, involved planning. The Pharisees, like the crowds who were expecting Jesus (11:55-56), knew that it was Jesus’ habit to come to Jerusalem for the festivals. Therefore, “when it was almost time for the Jewish Passover” in the spring, they gave the order “that anyone who found out where Jesus was should report it so that they might arrest him” (11:55, 57).

But we all know what happens to the best laid plans, and, despite their planning, the Pharisees were foiled when they received word that Jesus was entering Jerusalem and yet were met by “the great crowd” of pilgrims who had arrived ahead of Jesus and were waiting to greet him at the pilgrim’s gate (John 12:12). On first reading there is nothing unusual about such a welcome, as the crowd is employing lines from Psalm 118:25-56, among the Psalms of Ascent, typically “sung as a welcome to pilgrims coming up to Jerusalem.”[1] However, within the context of the Pharisees’ plot, one is led to wonder whether these very same crowds are not the people to whom the Pharisees spread the word that anyone who was aware of Jesus’ whereabouts should report it directly to them. Indeed, by issuing such a widespread and public appeal for Jesus’ arrest, the Pharisees may have themselves brought about the unusually large crowd waiting to greet Jesus upon his entrance into the city. In any case, the pilgrims effectively prevented Jesus’ arrest, such that the Pharisees lamented, “You see, you can do nothing. Look, the world has gone after him!” (John 12:19). There were too many people surrounding and supporting Jesus for the Pharisees to make their move. If this is the case, however, then the Pharisees were not the only ones with a plot.

Second, then, we move to the plot of the pilgrims. Indeed, the Jewish pilgrims from around the countryside and diaspora—“the whole world” as the Pharisees describe them (NIV)—who went out to meet Jesus, if they were responding to the Pharisees’ notice of their intent to arrest, had a plot of their own. A closer reading of their greeting to Jesus reveals the fabric of their plan. First, of course, they must protect him from the Pharisees in order to avoid arrest. It is possible that the word “Hosanna!”—literally translated as “Help!” or “Save!”—in addition to functioning as an appeal to Jesus as Savior, may also have been employed as an imperative to one another to help, save, and protect Jesus.

However, once this crowd of supporters—impressed by the signs Jesus had performed and eager to protect him—had safely surrounded Jesus, they did not simply bear him to safety. Instead, they changed the pilgrims’ greeting by adding the clarifying acclamation, “Blessed is…the King of Israel!” (12:13). Having effectively provided for Jesus’ safe entry into the holy city, the crowd made their agenda known. Indeed, a similar crowd, with similar motives, around the time of the Passover, had had these designs before. When, in John 6, “after the people saw the sign Jesus performed…they intended to come and make him king by force” (vv. 14-15). Perhaps at the heart of the two crowds there remained some of the same instigators. Yet, in John 6:15, Jesus foils this plot by withdrawing to a mountain by himself. Now, with presumably no avenue for escape, the crowd may think they finally have their king. Perhaps their plot even included a further plan to fit Jesus into the mold they had for a political and religious revolutionary to free them from the Roman rule.

Finally, then, we move from human plotting to Jesus’ pilgrimage. Perhaps himself aware of the plots in store for him in Jerusalem, Jesus acquired a young colt for his entry into Jerusalem. It would, of course, have been completely out of character for Jesus, who had previously steadfastly avoided kingship to enter into Jerusalem with a chariot or a horse. Thus, the crowd was unlikely to have been expecting a “royal” entry. They probably anticipated him to enter on foot, or, perhaps, even on the back of a full-grown donkey. However, there was nothing in Jesus’ previous behavior that had prepared the crowd for his nearly comical entrance—riding on an immature ass.

As the crowd, ripe with hope and civil disobedience, hailed their intended King, prepared, perhaps, to make their case for his kingship with reason or force as necessary, they were met with the unexpected. Riding on the colt of a donkey, Jesus recalled the messianic prophecy: “Rejoice greatly, Daughter Zion! Shout, Daughter Jerusalem! See, your king comes to you, righteous and victorious, lowly and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey” (Zechariah 9:9). Thus, without uttering a word, Jesus singularly affirmed his kingship and supplanted their plot. He would not come into Jerusalem as a political revolutionary. Instead, following upon the words of Zechariah’s prophecy, he entered Jerusalem as a King, but lowly and humble. Jesus entered Jerusalem as a King equipped to save Israel, but not from Roman Rule or the domination of Ephraim, but rather from itself. Jesus entered as the Messiah equipped to bring in God’s apocalyptic era in which human plots and schemes no longer have power because “the Lord God will save his people on that day as a shepherd saves his flock” (Zechariah 9:16).

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