This article is part of the series, The Politics of Scripture. While the focus of the series is on weekly preaching texts, we welcome commentary on sacred, classic, and profane literature, film, and artistic expression. Submissions may be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Then they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks on it; and he sat on it. Many people spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut in the fields. Then those who went ahead and those who followed were shouting,
‘Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! – Mark 11:7-9
This procession down to Jerusalem is one of those very public moments in Jesus’ ministry. It could be called his most brilliant act of political theatre. Jesus proceeds toward Jerusalem, with a crowd that undoubtedly boasts some of the same sorts of outsiders Jesus has been connecting with all along: sinners, the possessed, the sick and blind, women, and foreigners. The crowd that shouts Hosanna would have been laughed at by any sensible members of society who happened upon this odd ritual. Much like I imagine today those with a high sense of their own political value would little understand what compelled these odd folk to gather as they had, creating trouble when they had little to gain but jail cells and crosses.
The work of Borg and Crossan in their book The Last Week, makes the case that this peculiar celebration does not happen in isolation, but is rather a counter procession, mimicking an imperial procession entering the other side of Jerusalem at the same moment. So here we have Jesus’s follower’s celebrating their weakness by way of taking power from imperial forces that would seek to impugn it. The grandeur of Pilate’s procession was meant to highlight his superiority over the weak. He held the reigns of a warhorse to signify his mastery of statecraft. But Jesus and his followers creatively re-imagine their weakness as strength. They do not deny their poverty, the very instruments of their celebrate proclaim it publicly, but they deny the authority of the empire to define their reality for him. They celebrate their own hero rather than worshipping at the feet of political power. Perhaps Jesus learned this tactic from the Syro-phoenician woman, who turned Jesus own insult around and claiming it in a new way secured healing for her daughter (Mark 7).
Since the time of Jesus though, the script has been reversed. Christians now occupy the halls of power. We enter our sanctuaries in revered processions. Christians now hold the reins of the horses of war. Perhaps this should give us pause and cause us to cast our gaze outside the city walls to hear the protests and see the theatre of those who have been cast aside and ignored by society. Christians ought never let access to power rob them of their roots with these folks, who had nothing but palms, blankets, and a borrowed mule at hand to make their point. This celebration of Palms shows a way of disrupting empire without access to political power: you change the script, make those things that seek to impose themselves upon you your own. We can decide which procession to attend this week. I pray we all make the less respectable choice.
John Allen is a Master of Divinity Student in New Testament at Union Theological Seminary in New York City and a chaplain to the Occupy Wall Street Movement. He holds a Bachelor of Arts in Religious Studies from Davidson College. He is an ordination candidate in the United Church of Christ Metropolitan Boston Association.