Saturday, 28 March 2015

The subversiveness of Palm Sunday

Joseph Mawle (centre) as Jesus in BBC's The Passion, 2009

The BBC produced a two-part film called The Passion in 2009, staring Joseph Mawle as Jesus.
It traced the last events of Jesus’ life, from his triumphal entry into Jerusalem, up to the Crucifixion.
In it you get a strong sense of the subversiveness of that entry, during Passover, when all the crowds hailed Jesus as King, riding on a donkey, in what we now call Palm Sunday.
To understand the subversiveness of this act we need to paint a picture of what was really going on that day, a political, religious and spiritual picture of authority.

Politically, it was a tense time.
Judea was an occupied territory, governed by the Romans, who in their turn were trying to keep the peace.
Passover was the single most important Jewish festival in the whole year – the time when Jews from all over the known world would flock to Jerusalem and recall their release from captivity under the Pharoah.
Because of this there was a strong sense of national religious fervour around the theme of liberation, which, given the occupation, made Passover a highly charged time, emotionally, spiritually and politically.

So here are the Romans, not really understanding the religious significance of Passover, trying to keep the peace, perhaps complaining about these zealous Jews, not wanting any unnecessary trouble.
Because we all know that crowds have their own dynamic, and it can be for good, or for evil, such is the energy generated when thousands of people gather in one place, for a common purpose.

We might think of the thousands who gathered in Paris after the Charlie Hebdo shootings on January 7th this year.
It was a protest in which there was a strong crowd mentality of solidarity with those innocent people who had been killed out of nowhere by extremists. It was a positive thing.
Or the so called Arab Spring of 2010, in which social media was the astonishingly successful channel for rousing civil resistance from Cairo to Tunisia, resulting in several leaders being toppled from power and fleeing the country.
Some of these protests were peaceful, others less so.
Other mass gatherings have turned to bloodshed – we can think of the Tiananmen Square in 1989, in which students protesting against hardline government were shot down and massacred as the tanks rolled into the square.

The things about crowds is that they are volatile  - a sudden change of feeling and they can turn nasty.
It might be thrilling to be caught up in a march for justice, but there will always be the troublemakers who stir people up.
This is what the Romans were worried about.
In The Passion, Pilate and his wife are gearing up for the heady crowds of the Passover, these troublesome Judeans they are obliged to rule over.
‘A Judean will start an argument in an empty house’, says Pilate’s wife.
‘Priests are the worst’, agrees Pilate.
‘There are always troublemakers during Passover week. The usual whining – taxes are too heavy, our soldiers too rough.
Pilgrims gather at the Western Wall of the Temple, in the bathing houses and markets. Any trouble will start there. Five years ago there was a riot. We had to finish it by breaking bones (…) I want patrols in the lower city – it’s a nest of thieves, beggars and whorehouses. The Temple Guard are supposed to be keeping order, but don’t you believe it.’

We perhaps have a tiny bit of sympathy as we see it from his point of view.
Crowds gathering, pushing, shoving, religious fervour, lots of them loving Jesus and his rousing speeches…
It’s all incomprehensible to Pilate and his soldiers – and a recipe for disaster as far as he’s concerned.

Then we have the religious leaders.
The BBC film very subtly portrays the High Priest, Ciaphas, as a man torn by conflicting impressions of Jesus.
He has heard that the Jewish people are turning to him, but Jesus doesn’t do things the normal religious way.
Jesus is a radical. He claims that he will tear down the Temple and rebuild it in three days.
This is blasphemy.
He forgives prostitutes and heals lepers without making the usual sacrifices.
He doesn’t appear to need, or even like Temple life – hence the scene when he overturned the tables.
He is dangerous at this Passover time – the people will forget the old ways and then Judaism will be finished – just what the Romans want.
It is vital that Jesus is in some way contained, but how to do this?
Jesus has followers, a band of men and women who walk around with him wherever he goes, hanging on his every word.
What is a High Priest supposed to do?

Ciaphas is not a monster – in the adaptation he has a loving wife and a family, and his thoughts trouble him.
‘Am I too soft?’ he asks his wife, before kissing her tenderly on the lips.
It’s a hard tightrope to walk, between loyalty to God and not enflaming the Roman authorities.

And into all this, at the height of Passover, comes Jesus.
Jesus knew the Scriptures.
He had read the prophet Zechariah: ‘Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion, shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem, behold your king is coming to you, righteous and having salvation is he; humble and riding on a donkey’ (Zech. 9:9).

(There's a wonderful clip of it, 6.23 mins into part 1, here:

What better way to announce your kingship than enter the city of the great king, riding on a donkey?
And this is just what Jesus does.
Yes, he is humble, as our first reading expresses – he did not grasp at equality with God – otherwise, a horse with armour plating would have been perhaps more appropriate.
Horses were for the military – a donkey for the Messiah.
So Jesus knows exactly what he is doing.
It is a challenge to the high Priests in fact.
When Ciaphas hears Jesus is coming into the city on a donkey he is horrified because it’s blasphemy.
It’s the last straw. Jesus must be silenced.
It is better for one man to be given up for the people, than the whole faith is lost.
Little does he know of the heavy irony of his words.
One man will be given up for the people, but not in the way Ciaphas imagines.

So amongst the crowds, the Romans and the Jewish priests, the whole of the Palm Sunday narrative weaves around the true nature of authority.

Pilate has political authority.
He is the legitimate ruling power, taking his orders from the Emperor himself.
Ciaphas has religious authority because he upholds the ways revealed to God’s people through Moses – the elaborate sacrificial system designed to purify them from sin, designed to be held by the male priests directly descended from Aaron.

And then there’s Jesus.
Knowingly coming in through the East Gate of the Temple, the gate through which Messiah will enter, on a donkey, as predicted by Zechariah.
In one sense it is a provocative act. An act of religious subversion.
Jesus is claiming to be the true Messiah of Israel, and Saviour of the whole world.
Only Jesus knew that political and religious authority were nothing without ultimate authority, and he was about to turn that on its head.

We might like to reflect on the true nature of authority as we approach the General Election.
‘You will always have the poor’, said Jesus.
There are always those at the bottom of the pile and the ultimate test of a just society is how we deal with the growing gap between the haves and the have-nots.
What does our Christian faith say to the hot topics of today’s political debate – Immigration, terrorism, the NHS and financial ethics?

As we approach Holy Week, let’s take away the image of Jesus on a donkey.
As an image it is as subversive as it can be.
The King of Heaven come to earth and humble, riding on a donkey.
What does this image say to power?
It says to power: you only have authority as far as God allows.
And God’s authority is on God’s terms – it’s not for us to wield.
It is a model for us, that we divest ourselves of any pretension to power or control as we share the message of Jesus Christ.
Because God’s authority is demonstrated by a Saviour who emptied himself, taking on the form of a servant and only then was highly exalted by God, that at the name of Jesus every knee shall bow, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

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