29 March 2015

Hollow Hosannas?

Palm Sunday/ 29th March 2015

Mark 11:1-19

A parade, palms, and shouts of praise.  These are the things that come to mind when we hear this story. And, yet, there’s something about this day, the day when Jesus’ entered Jerusalem, that’s not quite right. 

We call it Palm Sunday, but it’s never called thus in the text.  Did you notice that Mark’s text never says anything about palm branches?  Instead, he says they “spread leafy branches that they had cut in the fields,” (Mark 11:8), not from trees.  The church sings its hymns – All Glory Laud and Honor to thee, Redeemer King, to whom the lips of children made sweet hosannas ring![1] — as we did this morning, but there are no children singing sweet hosannas in Mark’s text. Our hymns often enhance and amplify the biblical story. Sometimes our hymns distort and diminish the meaning of the biblical story.  If I was in Jerusalem that day, with my son or daughter at hand, I probably would have made sure that we were no where near the procession route.  Why?  Because, as Mark tells it, this was a risky, dangerous, provocative parade that Jesus orchestrated here.  There’s nothing sweet about this story.  It’s bittersweet.

“Hosanna! Hosanna!” the people cried.  By the end of the week some of the same were no doubt in the crowd shouting, “Crucify him! Crucify him!”  It’s knowing this that makes the entire story extremely odd, even disturbing.  Knowing what we know, about what transpired that week, the hosannas sound hollow.  What’s going on in this story?  What were their expectations?  What did Jesus hope to achieve with this demonstration?  What did the disciples think was going on?  What about the crowds, the onlookers viewing this spectacle? What were their thoughts?  And what do they really mean by “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David!”

. . .

The more I read and reread the story of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem and study contemporary biblical scholarship, at least one thing becomes clear (or clearer): this is carefully choreographed political street theatre.[2]  It’s loaded with symbolic meaning, the least of which is Jesus’ riding on a colt, instead of a full-grown horse.[3]  Brian Blount, one of the leading Mark scholars of our day, Presbyterian pastor and president of Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond, says, Mark “spends more time describing the preparations for Jesus’ entry, than the entrance itself, more time talking about a colt, than talking about the intentions of the one who will ride on it.”[4] Mark’s gospel is the shortest; he has an economy of words, the narrative moves quickly.  But here it takes seven verses to talk about the colt.  Did you notice this?  Mark has two verses describing what the people were shouting before they enter the city, then just one verse describing the entry itself.  And, this, too, is a very odd verse: “Then he entered Jerusalem and went into the temple; and when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve” (Mk 11:11).  What was the procession for?  Nothing.  What did it really achieve? Not much.  Maybe that was the point: to get the attention of the city and to forewarn them that something new was about to occur.

The next day, in Bethany, Jesus curses a fig tree for not bearing fruit.  And then he enters Jerusalem a second time, goes straight to the temple mount, turns over the table of the money changers, and effectively takes over the administration of the temple.  “My house that be called a house of prayer for all the nations” (Mark 11:17, quoting Isaiah 56:7)!  And that’s when things start to become really ugly.  And when evening comes Jesus and the disciples leave the city again.

So, what did those hosannas really mean the day before?  Hosanna is Hebrew for, “Save, we pray!” “Save us!” “Save,” they shout to Jesus.  Save!  Save from what?  From whom? For what? They’re not saying, “Jesus save us from our sin.”  They’re not saying, “Jesus, save our souls for heaven.”  It’s not that individual; it’s not that spiritual, even.   They’re saying, “Save us, Jesus.  Blessed are you, the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David!”  We have to pay close attention here to this verse. 

If Jesus is bringing in his kingdom, announcing his rule over the city, then what happens to Caesar?  If Jesus is claiming his title as a descendant of King David—which is clearly what the crowds are saying—it becomes obvious that what the people are hoping to be saved from is Roman occupation and the domination of the empire.  And all of this is occurring during Passover, when the population of the city swells with pilgrims in town to celebrate the Passover meal—which is, itself, a commemoration of Israel’s liberation from an earlier empire, from the domination of Pharaoh. 

Religion and politics combine here.  It can’t be ignored—it’s blatantly obvious. You have thousands of people pouring into the city of Jerusalem to celebrate the liberation of God’s people from the yoke of oppression, in God’s holy city, Jerusalem, this city of Yahweh’s “shalom,” Yahweh’s peace and wholeness, surrounded by legions of Roman soldiers brought up annually to the city from the main Roman garrison along the coast to make sure that the city remains peaceful. We know that the city was full of religious zealots and protests against the Romans.  And the Jewish authorities running the temple—not all the Jews, but those in authority of the temple precinct, essentially the Sanhedrin—we know were essentially collaborators with the Roman authorities.  It was their invested interest to maintain the peace.[5]  Rome rewarded them for doing so. And so into this powder keg we have Jesus’ own, carefully planned march on Jerusalem, riding in on a colt, mocking the Romans, as the people shouted “Save us, Jesus!” with the religious and political authorities looking on.  His actions the next day lead to the destruction of the temple economy. 

I don’t know why we love overlook the political dimensions of this story.  We love to spiritualize the Bible, domesticate it, and in so doing we distort it, thus making it difficult to really “hear” what Mark is saying about Jesus’ life and ministry.

Paula Fredriksen, a leading New Testament scholar, makes this clear: Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, during Passover, this religious holiday of national liberation, an entry that was directly the result of Jesus’ own commitment to the kingdom of God, “would have been understood by any Jew that the present order was about to cede to the Kingdom of God.”[6]  It’s an act of social, political, economic, as well as theological revolution.

“Save, we pray.”  But things start to turn ugly and the crowds and even some of the disciples start to turn on Jesus because they want him to save them, save Israel, on their terms. They want him to take on their oppressors and liberate them.  They want him to restore things to the way they were.  But that’s not his plan.

There’s something else we need to remember when we read Mark’s gospel.  We have to remember when Mark wrote it, around 70 AD.  And what happened in 70 AD? It’s one of the most important years in the history of the world, one of the most significant dates for both Jews and Christians.  The Roman siege of Jerusalem and, eventually, the total destruction of the temple—the same temple that witnessed Jesus’ demonstration several decades before—occurred in 70.  And we know from the Jewish historian Josephus (37-100), that in 66 AD, at the start of the Jewish Wars (66-70 AD), there was a man named Menahem, a leader in the Sicarri, an anti-Roman Jewish insurgent group.  Josephus said, he “took some of the men of note with him, and retired to Masada, where he broke open king Herod’s armory, and gave arms not only to his own people, but to other robbers also.  These he made use of for a guard, and returned in the state of a king to Jerusalem, and became leader of the sedition, and gave orders for continuing the siege.”[7] Mark wrote his gospel only a few years after Menahem’s triumphal entry, someone also claiming to be king of the Jews.  Mark’s hearers would have known about this story.  Jesus and Menahem are not the same.  Jesus comes in a different way.

. . .

Pray, save us.  We, too, sing “Hosanna!” on this day.  What does it mean for us?  What are we really saying?  Blessed in the one who comes in the name of the Lord.  Blessed is the coming kingdom.  What is this kingdom? Where, exactly, is the kingdom? The kingdom is not “up there” in some heaven, but here and now for Jesus and Mark. The focus of the gospel is on the kingdom.  Our thoughts during Holy Week are focused so much on the cross.  How could they not be?  But the cross, itself, has to be understood within the context of Jesus’ preaching of the kingdom, the kingdom Jesus came to announce and embody.  Jesus faces a cross because of his commitment to God’s kingdom, to God’s empire, which is one way to translate the Greek here.  It’s because Jesus comes bearing the kingdom—God’s empire—in the midst of false empires and principalities and powers, that the religious and politics powers unite against him and seek to destroy him.  Cornel West, a contemporary philosopher of religion, said it beautifully, succinctly: “Holy Week is fundamentally about love in the face of empire.”[8] 

Jesus is a threat. His way of love is always a threat to our ways, our assumptions, our ethics, our visions for the way the world should be.  We want Jesus on our terms.  But he comes in a different way, on a colt, not a stallion. And when he calls you and me to follow him it’s an invitation to take his road, to walk his way into the kingdom, on his terms. Are so, I wonder, our hosannas any less hollow when we expect God to “save” on our terms?

These “Hosannas” offered by the crowd bother me, they disturb, even haunt me.  There’s something disingenuous and hollow about them.  Again, maybe because we know the chorus will change its tune by Friday.  And we, too, risk being hollow and disingenuous when we say, “Hosanna!” “Save us” and don’t work toward the vision of God’s kingdom that Jesus gave his life to show us, which is effectively the same as saying, “Crucify him!  Crucify him!” Our hosannas are false when we’re not willing to suffer—or, at least, become just slightly uncomfortable—because of Jesus’ way of mercy and compassion and peace and generosity and hospitality grace and justice and wholeness.  What does this kingdom of God—the very things the crowd affirms in Jesus’ arrival—what does it really mean for us, today, what does it look like in places such as Ferguson; the impoverished places of Baltimore; in the halls of government and the board rooms of corporations that overlook the needs of all God’s children; in places such as Yemen and Tunisia where sanctuaries become fiery pits of hell, where ISIL/ISIS and Boko Haram—the very face of evil—inflict heavy crosses for the followers of the man who once rode on a colt; where technology is wed with the desire to self-destruct unleashing wave upon wave of grief and pain, inflicting wounds that will fester and never heal? What does the kingdom of God look like in these situations?

These are heavy questions.  It’s a heavy week.  Crosses are heavy.  But love requires honesty.  Love calls for truth.  This is the world that confronts us daily, of which we are all a part, a world of crosses and crucifixions, a world that still turns on its savior, a world the savior came to love and heal and save, a world the savior continues to love and heal and save.  In such a world, I want to offer honest, heartfelt hosannas.  Don’t you?  I want mine to be different. Ours have to be different.  The hosannas we can offer to the Lord, the hosannas we sing, the kingdom we pray for and hope, is the kingdom given in the Risen Christ.  Heartfelt hosannas are risky, dangerous, and often provocative.  This is what’s required of a disciple of the Risen One.  To sing “Hosanna!” to him means we have given our hearts, again and again, to his way, to his life, his truth, his vision for the world, his love for the world.  It means aligning our wills with him so that it might be “on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10).  Blessed—blessed, indeed—is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.  Hosanna!  Hosanna!




Image: Emmanuel Nsama, Triumphal Entry (1969), mural in the chapel at Njase Girls Secondary School, Choma, Zambia.

[1] “All Glory Laud and Honor” is an English translation of a Latin hymn text “Gloria, laus et honor,” written by Theodulf of OrlĂ©ans (c. 750/60- 82) in 820.  The hymn is based on Matthew’s (21:1-11) account of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem.
[2] See Ched Myers’ masterful commentary Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus (Maryknoll:  Orbis Books, 1994), 294ff.
[3] A colt is a male horse not more than four years of age.
[4] Brian K. Blount and Gary W. Charles, Preaching Mark in Two Voices (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2003), 187.
[5] For more about Jerusalem during the time of Passover and complex relationship between the Roman and Jewish authorities, see Marcus J. Borg and John Dominic Crossan, The Last Week: What the Gospels Really Teach About Jesus’ Final Days in Jerusalem (HarperOne, 2007).  See also Richard Horsley, Jesus and Empire: The Kingdom of God and the New World Disorder (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2002).
[6] Cited in Blount, 189.
[7] Cited in Myers, 289.