Byron C. Bangert
First Presbyterian Church, Bloomington, Indiana
Good Friday, April 21, 2000
Micah 3:9-12; Luke 19:29-44; 23:1-5, 18-34
By now you have probably heard the story of Jesus' entry into Jerusalem many times. You remember the donkey that Jesus had his disciples go and fetch. You recall the garments that his disciples strewed upon the way. You picture the leafy branches that, in some accounts, were spread upon the way. You envision the multitude of participants and onlookers who shout and sing for joy. But what do you make of this "Palm Sunday" parade?
There are two contrasting themes in this story of Jesus' arrival in Jerusalem. The first is that of triumphal entry. Jesus comes as a conquering king. The crowds come out to cheer his arrival. He has come to claim the city as his own. Luke is fairly explicit about this theme. He has the disciples praise Jesus, saying, "Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!" The words recall one of the psalms of praise in thanksgiving for divine deliverance [118:26]. The action also has royal associations, both in Israel's history and in the ancient world. The Jewish historian Josephus has left us this account of Alexander the Great's entrance into Jerusalem some 3 1/2 centuries before:
Then all the Jews together greeted Alexander with one voice and surrounded him . . . [then] he gave his hand to the high priest and, with the Jews running beside him, entered the city. Then he went to the temple where he sacrificed to God under the direction of the high priest. [ANTIQUITIES OF THE JEWS, 11.332-336, trans. Ralph Marcus, LCL (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1937), 475 477]
Jesus' arrival in Jerusalem is likewise portrayed as a welcoming ceremony for a conquering king. In many Bibles our New Testament text is described with the heading, "Jesus' Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem." If this were the only theme of these verses, surely our story would be a farce. Or a simple tragedy. After all, where is the triumph? Jesus and his disciples did not exactly take the city by storm. The shouts of victory prove premature. Simply as triumphal entry, the Palm Sunday parade would be a case of pride that goes before a fall.
But there is an important counter-theme in our story. Jesus does not come riding on a war horse, but on a donkey, a lowly beast of burden. Here is a parable in action, a prophetic sign, a challenge to conventional expectations. Jesus is not the usual sort of king. There is this insistent note of irony in the story. Jesus receives the acclaim of the multitude, but he stands apart from those who hold the reigns of power. When Alexander the Great entered Jerusalem, he gave his hand to the high priest. But here there is tension between Jesus and the religious leaders in the crowd. The Pharisees tell him to order his disciples to stop their shouting, he counters that it cannot be otherwise. When Alexander went to the temple, he offered sacrifice under the direction of the high priest. But when Jesus goes to the temple, he calls into question its sacrificial system. He critiques the patterns of giving to the temple treasury, drives out the sellers and the money-changers, and announces the temple's impending destruction. If we attend to this counter-theme in the story of Jesus' entry into Jerusalem, we realize that the Palm Sunday parade is not a naive expression of pious optimism on the part of some over-enthusiastic disciples. It is a dramatic commentary on the ironies of human perceptions of authority and power and the realities of God's rule and reign.
It is hardly possible to understand the Christian Gospel without some grasp of the distinction between things as they seem and things as they are, between human perceptions and divine realities. A sense of irony pervades all the Gospel accounts. In Jesus' teaching, the tables are always being turned. The first are always last, and the last are always first. Without this sense of irony, this implicit recognition of the difference between God's ways and our ways, religion tends to pharisaism, and religious people to self-righteousness. When religious people take themselves and their practices so seriously as to confuse their own actions with the purposes of God, their religion becomes infected with pretense and hypocrisy. This is the pride that goes before a fall. The Palm Sunday parade, however, is not an exhibition of such pride. It is a witness to the difference between things as they seem and as they are.
With this distinction in mind, I would propose that what happened to Jesus during what we call "Holy Week" can hardly be understood simply as a battle of evil versus good. The Hollywood version of this story might feature "good guys" versus "bad guys," but that does not do justice to the complexity of what took place. The events of "Holy Week" may be better understood as a testimony to the profound mystery of life, in which human perceptions simply fail to grasp, and human actions simply fail to be responsive to, the full measure of what is taking place in our midst. There is, in other words, the thin world of what appears to us to be taking place, and there is the much thicker world, beyond our total apprehension, of what is actually going on.
Instead of good guys and bad guys, I would propose that almost everybody in the passion accounts may be best understood as trying to do the right thing. They were all acting, in their own minds, with the best of intentions. They were not intent on doing evil, but intent on doing good. Most people, I think, in fact see themselves in this way most of the time. TIME Magazine reported a few years back that almost 2/3 of the American people believe in hell, but only about 1% think they are going to go there [March 24, 1997, p. 73]. The road to hell is paved with the good intentions of others, but not with our own.
So, consider those Pharisees in the crowd who wanted Jesus' disciples to be silent. They were only trying to keep things under control. This was no time to stir up the occupying Roman power. Passover was at hand, and there would be large crowds for the authorities to handle. There were periodic threats of insurrection, and this could be seen as one of them. No need to invite a crackdown by the Romans against the Jews. So, with the best of intentions, they might have urged Jesus to quiet his disciples.
What about the sellers and the money-changers in the temple? They were mere functionaries, helping to keep the sacrificial system going. What better or more efficient way for those who came to worship at the temple to obtain the prescribed sacrificial animals? If there was some profit in this enterprise, that could easily be justified. Maintenance of temple worship was a costly proposition. It had to be paid for some way. So, with the best of intentions, they could have gone about their business with clear conscience that they were providing a needed service to all.
And then there were those chief priests and scribes and elders who called into question Jesus' authority. After all, this man Jesus was a peasant from Galilee. By what right could he claim to have a special mission from God? They were all trained in the law, its interpretation and application. It was their responsibility to see that the people were kept in paths of righteousness. Why shouldn't they question Jesus? He had enough of a following that he might undermine their teaching of what was surely the truth. Their authorization to lead the people was clear, his was not. So, with the best of intentions, they might have tried to entrap him, to trip him up, to expose him as a charlatan, so that the people would not be led astray.
Then come the Sadducees, the wealthy, conservative, ruling religious party. We may be more suspect of their interests, for they had made accommodation with the Romans. But someone had to deal with the Roman governor and his legions. Someone had to represent the religious and political interests of the Jews. Someone had to manage the temple, and be guardian of the authority of scripture and religious tradition. Someone had to assure the Roman authorities that the taxes would be collected, the tribute paid, and order maintained. So, with the best of intentions, they might have taken any necessary steps to squelch the influence of this upstart from Nazareth, this pretender to Jewish leadership, this uncertified critic of religious custom and practice.
But now, what about Judas? If there is any figure in the story whose intentions are utterly opaque, it is Judas. Did he agree to betray Jesus simply for financial gain? Was he a disillusioned revolutionary, as the rock opera "Jesus Christ Superstar" suggests, trying to bail out before the Jesus movement got crushed? His actions are such a mystery, Luke can only explain that "Satan entered into" him [22:3], and that the betrayal is somehow "as it has been determined" [22:22]. The evil that Judas does, in other words, is hardly by choice or intention. It cannot be penetrated and understood in human terms, but must be accepted in terms of some larger purpose or design.
There are still other figures in the story: Peter, who denies Jesus, and the other disciples, who all flee into hiding; the members of the Jewish council--the Sanhedrin--who pass judgment against Jesus; Herod the King, who passes the buck; the Roman soldiers, who carry out the execution; and Pilate, who gives the order. There is not time to consider all their stories, but consider Pilate. Though finally responsible for Jesus' crucifixion, the Gospels present him in an ambiguous light. According to Luke, Pilate examined Jesus and did not find him guilty of any of the charges brought against him. "Indeed, he has done nothing to deserve death," Pilate declares [23:15]. At the insistence of the Jewish leadership, and with the support of the crowds, however, Pilate capitulates and gives the order for Jesus to be crucified.
Most biblical scholars and historians these days are inclined to place more responsibility for Jesus' death on Rome than on the Jewish authorities. Certainly it was Rome that carried out the execution. Whether Pilate anguished over this decision or not, whether the matter occupied much of his attention at all, is scarcely known. Thieves, robbers, murderers, and insurrectionists were all common enough that Jesus might not have come to his special attention. In any case, he had a job to do as well. Roman government was a government of law. The laws might not always have been administered justly, and political considerations could not have been ignored by rulers who wanted to govern long, but Roman government was enlightened by the standards of its day. Pilate would have had no business making judgments regarding Jewish religious matters. He was there to serve the interests of Rome and its empire. Those interests required the maintenance of law and order in the outlying territories. If anyone claimed Jesus to be king of the Jews, that could have been seen as sedition. No government can tolerate the insurrectionist. So, with the best of intentions, Pilate might have given the order to get rid of yet one more of those base fellows who mock and threaten imperial power.
Could it be, in fact, that the road to the Cross was paved with good intentions all around--indeed, with the very best of intentions? And could this be a statement about our human condition? Could it be that, to discern the purposes of God, we must suspend our ordinary judgments and learn to look much more critically, much more deeply, much more profoundly, for what is really going on? What we intend typically seems good and right to us--though not necessarily to others. The Cross stands as a reminder of just how wrong we can be. Even Jesus' disciples, who rightly saw in him a prophet and teacher and servant uniquely inspired by God, did not fathom how mistaken were their aspirations for temporal rule and power.
The Gospel witnesses to an irony that lies at the heart of human existence. Even with the best of intentions, perhaps especially with the best of intentions, we keep missing the truth. We keep getting it wrong. We keep resisting and thwarting and rejecting what God is doing in our midst. We may be at our worst when we are our most self-righteous, when we think we are at our best. All too often we proceed as if our good intentions are sufficient to justify actions whose full significance we cannot possibly understand. We keep paving the road to the Cross with what seem to be the best of intentions.
What is remarkable about the Gospel is that, in spite of all this, God is still able to accomplish our redemption. The reasons for last Sunday's Palm Sunday celebration may be sadly misplaced, yet there is reason to take heart. The promise of God's coming to rule in our hearts and lives is not entirely hollow. With some of the best of intentions Jesus was crucified. But through and out of the depths of his passion, God raised up all those who dared to hope in him and in the rule of God that he proclaimed. AMEN.
Copyright 2000 by Byron C. Bangert