Who doesn’t love a parade? Young, old, and everyone in-between can get in the spirit when they see the sights and hear the sounds associated with a parade heading down Main Street.
Parades come in all sizes and for all sorts of occasions. Parades are not limited by geographic location or socio-economic status. New York City population 8.5 million people, hosts more than 14 parades per year. On the other end of the spectrum, Williamsburg, West Virginia, population 658 (or 657 depending on when my grandmother is visiting us) hosts a community festival parade that is second to none. Even the Waycroft neighborhood host a community bicycle parade every Fourth of July. Whether you are riding a bike across North Abingdon Street, driving a decorated lawn tractor along Williamsburg Road, or holding onto a six-story balloon for dear life while moving down 6th Avenue, excitement fills the air and both the onlookers and participants can feel it.
We live in a town of parades. Well, we live across the river from a town of parades, but most of us have been impacted in one way or another by the organized ways in which people are moved through the city for special events. These parades look different from one another. Some are of people in too much spandex or not enough running shorts moving quickly from one side of the city to the other. Some are people are dignitaries, and leaders, being paraded through the city in up-armored vehicles with armed security hangout out the back of an SUV.
If it’s not a parade of people in spandex and short shorts or dignitaries and leaders, being paraded through the city in up-armored vehicles, we live in a town where parades of people calling for, demanding change, are not uncommon. Just yesterday students from around the country paraded through D.C. calling for action and change. And wherever you land on the issue being questioned, its hard to not feel the energy and excitement created when large groups of people rally around a cause they feel strongly about.
Jesus, on Palm Sunday, is the Grand Marshal, marching band, the float decorated by the local scout troop, and caboose all in one person. Assembling on the Mount of Olives and wrapping up at the Temple, onlookers to this parade must have been sensing the excitement that comes with possibility.
Parades typically have a carnival-like atmosphere and Jesus marching into Jerusalem before the Passover Festival would have been no different.
There are some that view Jesus’ movement from the Mount of Olives into the heart of Jewish religious life and authority as a well-orchestrated piece of “political street theater.” And when we view this parade as more than a parade with people waving palms, the implications then and now become more apparent.
In moving from the Mount of Olives into Jerusalem, Jesus is not so quietly subverting not only the Roman Empire occupying Israel but also the religious establishment headquartered in Jerusalem.
Jesus is entering the city through the Eastern gates, and receiving the reception that was reserved for a king or victorious warrior. Around the same time, Pilate, the Roman Governor of the region, would have entered the city from the West to a similar fanfare. Pilate would be parading into town to ensure there were no uprisings or mobs during the Passover festivities. Pilate’s parade was a well-orchestrated show of force, daring anyone to step out of line during the Passover.
Many welcomed Jesus into the city with chants of “Hosanna… Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David,” expecting Jesus to usher in a new reign, driving Pilate out, along with the Roman garrison stationed in the city, but that is not exactly what happens. Jesus does not ride into the city on a mighty warhorse or in a chariot. Rather, Jesus enters the city riding a colt, a baby donkey. Jesus moves from the Mount of Olives to Jerusalem on an animal barely big enough to carry the weight of a grown man.
The parade, beginning at the Mount of Olives, the very place where it was expected that Israel’s liberation would begin, does not have the same military provisions that would have been required for a victory over an empire like Rome. Instead, we have a first century Rabbi riding a miniature pony. He’s not even carrying a sword. The starting point of the parade is what gets the crowds so fired up. They were expecting a liberator to forcefully remove their occupiers from Rome, and they were expecting that to begin on the Mount of Olives.
Jesus’ reception into the city, without military escort, without weaponry, and while riding a colt, on or around the same time as Pilate’s arrival into Jerusalem screams of political mockery. If something like this was to happen today we would read about in the paper. There would be trending hashtags. Every step and hand gesture in the parade would be analyzed by pundits and talking heads. Onlookers would be able to check their smartphones for the minute by minute responses from the Empire’s spokesperson, as well as the Sadducees, the wealthy religious conservatives.
Jesus was not entering the city as the ruler of the region, but Pilate was.
Jesus was not armed, or surrounded by the military might of the Empire, but Pilate was.
Jesus enters the city, and the crowds miss it.
We miss it. We live in an area where political-street theater is everywhere and yet we don’t see it.
They, we, see a conquering warrior on parade and Jesus is doing everything the conquering warrior and ruler would not have done.
Poet John Leax refers to Palm Sunday as, “the strangest holiday of the year, a celebration of misunderstanding.” We start with the waving of palms in a joyous subversive celebration. Yet before the dust has settled from the parade, the wheels of conspiracy and betrayal are in motion and before we know it we find ourselves in the midst of a crowd on Good Friday shouting, “CRUCIFY!” Within the blink of an eye, the crowds go from celebrating the unarmed and vulnerable man riding a colt to joining the cries of an empire who maintained order and submission through violence. Before we know it we are calling for the release of a murder and sentencing an unarmed and peaceful man to death. Before they, before we know it, we are participating in two very different parades.
What they missed 2000 years ago, and what we still miss today is that the Kingdom of God, the very Kingdom Jesus was ushering in, is not about blessing the configuration of the world as it presently stands. The Empire then and the empires now are organized and maintained through violence and betrayal. Instead, the Kingdom of God is concerned with arranging the world to reflect the world that God originally intended. The counter-cultural nature of the Kingdom of God is on full display as Jesus enters into Jerusalem.
Jesus’ entry into the city is a turning point in the Gospel that will lead to his eventual arrest and death. With this entry into Jerusalem, everything and everyone associated with Jesus is at risk. This parade goes from a carnival-like atmosphere to one of life and death. The costs are high.
To challenge those who are paraded through the empire in up-armored vehicles and with military escorts is a dangerous business. In doing so you run the risk of being mocked by people you have never met. In doing so you run the risk of being betrayed by your closest friends. In doing so you run the risk of being assaulted by the very power you are standing up to. To challenge the status quo, to be the counter-cultural voice, to put on a piece of political street theater, requires you to be willing to enjoy the carnival-like atmosphere while it lasts because if you challenge things enough, if you push the empire enough the empire will push back.
Just as Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem was a turning point in the Gospel, the same is true when Jesus enters into our lives, ready to rearrange that which we hold dear and that which we celebrate the most. We will always be tempted, pulled, and convinced that the military parade of Pilate offers us just what we think we have always needed. Giving ourselves over to Christ is counter-cultural because he rode in the parade on a colt while Pilate had a full-blown escort moving him with the precision and might only found in the Roman Empire Jesus’ countercultural street theater is an invitation to reorder things with the agenda of the Kingdom of God while Pilate and the Empire are ensuring their status quo remains the status quo. When we open ourselves to the counter-cultural street theater of Jesus we are willing to allow God’s configuration of the world to take shape.
Artwork used with permission of James Janknegt. James lives in Elgin, Texas where he runs an ArtFarm. There he grows artists, fruits, vegetables, chickens, goat, guinea hens, peacocks, and ducks. He also have two dogs. Find out more about James and his Lenten Meditations at http://www.bcartfarm.com/books_lent.html.