August 01, 2008

Nice Guys & Crucifixion

by Joel Shuman
Even if we have somehow managed to remain blissfully ignorant of where our Lenten journey has been taking us, or with whom we are traveling, the traditional Gospel text for Palm Sunday—and indeed, all of Matthew’s Gospel from Chapter 21 on—serves as a rather abrupt aide memoire. For some time I couldn’t really get my mind around the significance of Jesus’ “triumphal entry” into Jerusalem. Why a colt; why the palms; why the coats in the road; why the crowds shouting “Hosanna to the Son of David?” And what did any of that have to do with Jesus’ going immediately from this spectacle to the temple and picking a fight with some of the most powerful men in Jerusalem? Did Matthew or one of his redactors omit or edit out an important transition between verses 11 and 12, or was I simply missing something?

I was of course missing something. Jesus’ entry in to the city, like everything else Matthew depicts him saying and doing in these concluding chapters, are carefully and deliberately crafted to make his identity absolutely clear to anyone who took the time to pay attention.

It was the week of Passover, the annual remembrance of the time when God established among the children of Abraham his identity as a liberator of the oppressed. Jerusalem was swollen with pilgrims from throughout the Mediterranean basin, most of whose lives had in one way or another been adversely affected by the Roman Imperium. Whether they expected the imminent coming of the Messiah or not, most would have welcomed that coming and stood prepared to join his insurrection against their oppressors. The Roman procurator Pilate, who apparently despised Jerusalem, understood the pregnancy of the moment and was in town with a significant garrison of soldiers. The place was a political powder keg, and those charged with maintaining order, especially the temple elite who had an understanding with the Romans, were on edge. And then, at the most inopportune time, came the celebrated, contrary Galilean prophet Jesus of Nazareth—riding that colt.

Jesus’ actions may be enigmatic to us, but to the faithful in Jerusalem their meaning was crystal clear. They understood that Jesus was doing a bit of street theatre, enacting a popular interpretation of a messianic prophecy from the Hebrew Scriptures. The crowd paved his coming with cloaks and palm branches and called him the “Son of David” because they understood him to be proclaiming through his actions what he had been saying all along, that the Kingdom of God was at hand, and that he, Jesus, was God’s chosen—God’s Messiah—through whom the Kingdom was breaking into history. And for that brief moment, he was received and praised for who he truly was.

Jesus’ last week goes a long way toward dispelling the popular Sunday school image of him as a nice guy who was simply misunderstood. He understood that the greatest threat to the Kingdom he had proclaimed was neither Roman power nor the way of life of those marginal Jews known to the wealthier classes as “sinners,” but rather the vague simulacrum offered by the religious elites of the day. This is why he was so strident, so conflictual, during those last days; when he wasn’t breaking something he was starting a conspicuously loud public argument. No wonder they conspired to kill him—he was a much bigger threat to them than they were to him.

It’s something to keep in mind during the days between Jesus’ entry and his resurrection. The Kingdom of God is not the way of the world. Living so as to proclaim Jesus the “Son of David” and waving those palms is dangerous business, and is not likely to be received as good news by everyone. It may well put us on the wrong side of the powers that be. Yet because it is the truth, we cannot do otherwise.

(Originally published Tuesday, March 11, 2008)

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