Progressive reflections on the lectionary #9

Mark 11: 1-11 – Palm Sunday

Progressive reflections on the lectionary #9

People who, frankly, know a lot more about the New Testament than I do sometimes take issue with my view that the mission of Jesus was a profoundly political one. Their well researched views notwithstanding though, it’s astonishingly hard for me to see Jesus role as apolitical – particularly when you look at events such as those detailed in version of the “triumphal entry” into Jerusalem as detailed by “Mark.”

According to this writer, who we think probably wrote the first (canonical) account of Jesus’ ministry, the story begins with Jesus approaching the city from the east – Mark’s text is so sparse that this shouldn’t be overlooked as an insignificant detail. Mark doesn’t bother with many insignificant details.

Jesus is coming from the countryside, the sort of place where his message has taken root. Now, in what has the hallmarks of a well worked out plan he sends two of his closest comrades on ahead of him to get a necessary piece of equipment – something which has been prepared in advance and is necessary for the piece of political theatre, the stunt that he plans to pull.

“What’s the password?” The people ‘standing there’ demand of the two men who come to collect it. The phrase ‘standing there’ is used a few times in the gospels, and always seems to refer to Jesus followers who are outside of the core group of disciples. The password is repeated: “The Lord needs it and will send it back here immediately,” and a colt is brought back to the group, everything is in place now. (“Lord” sounds strange in this context, ‘Kyrios’ is the Greek word, and depending on context it means ‘master’ or even ‘owner’. The latter may imply that the colt had been bought - or even raised - for the purpose, which would make sense.)

Anyone who has been on, or close to, a political protest in which people risk imprisonment knows something of the subterfuges that must be gone into in order to avoid tipping off the authorities. Jesus seems to have taken similar precautions. He even times his entry into the city, full of subversive symbolism, to coincide with the arrival of the reinforcing Roman garrison, the troops there to prevent any uprising during the feast of Passover – a celebration of freedom from imperial oppression.

The Roman garrison, accompanying the consul Pontius Pilate, enter the city from the West, from Caesarea Maritima. They’re heading for Fortress Antonia at the North of the City, right next to the Temple. Jesus, meanwhile, enters the city from the East, coming down from the Mount of Olives and entering the city on the same side as the Temple itself.

The people who were “standing there” have perhaps been spreading the word, because by the time Jesus approaches the city, it seems that something like a crowd has gathered – ‘many people’ spread palm branches and ‘cloaks’ on the road. Cloaks have a particular importance in Biblical literature (they were so important that lenders weren’t allowed to keep them for pledges against a loan), so it’s worth noting that the word used here is not necessarily specifically ‘cloaks’, it’s closer to ‘garments’ or ‘clothes’. The symbolism is simply that they were creating a kind of carpet on the road, a sign of respect.

So Jesus makes his entry into Jerusalem, in a procession full of symbolism. He fulfils the messianic prophecy of Zechariah: “See, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” This is in keeping with his description of humble leadership set out in the previous chapter. Accordingly this is a Messiah who will bring peace, not war. The contrast with Roman pomp and circumstance is apparent – we’ve already seen that the bird of God is a pigeon, a stark opposite to the Imperial eagle. Now we see the Messiah on a young donkey, the opposite to the Imperial war horse.

But of course Jesus’ supporters only get so far. Those who have followed him, and those who have ‘gone ahead’ seem to come to an end by the time he reaches the gate. So instead of a spectacular display of power, as outlined elsewhere, ‘Mark’ says that Jesus has a bit of a look around, and then clears off, reversing the journey he has just made - heading back to Bethany.

The point has been made, the stunt has been pulled – time now to regroup and prepare for what is to come next in the plan.

For anyone interested in noting important parallels, remember that this gospel almost certainly dates from after the destruction of the temple in 70CE. That means that readers would be familiar with at least two other, contrasting, stories of Messianic entries to Jerusalem.

On the “twenty-third day of the second month, in the one hundred seventy-first year” (approx. 130 BCE) Simon Maccabeus prompted a procession into the city with “praise and palm branches… because a great enemy had been crushed and removed from Israel.” Simon became the high priest, until he was assassinated in 134/5 BCE. Jesus’ entry is something like 160 years later, by which time the Maccabean procession was famous history.

The other bracket is the entry of Menahem the descendent of Judas of Galilee – a rebel leader/messiah claimant for whom Jesus sometimes seems to be mistaken. (The questions about tax in Matthew’s gospel are important in differentiating Jesus the Galilean from Judas the Galilean, whose whole campaign was based upon refusing to pay the imperial taxes). Menahem, Judas’ heir, was a leader in the Sicarii, a violent revolutionary faction which sought to overthrow Rome by violence. These revolutionaries captured and occupied Jerusalem, specifically the temple, for about four years from 66CE. When the Romans recaptured the city they destroyed the temple.

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