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One of the first things you’re likely to learn, starting out as a bright young minister, is that it’s a good idea tread carefully around the subject of politics. I had a colleague one time who referred to it as “the third rail of preaching.” If someone in your congregation decides that something you’ve said from the pulpit is “too political,” you’re likely to hear about it, very quickly, in no uncertain terms. I’ve had that conversation quite a number of times over the years, with different people in different churches. The problem is that people have very different ideas about what is and is not “too political.” Knowing precisely where to draw the line is more of an art than a science. Sometimes too political means that you’ve displayed, or at least implied, a too obvious bias in favor of Democrats or Republicans or what have you. But sometimes it just means, “I don’t happen to agree with what you said and I really don’t want to hear you talk about that anymore.” The judgement of “too political” I’ve found, can cover a multitude of homiletical sins.
Which is really fascinating when you think about it. Jesus, the person we claim as our “teacher, example and redeemer,” was a very political guy. He was, in fact, killed by the state, because of his politics. Most of the year, we tend to gloss over this fact. We focus on the spirituality, the wisdom, and the compassion of Jesus. But politics is hard to avoid when it comes to Palm Sunday. The procession into Jerusalem didn’t just happen. The evidence we have suggests it was a pre-meditated, well-orchestrated political rally.
Every year on Palm Sunday, we gather to witness Jesus’ grand procession into Jerusalem. The triumphal entry we call it. The story is so familiar. Jesus rides into the city surrounded by a joyous crowd waving palm branches and shouting Hosanna. At the height of the Passover celebration, with tens of thousands of pilgrims in the city, Jesus captures the spirit of the day. He lets them believe, for the moment, that he is there to cast off the yoke of oppression and set the nation of Israel free. “Hosanna in the highest heaven,” they shout. Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.” And what they mean, but don’t say out loud, is “Blessed is he who has come, at long last, to get rid of the Romans.”
Did you ever ask yourself why Jesus went to Jerusalem? It’s so much a part of the story we tell that it’s easy to just take it for granted. Jesus when to Jerusalem. That’s what happened. But why exactly? What would’ve led him to go where he surely must have known he was going to be at the heart of a firestorm? The Jesus we know and love was a healer; a man of deep love and compassion. In one way or another, everything he said and did was about healing; of our bodies, of our lives and of our relationships with God. But if healing individual people was all he was about, it seems he could have done that anywhere, without upsetting anyone. Jesus could have simply hung out a shingle somewhere in Galilee. People would’ve flocked to him. There has never been any lack of people in need of healing. Jesus could have made himself a nice comfortable living, bought a waterfront villa in Capernaum by the Sea. He could have retired a wealthy old man, having spent his entire life being a good person by healing people. Why go to Jerusalem?
The reason, it seems, was because of the root causes of the suffering he saw. The healing people needed, was not merely individual. It was political. It was social. It was systemic. The system that Jesus was born and raised in was fine tuned to exploit the poor and powerless and reward the wealthy. And Jesus cared so much about doing whatever he could to bring healing to people, that he was willing to cast his own life into the machinery of the state, even if it meant being ground up by that machine.
Now, he didn’t do this just on a whim. In his lifetime, the circumstances the peasants were living under were increasingly grim. One of the laws in the Old Testament says that farmland in Israel could not be bought or sold. The purpose of the law, going back for generations, was to make sure every family in Israel had its own plot of land to work so they could support themselves. But under the reign of King Herod (the Great! Why do we call people like that great?) under the King, the peasants were increasingly having their land confiscated, either by royal decree or because they were forced to mortgage their land in bad years, and when the mortgages could not be repaid, the land was foreclosed. The peasants were losing their land, and their ability to feed themselves and their families, at the same time that there was a huge expansion of large estates in Judea. The wealthy and the well-connected were doing just fine, thank you very much. But their wellbeing was coming at the expense of the poor.
The Romans, of course, were perfectly happy with this state of affairs just so long as the peasants didn’t rise up in revolt. But they were on a hair trigger, precisely because, in the high tensions of the day, some kind of mass revolt was increasingly likely and, if you know your history, did in fact eventually happen. Although we don’t hear about it very much, during this period, there were actually a number of leaders who rose up, gained a following, were proclaimed messiahs, and were killed for treason by the Romans. Rome was quick to arrest, condemn and crucify anyone who threatened to begin organizing the people.
Woven into of all these political tensions, of course, were the religious tensions. The Jews worshipped the One God of Israel, and the Romans worshipped Caesar. Roman imperial theology considered Emperor Augustus the “son of God,” “lord” and “savior.” The one who had brought “peace on earth.” The Pax Romana that is. Sound familiar? Suffice to say, these two different theologies did not live together very comfortably.
So, in a nutshell, this was the political/social/religious situation in Israel during the time of Jesus. And he wanted to do something about it. He began by teaching and healing in the northern, rural areas. But eventually, he came to the conclusion that in order to get to the root of the problem, he had to take on the system itself. And so, he went to Jerusalem.
Did you know that there were actually two processions arriving in Jerusalem at more or less the same time? This is a point made by Marcus Borg and Dominic Crossan in their book “The Last Week.” In addition to the procession of Jesus that we’re all very familiar with, “On the opposite side of the city, from the west, Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor of Idumea, Judea, and Samaria, entered Jerusalem at the head of a column of imperial cavalry and soldiers.” (The Last Week, pg 2) Borg and Crossan invite us to imagine this imperial procession as it arrives in the city.
A visual panoply of imperial power: cavalry on horses, foot soldiers, leather armor, helmets, weapons, banners, golden eagles mounted on poles, sun glinting on metal and gold. Sounds: the marching of feet, the creaking of leather, the clinking of bridles, the beating of drums. The swirling of dust. The eyes of the silent onlookers, some curious, some awed, some resentful. (The Last Week, Page 3)
Borg and Crossan argue that the tension between these two processions, and what they represent, is what most fully explains what the events of this coming week are all about. Pilot’s procession was an intentional display of the imperial power of Rome. It was meant to be intimidating. It was about maintaining the system of domination that Rome imposed on Israel. It was about collecting taxes. It was about reinforcing the temple authorities and maintaining the peace. This was not an easy job. For most of the year, Jerusalem was a town of about 40,000 people, but Passover brought as many as 200,000 pilgrims to the city. The tensions between Rome and Israel were present all year round, but they came to a fever pitch during the week of Passover.
In contrast to this imperial procession, on the opposite side of town came the procession of Jesus, “humble and riding on a donkey;” surrounded by some of the very people he had come to Jerusalem to support, proclaiming the peace of God as an alternative to the peace of the Romans and the temple authorities. From the moment Jesus decided to go to Jerusalem, these two processions were on a collision course. If you’ve ever wondered why a man like Jesus––a loving, healing, faithful and compassionate man like Jesus––would end his human life on a cross, we need look no farther than his compassion. Whenever and wherever people are oppressed and exploited, compassion becomes political.
Now, I would guess that most of you are mostly o.k. with what I’ve said so far. This isn’t particularly comfortable history, it isn’t the sanitized version of the story that we usually hear, but it is history, after all. It happened a long time ago. Where it begins to get tricky is right at that moment where the preacher dares to draw out parallels to our own time and place. We too, live in a time in which the poor are exploited, in which the tools of government, media and religion are used to the advantage of some and the detriment of others, in which the yawning gap between rich and poor continually increases, and the middle class gradually disappears.
Now, I need you to understand, that I’m not pointing a finger at anyone. I try not to do that from the pulpit because, well honestly, it’s not fair. There is a lot of power in my standing here and talking to you without you being able to express your opinions in return, at least, not where the whole congregation can hear. I certainly do not believe the democrats have all the answers. Neither do I believe the republicans do. But there is a great deal about our current political situation that might best be described as a God-awful mess. Too often, we are being driven by ideological intransigence. Very rare is the person in power who is willing to compromise for the sake of the common good. This is not a new thing. It has been the case for quite a while now, and there is plenty of responsibility to cover both sides of the aisle. It’s increasingly difficult not to talk about politics because the areas of our lives where we are at loggerheads are increasing. More and more subjects are covered by the phrase, “too political,” which leaves us less and less to talk about, if we are not willing to touch the third rail.
Sometimes when I’m preparing a sermon around a particular idea, like politics, I like to start with a good understanding of what the word means. The definition of “politics” makes for an interesting study. The first, or that is, the first four definitions are just what we would expect. 1) The art or science of government, 2) political actions, practices or policies, 3) political affairs or business between competing interest groups, and 4) political opinions or sympathies. But the definition of politics that I found most interesting is the fifth one. Politics, it reads, “is the total complex of relations between people living in society.” Think about that. The total complex of relations between people living in society. So, basically, according to this definition, everything is politics. The fine lines we draw between what is and what is not politics simply don’t live up to the reality. So, whether we’re honest about it or not, whether or not we come right out and say so, if we’re going to talk at all, we’re going to talk politics.
My friends, it seems to me that these days we are caught between the same two processions that entered Jerusalem at Passover two thousand years ago. On the one hand is the procession that worships power, wealth and control. On the other is the compassion of God, always seeking the greatest good for the greatest number of people. I do not mean to suggest that there is any essential goodness about poverty, or any essential badness about wealth. That’s far too simplistic. But how we express our politics is often a matter of whether we line up in the procession of power or the procession of love.
What is fair, loving, and compassionate; what is truthful; what is humble; –– all the things Jesus has been talking about in the beatitudes that we’ve been studying in these last weeks –– these are the politics of God; the things that God would have us give our hearts, our minds, and our efforts to. All the right is not on one side or the other. But we can, and I believe must, work together to solve the problems that are common to all of us. We might prefer to stay out of politics as much as possible. Jesus himself might have preferred to stay out of politics. But when compassion became political … Jesus went to Jerusalem.