There was another procession into Jerusalem that Spring, one that escaped the pen, but certainly not the notice, of the Gospel writers and their early readers.
As the city geared up for the festival season, its population swelling five-fold until every spare room, every nook and cranny, was filled with valuable rent-paying, weary and contented pilgrims, there was at least one person arriving among the throng who didn’t have to worry his head about where he would be laying it that evening: Pontius Pilate.
Pilate, half-way through what ultimately would be his ten-year term as Prefect, brutal enforcer of imperial Roman power, ‘our man in Judaea’ for Tiberius Caesar, had come to Jerusalem as well. But this was no pleasure trip. His task was as simple to describe as it was oh-so-difficult to achieve: to keep a lid on the always unpredictable public, the teeming city, as it turned its attention and desire to the apex of Jewish identity: the Passover, that centuries old celebration and remembrance of the first time the people of Israel had wrested their freedom from a brutal dictator. Political opportunists, seizing the moment to awaken the longing for national self-determination, had made the most of the festival before, turning an already agitated crowd into a rebellious mob which Rome, in its turn, had parried more than once with overwhelming force and much bloodshed.
And so, Pilate, in the days before Passover, knowing his own head was on the block if things got out of hand, left his comfortable estate on the coast in Caesarea, and accompanied by as much of the Roman garrison as he could safely take with him, marched his way to Jerusalem, probably muttering to himself all along the way about what a massive bother this was, and praying earnestly to his gods that he might handle effectively whatever came his way.
Borg and Crossan, in their book “The Last Week”, describe for us Pilate’s arrival in Jerusalem: “Imagine the imperial procession’s arrival in the city. A visual panoply of imperial power: cavalry on horses, foot soldiers, leather armour, 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 silent onlookers, some curious, some awed, some resentful.”*
Don’t think for a minute that Jesus didn’t know what he was doing when, a short time later, he entered Jerusalem from the other side, from the East and the rising sun, mounted not on a war horse equal to Pilate’s impressive steed, but on the back of a humble donkey, the people’s faithful companion in their toil of agrarian survival.
This was planned. It was thought through. And it was a lampoon of the empty claims of authority by the world’s leading power.
“Son of God, Lord, Saviour of the World, God from God, Divine, God Incarnate, Liberator and Redeemer.” Whose titles were these? Any first-century Roman knew. (And it wasn’t the person you, poor mis-informed Christian, call to mind.) The rightful owner of these titles in the Roman world was Caesar. Tiberius’ predecessor Augustus (“the illustrious one”) had first claimed these accolades for himself, and his successors were only too happy to appropriate them. The crowd had only to take a silver denarius out of their purses and look at it: glinting in the spring sunshine was Caesar’s bust with the words “Son of God” stamped alongside.
Jesus’ thoughtful and provocative protest made mockery of such overwrought bombast, such presumptive arrogance. And before the week was out Rome, Pilate, would crush him for it, returning like for like with his own lampoon of Jewish aspirations for justice: “King of the Jews” was scribbled over Jesus’ violently broken body. See what comes to those who challenge us?
On Palm Sunday, we celebrate the power of an alternative narrative. We celebrate the audacity of humility and self sacrifice, of giving oneself up for a vision of humanity that raises the meaning of our existence above the crass machinations of ‘might makes right’ or he-who-has-the-most-marbles-wins. Life, as it was intended at our creation and lived to its fullest, is one guided and marked by love of God and neighbour, one identified by our American friends in a rare flash of eloquence as being in society “under God, with liberty and justice for all”.
Rome, whether in history, in the scriptures, or in our hearts, stands for the antithesis to the way of God. It is the pretender to the throne, the claimant to the authority in our lives that rightly belongs to God alone. We would do well, like Jesus, to call it out, to mock the spurious claims, to turn from the false god and follow instead the pattern of the one who ‘humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross. Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name’ (Philippians 2.8,9).
* The Last Week; What the Gospels Really Teach About Jesus’s Final Days in Jerusalem; Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan, 2006.