Parades. Just about everyone enjoys a good parade every once in a while. Abbie and I weren’t able to make it to the downtown Saint Patrick’s day parade a couple weeks ago, but this is what the Enquirer said about it – the article was called “A Scene of Green:” “As Cincinnati’s 41st St. Patrick’s Parade kicked off, rows of families and groups of friends sporting plastic leprechaun hats, green boas, Cat-in-the-Hat-style striped hats and all shades of green attire lined the streets, three and four people deep.(There were) 150 or so groups that marched in the parade – including high school bands, clubs like the Shriners and the Red Hat Club and families such as ‘The Flynns.’”Parades are almost by definition festive – The normal everyday flow of street traffic is put on hold for a short while and in place of cars and semis and SUVS, we get marching bands, floats, and clowns filling the streets with a party atmosphere. Things that normally spend time locked up in closets and garages come out for public display – bizarre costumes, really old or really new cars, firetrucksGrowing up, my favorite parade was the West Liberty Labor Day parade. As far as I can remember, our family would go to this parade pretty much every year. We were friends with a family who owned a house in town on a street that the parade would go by and we would take blankets and lawn chairs and watch things from their yard. Being the farmboy that I was, my favorite part, aside from the people who threw candy, was the tractors. All of the tractors were pretty old, but the last tractors to pass by were really old. These were huge steam powered tractors, with big metal tires and all sorts of strange looking features that I’d never seen on our tractors at home. For a young mind, they were like something out of a storybook. There was also a certain element of mystery that went with the parade. This yard where we would watch the parade was on a street corner where the parade would turn after they went by us. And a little further up, before they got to us, they would turn a corner to come toward us. So we would never see the beginning or the ending of the parade, but, as soon as that first marching band rounded that first corner, it was a continuous stream of parade coming from out of nowhere and going into nowhere. As far as I knew, these people kept on marching and driving their tractors year round until it was time for them to come by this yard again the next Labor Day. It didn’t strike me until I was a little older to start asking about where these people were coming from and where they were going. How and where did they all get lined up like this in perfect order? Did people drive their tractors to the parade or did they put their tractors on trailers and haul them there? When and where did the parade stop? When did the parade end and just become a shuffle of people dressed in costumes and driving large tractors trying to get back home to put on their regular clothes and put their tractors back in the sheds? When I was younger I didn’t care at all about these questions. We were on our own little island of this yard and the wonderfully mysterious parade stretched continuously around both corners without real beginning or end.It would be possible, on Palm Sunday when we celebrate what we call Jesus’ Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem, to view this with a similar mind of a child. It is after all, a wonderfully mysterious parade, with palms being waived and coats spread out like soft pavement on the road, and a donkey and festive crowds. It would be possible to sit in this familiar spot and watch the parade appear almost out of nowhere and then disappear around the corner until we come back next year to see it all over again. It would be possible to do that and not ask any other questions about it. Questions like What events have led up to this parade? What is Jesus trying to pull here and where is he going on this little donkey? After he rounds the corner into the city will he pack up and go home or is there something more going on here?In Luke’s gospel, Jesus making his way to Jerusalem has been a long process, spanning ten chapters of the book. Chapter 9 v. 51 states that “Jesus resolutely set out for Jerusalem.” Several other times in the chapters that follow Luke reminds us that Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem. In his travels he was in the habit of sending people out in pairs ahead of him to do the prep work in the next town he would enter. At the beginning of chapter 10 it says Jesus “appointed seventy others and sent them on ahead of him in pairs to every town and place where he himself intended to go.” So when Jesus finally does arrive near Jerusalem on the eastern side by the Mount of Olives, he continues his normal practice of sending out a pair to make preparations. All signs show that Jesus had put plenty of planning and aforethought into the whole scenario. He gives these disciples instructions and code words. They are to look for a colt, which they will find as they enter the village, the owners will ask a question, and they will respond “The Lord needs it.” Then the owners will know these are the ones Jesus has sent to fetch the colt for him. The pickup works without a hitch and the disciples help Jesus up onto the colt and the parade begins. This very public event on streets leading into the city.
It is likely that around the time Jesus was parading into the city from the east, there was another parade making its way into the city from the west – a Roman parade. The Passover festival presented a security concern to Rome as thousands of Jews who lived scattered across the empire would come in and swell the population of Jerusalem. Passover being the festival when Jews celebrated and remembered their deliverance from the Egyptian empire, the city at this time had great potential for producing sparks that could light a fire of revolt against this present empire. So Pilate, the Roman governor, would have come down from his palace in Caesarea on the coast to spend the week in Jerusalem as a security measure. No doubt did not enter quietly. His parade into the city would have been complete with men marching in full costume, a military show of power, as a deterrence against any who would seek to challenge the power of Rome. Pilate’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem was the age-old parade of the pomp and glory of the victors, the occupiers, the power of domination which was meant to inspire awe and submission from those who lined the streets. It was a public display of power based on the threat of death.
This kind of parade served the same purpose as crucifixions, which were numerous and quite public. Crucifixions were Rome’s way of making a parade out of people it saw as a threat to the stability of the empire. A public display of the power of the empire meant to inspire awe and submission from those who passed by. Seeing people hanging on crosses on street corners and gasping for their last breaths sent a pretty strong message of who was in charge. Pilate parades into Jerusalem to keep the peace. This was Pax Romana, the peace of Rome. In Rome’s empire, the things that made for peace was the presence of overwhelming force, shock and awe on public display.
Jesus told many parables using words to teach people about the kingdom of God, but he also acted out parables without words to teach about the kingdom of God. His so-called “triumphal entry” parade into Jerusalem is exactly this – a parable about the presumptuousness of the power of empire and an alternative vision for how to be human – or more accurately, the only vision of how to be human and not a monster. At stake are the things that make for peace. What are the things that make for peace?
Jesus’ street theater parable is a very intentional act of teaching. This parade is intentionally set up as a counter the story of the empire. This peasant non-king riding a little donkey, the only float in this parade, might help wake people up from being entranced with the royal king on his war horse surrounded by signs of imperial power. The empire says peace comes through domination and through crucifying those who threaten the established order. Jesus is acting out the story of the God who has always been delivering people out of empire, bringing Abraham out of Ur of the Chaldeans, bringing the children of Israel out of Egypt, bringing the Jews out of Babylon. Jesus is living by the story of the prophet Zechariah who saw a way of living outside of the story of empire. Zechariah has said, “Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem. Lo, your king comes to you: triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey. He will cut off the battle chariot from Ephraim, and the war-horse from Jerusalem; and the battle bow shall be cut off. And he shall command peace to the nations.”
At stake are the things that really make for peace. When Jesus neared the city, having acted out these words from Zechariah, he says to the city, “If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace!” But now they are hidden from your eyes.” Rome is convinced, and seems to have just about everyone else convinced that the things that make for peace are the presence of dominant power and the threat of death.
As we were preparing for this service this week and sending some emails back and forth, Debbie made a comment that I found particularly insightful. She was thinking about what songs to pick out and she wrote “I’m not always clear as to whether Palm Sunday is joyous or ominous.” So which is it? How would you answer that question?
Jesus triumphal entry is about as nontriumphalist as you can get. He has no enforcement mechanism for this reign of peace he desires. His weapon is his complete, overflowing compassion for those who have lost their way and are destroying themselves. And his invitation to those around him, “Come, follow me.”
Is this a joyous festive parade, with Jesus riding in and bringing God’s peace for all in the city? Should we sing songs of praise and celebration?
Is this parade a prelude to a tragedy, with the “victorious king of peace” about to have a run in with the realpolitik of the authorities assigned with keeping the peace of the empire? Should we be somber and mournful?
The parade of donkey, palm branches, and shouts of joy leads to the parade of the crucifixion. Jesus becomes another example of the utter foolishness of challenging empire. Rome disarms him and puts him on parade as a crucified, dying man, making a public example for everyone to see who holds the real power. Behold, the real triumphal parade. The victory of empire and the power of death.
Which is why it is remarkable for the book of Colossians to make a comment like this: Jesus “disarmed the rulers and authorities and made a public example of them, triumphing over them on the cross” Colossians 2:15. Jesus made a public example of the rulers, triumphing over them on the cross?” Rome thought it was making a parade of Jesus, but instead Jesus made a parade of death, putting it on public display on his cross.
Behold, a mystery of our faith. Jesus’ greatest parable of all.
Jesus walks right into the triumphal parade of empire and he isn’t entranced with it, he isn’t mesmerized by its power. He is forsaken by everyone closest to him, but he simply doesn’t buy into the spin of the empire. He sees right through it, the only one who can see clearly. It does not hold the things that make for peace. It holds the things that make for death. And he puts death on parade to undo our trance with glorifying violence and believing that we are somehow saved through our killing. The mystery of our faith — Jesus made a public display of the powers who rule by death, and thus conquered death. In whatever dark alley this parade of death got started, it had continued on and on we were all content to just be in awe and wonder at its grand march, thinking it is what brought peace. But Jesus has declared that this parade must stop with his death. No more parade of death. No more rule of empire. The things that make for peace are brought by the one who entered the city on a donkey, not on a war horse. The triumphal parade of the peasant un-king who says, come, follow me. The invitation to call Jesus Lord instead of the powers of domination. To join the everlasting parade of life and celebration.
Debbie wrote, “I’m not always clear as to whether Palm Sunday is joyous or ominous.” For a response song we’ll be singing together a hymn that recognizes it is both. Joy and sorrow, victory and defeat, the gift of life that is free from the fear and sting of death. “My life flows on in endless song…”