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Sunday, 16 March 2008

Street Theatre on the way to Jerusalem, or Palm Sunday revisited

The hymns on Palm Sunday are a bit of a mixed bag.

The closing hymn this morning - "Hold high the Cross" while paying lip service to "servants of the crucified" has a strongly imperial tone with images of the cross being waved as part of the crusades came irresistibly to mind. I had to remain silent and that is hard because I enjoy communal singing.

Palm Sunday does bring the political dimension of Jesus and his movement firmly into view. the difficulty is not that the hymn has a political ring to it, it's the character of the politics that it suggests that silenced me.

So what are the politics of Palm Sunday?

Let me give you my take on what is at stake by taking a look at Mark's account of Jesus’ approach to Jerusalem. The nuances of using either Matthew's and Luke's accounts instead of Mark's would not change my argument very much. In the account of all three Gospels we are up to our neck in a very surprising account of a politics that is at the heart of Christian theology and practice.

Mark's gospel was probably written just before or perhaps even during the uprising of Jewish nationalists against the imperial power of Rome in 66 AD. In a conflict that lasted till AD 70, Jewish forces sought to regain political and religious control of their nation in a bitter guerilla war that raged across Galilee and Judea ending in defeat following the Roman siege of Jerusalem. It was a time of struggle for survival by peasant farmers with guerillas raiding the countryside making up for their lack of numbers and limited military resources by their tactics and their willingness to give their lives in God’s cause.

Mark recorded the story of Jesus for a church that was asking questions about what faithfulness to Jesus as the crucified and risen Messiah meant during a time of war and conflict. Should they support their fellow countrymen? Should they join the military struggle against Rome?

The way Mark tells it, Jesus approaches Jerusalem not on a war-horse as a conquering military figure, but on a colt, not a form of transport normally associated with royalty. No Jewish king or roman emperor would choose to ride such an animal when entering in triumph into a conquered city.

Yet that is what Mark is hinting at. Here is the conqueror, the Messiah. But after all the build up of having got to Jerusalem Jesus does not make a triumphal entry. He simply looks around and then wanders off to supper with friends. It is a total anti climax – the scene is set by Mark you would think if not for a coup, at least for a confrontation with the authorities – but nothing happens, at least not yet.

Mark drops clues all the way through that point toward a warrior Messiah but he doesn’t follow through to provide a stunning political conclusion in the way that his hearers would have expected. Sure we have the reference to David - the warrior king par excellence in Jewish history. Mark does not deny the political dimensions of Jesus as messiah but instead challenges the accepted conventions as to what the politics of the Messiah will be. He presents a Jesus as a messiah who does not take up the role of warrior.

Jesus procession to Jerusalem is a form of street theatre which signals his claims as messiah, while at the same time pointing to a very different understanding of the character of the messiah from that which was commonly held. This odd messiah embodies a politics that challenges three groups:

➢ Those committed to getting rid of the Romans by military means.
➢ Those who withdrew into a response of ritual purity that avoided issues of economic injustice and Roman imperialism.
➢ Those who simply wanted to get along with business as usual, whoever was in charge.

Jesus in Mark's account rejects the politics of violence, the politics of withdrawal and the politics of accommodation lives out a politics of affirmation of life, of prophetic engagement and rejection of business as usual along with a practice of making time for meals with friends.

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