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Sunday, 5 April 2009

Palm Sunday as Street Theatre

Palm Sunday can become an occasion to get the congregation briefly out of the church building and take the liturgy around the block - on one occasion I can remember in Queanbeyan with a real live donkey. Great fun for the kids in particular.

The full political force of what is going on gets lost in most sermons about this story from the Gospels.

Let’s try and break open this familiarity that conceals an uncomfortable strangeness by going back to look again at Mark’s account of Jesus’ approach to Jerusalem.

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.

This 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 this time of war and conflict. Should they support their fellow countrymen? Were they being disloyal if they did not join the military struggle against Rome?

Mark tells the story of Jesus’ approach to Jerusalem in a way that was intended to challenge his listeners and suggest a way of coming to some conclusions as to what their response should be.

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. Certainly there are the crowds in the story during Jesus’ approach to Jerusalem. But after all the build up of having got to Jerusalem Jesus does not make a triumphal entry into the Temple. 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 but at least for a confrontation with the authorities – but nothing happens.

What’s going on here?

Mark drops clues all the way through that point toward a warrior Messiah but 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. Mark points to a Jesus 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.

Mark’s account rhetorically challenges three groups:
➢ Those who were committed to getting rid of the Romans by military means.
➢ Those who withdrew into a spiritual response that avoided issues of economic injustice and Roman imperialism.
➢ Those who simply wanted to get along with business as usual whoever was in charge.

According to Mark none of these ways is open to the community of disciples. The way of Jesus is different. Jesus lives out a rejection of the politics of violence, the politics of withdrawal and the politics of accommodation. For Mark’s full account of this subversive messiah we will have to wait for the readings over the Easter week.

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