Who would Jesus Endorse

If you read the story of Jesus riding a donkey into Jerusalem, you bring a lot of church tradition with it. Jesus rides into the city a humble heir to the throne of David, with the few Judeans who recognize him as the messiah hailing him as savior and King of the Jews. As you think of this story, what comes to mind. I’ll guess, for most of us, something is missing.

We don’t know what is missing, nor do we feel like a part of the story is missing. Yet, as Jesus rides on an ass through the back gate of Jerusalem, something else was going on which can put his ride into newer perspective. Of course, we might remember that Passover is the event that draws Jesus to Jerusalem. He goes, the stories make clear, with a sense of purpose. He tells his disciples in fact, that if they wish to follow him, to sit at his right hand (in power) so-to-speak, they must indeed take up their cross and follow – even unto death as it turns out.

During Passover, some other folks would be riding into Jerusalem as well. Real kings, real rulers with real authority that could mete out real consequences for those who perceived otherwise. During the early part of the first century of our common calendar, Caesars were not yet gods, but they were considered to be sons of gods. When a Roman Emperor passed away, two men would be at bed side if possible to reliably confirm that the spirit of the emperor had ascended into the heavens, the realm of the gods. As such, the next in line was dubbed Caesar, son of god. Caesars also referred to themselves as Prince of Peace, Savior of the World, and Friend to Rome. If it was not Nero, it might have been Caligula that first claimed to be divine while still breathing. Caligula placed a statue of himself in the Temple in Jerusalem. Imagine how that went over, considering the commandment against images, other gods, and sacrifices. It stirred some trouble, I think, around 40 AD.

But no emperors were going to travel to Jerusalem for Passover. Herod Antipas entered Jerusalem’s main gate during the time of Jesus, coming with all of the royal trimmings and trapping of political power. He entered Jerusalem as the regional ruler appointed by Rome over Galilee.

The last “King of the Jews” (according to Josephus, he is listed in Roman records as an Ethnarch) to enter Jerusalem for Passover was Herod Archelaus – when Jesus was about 6-years-old. Archelaus was removed from power because his rule was so terrible that Romans everywhere were begging for him to be removed from power. Jews were busy trying to force the issue with regular rioting and appeals to Rome.

Archelaus became a threat to Caesar because, as a nominal Jew, “king” Archelaus put a Roman Eagle standard on the Temple wall to honor roman rule over the Promised Land. The ensuing riot resulted not only in a hatred for Archie by a whole lot of Jews, but led to the death of more than 3000 Jews who committed a crime by tearing down the Eagle, and rioting against the legion that was sent to protect the city from just such rioting during Passover. Archie made it all happen, just as Caligula did later.

Herod Antipas was actually the Tetrarch of Galilee during Jesus’ trip to Jerusalem, but as a member of the family dynasty, was considered to be of royal lineage and entered Passover week demanding such recognition (The author of Mark’s gospel identifies Antipas as a king). Antipas was as bad as his father – he forced Jews to work on building the Roman trade cities of Tibereas and Sapphoris (a rebuilding project). The problem was that the Jews who were forced to work on these cities became permanently ritually unclean. The cities were built atop Jewish burial grounds, and to work or even walk through such a place rendered one unfit for the Assembly of Israel and participation in Temple rites.

The Jews were, under such circumstances, mixed with high taxes, loss of property due to debt, and the utter casting aside of their problems by Jewish elites, a little hard to manage. Due to the failures of client kings like the Herodians, Jerusalem and its surrounding area, Jerusalem and Judea were put under direct rule of the Romans in 6CE. This ruler was a governor by the Name of Pontius Pilate -- or --“Rock.”

Pilate was around when Jesus went to Jerusalem for Passover. He would have entered the city that week in a manner fitting of an official representative of Rome. Flags, eagles, whatever else looked good and intimidating; Pilate would have also made sure that the priests of the Temple paid sacrificial tribute to Caesar. It would have been, to say the least, a big deal. Some folks would get pissed.

To understand this, we might try to contextualize it so we can make some guesses about how Jews felt when they watched these royal processions during the highest holiday. First, the Passover was entirely to do with liberation from slavery and the domination of a foreign king. It was a celebration of liberation wrought by God. The fact that the Promised Land was now under the rule of a foreign emperor gave special significance to this ancient and formative Israelite narrative.

Couple that with point two – a client ruler of nominally Jewish lineage and faith, who was responsible for building two Roman cities with slave labor, on land which made the Jews not only slaves, but impure and thus, not fit for Jewish assemblies. They were cut off from community by a building project that favored the Roman occupiers. Don’t forget, he also had the popular prophet John the Baptist’s head severed, which prompted Jesus to take over the resistance. That old fox was not well liked, not even by the messiah.

Think of Fourth of July in your town. Can you imagine seeing soldiers of an occupying force march into Washington and other major cities to prevent the conquered Americans from rioting and beginning an insurrection on what is celebrated as Independence Day? Think of Russian, or Chinese, or Mexican officials, or, Americans representing the interests of those countries, marching into your city with the flags of other nations, and soldiers from other nations. Think of their demand that you offer your fireworks displays as recognition of the supreme leader of your enemy. Oh, throw religion into that mix.

Now you know why the Zealots had an easy time of starting an insurrection in Jerusalem at Passover. It was a powder keg in a barn fire. You most likely think that such a circumstance necessitates a fight, an insurrection. It could happen here…

In 31 BCE, Jesus responded to the display of Roman power, not by leading an army of 5000 like John’s gospel says the people of Galilee wanted. John says those folks were going to make Jesus King by force. But Jesus walked away from that opportunity. He instead walked to Jerusalem for Passover, and, to share in a messianic banquet with his followers, one of which betrayed him after Jesus refused the military option.

Jesus claims to be king, or his followers do, when he enters Jerusalem for Passover week. He does not enter as king by taking an army into Jerusalem to overthrow the Romans and eliminate traitors to the faith. That is what the sicarri did, knife-wielding terrorist like Judas Iscariot who made it a point to eliminate unfaithful Jews so God would restore the divine presence to the Temple. Jesus instead claims authority that needs no violence and inspires no rioting.

There was no need for militarism, and when Jesus enters Jerusalem as a messiah, he makes one thing clear. A donkey is suitable for any king who claims to represent the Kingdom of God.

This is also an example of how Jesus counters the claims of Rome and other rulers. Such an entry into Jerusalem can best be seen as a mockery of the show of power and authority claimed by Rome and Archelaus as when they entered the city in royal procession. This is revolutionary humor at its best, inciting nothing more than the realization that Jews had choices about who had power and authority in their lives, and presenting that choice in all of its upside down clarity.

If they chose God, however, militarism and glory was not an option. That was for those who could only lead Jerusalem and Judeans to utter defeat. Jesus indicates that the Kingdom of God has no ruler other than God, and that those who are faithful live faithfully to God’s will. God’s desire is shown in the life of Jesus. God’s will as a response to foreign occupation, murderous kings, and corrupt priests and ruling elites is shown in the cross. If we are Christians, we must refuse to fight, or claim power of any kind, instead being faithful by embodying a loving god, neighbor, and even enemies who occupy our homeland or threaten our safety and stability.

Yet, in America, we have a politics that extends a measure of power to the people. This makes it different, doesn’t it? My next question is, did Jesus represent God through the use of any coercive force, or even, suggestive action that promoted the grasping of political, social, or economic power by his followers? The answer is no. And while American democracy may be the very best human politics has to offer; while it may lend a measure of power and control to citizens; if we ask whether democracy represents the way God wants the church to be representative of Christ’s salvation, and, the sacrifice of the cross; the answer is no. Individual rights are at the core of democracy, and rightly so. This is not a bad thing. However, the cross actually prioritizes the sacrifices of individual rights for the salvation of all who suffer and are marginalized.

There is no New Testament example of the church grasping for political power. The only example of power in the New Testament is the empowering and dignifying grace and mercy brought to us by the Holy Spirit. It is with dignity, faithfulness to God and not nation-state, and even a bit of humor that we challenge the claims of governments, empires, and political authority. The church is called to reflect salvation and the cross by embodying the sacrifice of privilege like Jesus did. Just ask Paul!

It is not that we are trying to remove government, or smash the state, or even to make the Kingdom of God the authority over the whole of the cosmos. God already possesses such opportunity, and instead offers Jesus and the church as an indicator of how we are to live as kingdom citizens. We do not colonize the rest of the world by electing godly officials and expanding democracy into non-Christian nations. If we read the New Testament, we find that we are simply to be a church – an alternative to the rules and violence of the world.

Pax Romana was a forced peace that Rome brought to the outposts of the empire with an army that showed no mercy. They then ruled by allowing folks to practice their own religion freely, as long as they recognized Caesar as King, and Rome as the empire of cosmic authority. If one suggested otherwise, they were executed on a cross. Just like Jesus. Just like 4000 before him at a riot at Tiberias. Just like the Jews of Jerusalem who, when they tried to escape the siege of Jerusalem in 70 Ad, were crucified in such numbers that the Romans actually ran out of wood to nail people to. When the church finally became the state religion of Rome, Christians executed more people for heresy that the number of Christians who were executed for practicing an illegal faith.

November is coming, and our conversations, like our fears, are getting the best of us. When we think ourselves Christian and then decide to argue forcefully on behalf of Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, or any other measure of worldly authority, we cease to engage in Christian faith and practice. One may rightfully choose to vote, but to promote one candidate as better or worse than the other in a public fashion is to pay tribute to Caesar, and, to mislead others into thinking that government can resolve our problems. The other fact is that when we criticize our political opponents in a manner that angers others, we not only create enemies, but reveal the depth of our own sin. No matter how many lies are told by presidential candidates, they are no more than what the apostle warns us of – we are all full of sin. The question begged is how Christians identify our won sin, and respond to the sin of others.

November is coming. How dare we sing the song They will know we are Christians by our love. God will not be made a liar, but indeed, all of us are exposed, and the world mocks God because of our unrepentance. We are the Pharisees. We are the Zealots. We have refused the option that brings us to the Kingdom of God, the Peaceable Kingdom.

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