For a change, I got to preach today, and I am so grateful. I love preaching!!! And I re-discovered my Jesus, and why he is Christ to me, as the message came to me. I had no idea that there were really so many political implications to how Jesus rode into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, until I read these scholars’ remarks in the context of our political situation in our nation and our world today. May Christ inspire you as he inspires me, to speak for peace and non-violence even in the face of evil.
Whose Triumph Is It, Anyway?
Rev. Carol E. Richardson
Hyattstown Christian Church
April 9, 2017
Have you ever ridden a donkey or a burro before? How did that go? When I was 17 years-old, my family traveled to Greece for vacation, and part of the time, we stayed on a small, not very tourist-y island. One Sunday morning, my father and brother and I rode on Mediterranean burros, and I’m guessing what Jesus rode was more like these really small burros, rather than a larger donkey. To ride these burros, we had to sit sideways, and kick our feet, both on the same side. It looked really funny; not very glorious, not very dignified. The one distinctive characteristic of donkeys and burros as far as I can tell is stubbornness, especially when being ridden, and especially when being requested to move forward in a particular direction that they apparently just don’t want to go in.
I don’t know how Jesus did it. I don’t know how Jesus rode a donkey, and a colt, or with a colt – somehow, I find that part a little confusing, that he rode “them” as the text says, riding them into Jerusalem. Jesus’ ride into Jerusalem, though humble, was bold, brash, and braying. Approaching Jerusalem from the east, Jesus rode a donkey down from the Mount of Olives, surrounded by a crowd of mostly peasants. It was not the rich and powerful, nor the might of the military that greeted and escorted Christ into the powerful city, but a group of peasants who wielded cloaks and branches rather than weapons. Jesus humbly rode into Jerusalem to serve those who also humbly bowed before the prophet, that is, those who truly bowed before God.
Just like the authentic prophets in Israel before him, Jesus entered as God’s messenger from outside the halls of official earthly power.
By contrast, on the other side of Jerusalem, approaching from the West and riding on a war horse, was the Roman Governor, Pontius Pilate, leading a column of imperial cavalry and soldiers.  According to one source, Pilate was riding from Caesarea Maritima, which sounds as though it was a pretty upscale coastal city, complete with a Roman aqueduct and an amphitheater. The reason Pilate entered Jerusalem at this time was to keep the Passover crowds under control.
So then, one leader entered Jerusalem for liberation and spiritual sacrifice for the uplifting of all the people, and the other leader entered to maintain his and Roman power for the continued domination and subjugation of the Jewish people.
Biblical scholars John Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg describe Pontius Pilate’s procession as proclaiming “the power of empire” while “Jesus’ procession proclaimed the power of the kingdom of God,” thereby setting up “the central conflict of the week that led to Jesus’ crucifixion.”
Is this contrast setting us up to understand the nature of Christ’s triumph?
Whose triumph would you have bet on if you had been aware of both processions at that time? Are we not accustomed to expecting big military powers to be the ones who triumph?
What could the people following and praising Jesus understand of the kind of triumph he would bring? Didn’t they also want to be liberated from the Romans? Many of them did.
If Jesus’ followers could move forward 2000 years and if they were on the ground in Syria right now, would a non-violent prophet still look like the answer, or would a military leader seem to be the savior of the day?
What is it that saves us in times of evil? What is it that saves us from the Roman-like dominations of our day?
Writing in 2010, Biblical scholar John Rollefson suggests that Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan’s part historical and part imaginary visions of the two processions into Jerusalem sets the tone for when the church sings “All Glory, Laud, and Honor,” so that it becomes less like “My country, Tis of thee” or “God Bless America,” and more like one of the church’s songs of “protest and resistance” such as “We Shall Overcome” or “Lift Every Voice and Sing.”
I believe what the Biblical scholars are all saying, in effect, is that Jesus Christ did not enter Jerusalem in order to make Israel great again. Jesus Christ entered Jerusalem to show forth the greatness of God through his life and death and resurrection. It was the exquisitely beautiful greatness of God Christ empowered to triumph through Christ’s grace, so that everyone would be saved.
It was the whole world that Christ came to save! We need to remember that, the next time we see someone’s face on the news, no matter how different they may be from us, and no matter how far away they may live.
Matthew himself, in our gospel reading for today, compares Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem to the entry of the peaceful king in Zechariah 9:9-10 which says the king will “cut off the chariot from Ephraim and the war-horse from Jerusalem.’
What kings and governments do we know that actually shut down the war machines and enter peacefully to rule a nation? What peoples do we know who look for a leader who does not guarantee their safety through military might?
In Isaiah 50, we have a foreshadowing of Christ’s pacifism and non-violent resistance. “I gave my back to those who struck me, and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard; I did not hide my face from insult and spitting.” How many of us would maintain non-violent resistance in that situation? We know that Martin Luther King, Jr. could not have modeled non-violent resistance if Christ had not already done so. I have to wonder if even Gandhi could have been the pacifist he was if Christ had not first been so.
The final political allusion in this gospel of Jesus’ triumphal entry is to the Passover Haggadah, celebrated later in the week, as a remembrance of when God saved the Israelites from slavery. The custom in the Haggadah is to affirm that God saved not only our ancestors, but also us from slavery.
So then, the final Biblical allusion to political power in this text is to God’s ability to overcome the pharaohs of every age, and to set people, including all of us today, free from oppressive governments. God has the power to overcome all oppression and to set all of us free.
What kind of triumph is this text talking about then, and whose triumph is it, anyway?
Is it political? After the crucifixion, it certainly did not seem so. Some people wanted political triumph. What did Christ want?
It seems that Jesus Christ did not want to make himself the victor. It seems that Christ did not want political power to wield over other people so that he could get his way, or wealth, or fame, or military might to “destroy the enemy.”
It seems that Jesus did not want to get his way at all. Jesus showed up humbly, unarmed, surrounded by the lower classes, the politically powerless people of his day. Some people would call them “worthless.” I was talking with one of my clients about some of the proposed budget cuts and how thousands of people could go hungry, lose health coverage, and die as a result of potential budget cuts. The client’s response was that the people were worthless. By implication, their deaths did not matter.
One of my unspoken thoughts about the client’s opinion was that, obviously, he was not raised a Christian. Can we listen to Christ and witness Christ and believe that anyone is worthless?
Perhaps the first of Christ’s triumphs on Palm Sunday is that he proclaimed the worth and dignity of all human beings by humbly accepting their praise. After all, we don’t really care about anyone’s praise unless we see them as worthy enough to value their opinion. Christ did not care about the worldly status of the crowd – he valued them, and because God values them, that was Christ’s first triumph, valuing those whom God would save.
If we find ourselves seeing anyone as less valuable than anyone else in anyway, we have already failed to share in Christ’s triumph. It seemingly did not matter to Jesus whether the people who believed in him were homeless or homely or well-off and well-dressed. He did not care. His love for others was universal. That was Christ’s triumph.
Jesus Christ came to Jerusalem for everyone who would receive him, and Christ seeks entry into the temples of our hearts and the fortresses of our minds today, that he might find a triumphal entry in us.
Again, how was his entry into Jerusalem triumphal? Was it because the people believed in him? Or was it because Jesus believed in them?
The triumph of Christ’s entry into Jerusalem was the triumph of humility, of compassion, of love, of equality, of justice, and the triumph of grace. Ultimately, the message of Palm Sunday, when we see it through the lens of Easter, is that love wins. Grace frees. Compassion unbinds the oppressed. Humility allows God to triumph over all human evils.
Let me emphasize that again. It is our humility before God, just like Christ’s humility on the donkey, that allows God to triumph no matter what is happening in life.
When we allow humility to lead us to grace, to compassion, to sharing the fruits of the Spirit, to proclaiming the hope of resurrection in the midst of suffering, then we proclaim God’s triumph in and through the humility and obedience of Christ.
Only by submitting to God’s will and God’s ways of being can we allow God to triumph in our lives just as God triumphed through Christ. If we submit to God’s rule in and through us, isn’t that the same as allowing the kingdom of God to triumph over the “kingdoms” of the world?
You know, so many spiritual teachers in what some call the “new thought movement,” or the world of popular spirituality outside the walls of the church, so many spiritual teachers present seminars and workshops on attaining success. After reading about so many of these, I finally realized that, like Christ, it is not my own success that I need to seek in seeing clients and writing books, but rather, it is God’s success that I need to seek in me and through me, or there is no triumph.
In fact, the triumphs of God come not so much in the glorious light of day as in the midnight hours when one more person needs us to hold their hand and to tend to them, whether an aging parent or a sick child. The triumphs of God come when we feel too tired to go on but we go on anyway.
The triumphs of God show up when we don’t feel like loving someone but we love them, anyway. The triumphs of Christ in us happen when we remember his forgiveness for us, and his grace despite our inadequacies, and we choose to understand and forgive the imperfections of others.
The triumphs of God in Christ and in and through us occur when we let go of having to have things go our way, and we focus instead on whether or not everyone else is okay and receiving what they truly need in life.
The triumph of God occurred on a donkey, on a cross, and in a tomb. The triumphs of God in our lives can occur on a bus, or in a classroom, or an office cubicle, or a metro, or a bathroom, or a kitchen, or a farm.
There is no setting too great or too humble for God to triumph; all it takes is a willing heart. When we decide that we don’t have to triumph, but we long more than anything else for God’s will to triumph in the world, then Christ has indeed triumphantly entered our own hearts. Nothing else really matters, for whose triumph is it, anyway? Amen.
Love and Light,
 I am indebted, for this description of the two entrances, to scholar John Rollefson, writing in Feasting on the Word, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press), 2010, Year A, Volume 2, p. 153.
 From The Last Week: What the Gospels Really Teach About Jesus’ Final Days in Jerusalem, as quoted by Rollefson in Feasting on the Word, p. 153.
 Ibid., p. 155.