There is a line from the film “Cool Hand Luke” that was on my mind this week as I thought about Palm Sunday. For those that may not have seen it, the movie is basically about a prisoner, played by Paul Newman, who refuses to conform to the ways of a brutal prison system. He is clearly a type of Christ-figure. After that prisoner, nicknamed Cool Hand Luke, dies at the hands of a ruthless guard and the warden, the rest of the prisoners are shown sitting around telling stories about Cool Hand Luke. One of the inmates, a guy nicknamed Dragline, a kind of Peter figure, says to the others “Oh Luke, He was a natural-born world-shaker”. That is Jesus. After all, we are all still, 2000 years on, gathering together to tell and hear stories about Jesus of Nazareth—a natural-born world-shaker. On Palm Sunday— in fact—all throughout Holy week—Jesus’ world-shakin’ ways are on full display—and it seems he might have planned it that way.
The story we hear on Palm Sunday is one of the most well-known in all of Christendom. The images are burned into our collective memory. Jesus, on the back of a donkey triumphantly riding through the eastern gate of Jerusalem with a crowd of people cheering and shouting, waving palm branches and laying down their cloaks in front of him. But there is more to the story. Imagine: it’s a spring day in Jerusalem in the year 30. It is the beginning of the week of Passover—the most holy week in the Jewish year. Jews from all over the Roman Empire are flooding into Jerusalem to participate in the festival commemorating their ancestor’s release from slavery in Egypt. It is an exciting, sacred, and dangerous time in the Holy city. Jerusalem was under the control of the Romans and they always sent extra troops into the city during Passover to reinforce the soldiers stationed there—this was a show of force and a warning to their Jewish subjects not to get too worked up during the festival. Now, just imagine you’re on those streets teeming with religious and political tension. Two very different processions are about to march into this fragile situation. Through the eastern gate of Jerusalem comes a humble Jewish mystic on the back of a donkey. He was followed and surrounded by a group of his disciples—mostly members of the peasant class. Across town another procession is coming. This is an imperial procession led by Pontius Pilate—the Roman governor of Judea. Marching behind him is a column of Roman soldiers and cavalrymen on horseback. They are wearing armor and helmets, they are carrying weapons—just think of it—what a scene—could these two groups be any different? At the same time the humble Jewish mystic who spoke of the peace of the kingdom of God is coming through the eastern gate riding on a donkey—Pontius Pilate and the most powerful force in the world are coming through the western gate. These two processions embody the central conflict of Holy week—In both the 1st and the 21st centuries. New Testament scholars Marcus Borg and Dom Crossan say the Jesus procession certainly seems to have been a prearranged counter-demonstration. The scriptures indicate this. In Luke 28 we hear Jesus is going up to Jerusalem---the wandering prophet—mystic—teacher is preparing to enter the city of Jerusalem, the center of power. It is here he will confront the powers that be—and by the end of the week those powers will execute him. The Gospels say that When Jesus gets close to Bethphage and Bethany, two small villages a few miles outside Jerusalem, he says to two of the disciples, “Go into the village ahead of you, and as you enter it you will find there a colt that has never been ridden. Untie it and bring it here. If anyone asks you, “why are you untying it? Just say this, the Lord needs it. This looks like Jesus is deliberately following a script written by the Prophet Zechariah. In Zechariah 9:9 we read: “rejoice greatly o daughter Zion! Shout aloud, o daughter Jerusalem. Lo your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” Jesus the humble prophet and mystic is creating a demonstration to counter the one Pilate and his soldiers are putting on. This is Jesus creating a piece of street theater. He wants to consciously say, he wants to consciously demonstrate, he is a no body. He is contrasting humility and power. He is coming into town as Zechariah’s humble, peaceful king—a nobody—a little man on a donkey leading a group of powerless nobodies. We are not impressed by little people—are we? If the divine came into town in a little cheap car—would even notice? Don’t we tend to notice the big people, the celebrities, the successful people with big houses and cars—the people with status. If we’re honest don’t we have to admit we like power? Prestige? Position? Don’t our egos crave it—even in subtle or disguised ways? The search for power is isolating—the craving of power, of position is separatism. And isn’t that prevalent in our culture? Don’t we, even if in subtle and disguised ways, encourage our children to want that power, that position. Many of us crave a powerful position so we can have power in the office, in the home, in politics, whatever. We crave power and in craving power we build a society based on power,—economic, military, and so on. The craving of power is in its nature isolating. If we want peace in our hearts, in our streets, we need to understand this. As long as we as individuals crave power, whether in the office or in the street, or in the home—that is as long as we crave the sense of domination, the sense of building power, and influence—we are bound to live in world that is the result of that process. On Palm Sunday Jesus is teaching us about power and domination systems, in both the 1st and 21st centuries, by putting his vision side by side with Rome’s. He is saying there is another way to be in this world—as Holy week shows, they didn’t listen then, and I wonder if we can listen now.
So again, what is Jesus saying to us with his piece of street theater? What is he demonstrating?—I say it is nothing less than the core of his teaching—he is summarizing his message just before he dies. As we look at what that teaching is we should keep in mind the show of power marching through the opposite gate.
What Jesus is doing is fascinating— When I read the gospel this week I was reminded of a teaching tool from Zen Buddhism. In Zen there is something called a koan. This is a phrase from scripture, a short story, or an episode from the life of a great teacher that is used to illustrate an important truth about the nature of ultimate reality. Essential to a koan is paradox—a statement that seems contrary to common sense and yet is perhaps true—like “less is more” or “the nobody is king”. When I read the gospel accounts of Palm Sunday I read a koan—I read Jesus, the master teacher, the Rabbi, giving us a lesson about the divine nature by enacting or demonstrating the core of his teaching. if we really allow ourselves to be grasped by what this humble king is showing us on Palm Sunday—it would surely shake the world.
Looking at our epistle reading for today, we hear Paul talking about the mind of Christ—the mind of the humble king.
“Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, “who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross”. HUMILITY is at the core of this. We should have that mind that Jesus had—Paul is saying we should empty ourselves, humble ourselves—that we should not be self-centered but be God centered. Is this possible? It seems to have been for Paul and Jesus since Paul is certainly referencing his own experience as well as Jesus’. Paul’s words are consistent with the message of the humble king riding into town on a donkey.
Jesus’ own teachings from the Gospels also point to the humility at the core of his vision for the world. He is tells us to die to ourselves, or to humble and empty ourselves every day when he says, “pick up your cross daily”, elsewhere he says blessed are the poor, and blessed are the poor in spirit, blessed are the pure in heart—these beatitudes point to humility. He said, “If you want to save your life you will lose it”—another teaching on dying to self or humility. And in Matthew and Luke both, Jesus says something that sounds very much like the humble king we see on Palm Sunday, “All those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted”. This is what he is showing us on Palm Sunday—the humble man on a donkey with no army and no power is king. That was not the way of his world—and of course it is not the way of our world—in fact if we’re honest with ourselves we will admit it is diametrically opposed to the ways of our world. Do we notice the nobody riding into town? What if we all had the courage to truly follow Jesus, the natural-born world-shaker? And this is it—the whole point of this day leading into Holy Week--the whole point of Jesus’ demonstration--on this Palm Sunday WE ARE ALL in Jerusalem--There are two processions marching into town right now—one is the way of power and the other is the way of humility—which one are you in? AMEN.