April 9, 2017

Palm/Passion Sunday


“Thus we have a twofold theme that leads to Palm Sunday. Genuine discipleship, following Jesus, means following him to Jerusalem, the place of (1) confrontation with the domination system and (2) death and resurrection. These are the two themes of the week that follows, Holy Week. Indeed these are the two themes of Lent and of the Christian life.”
–Marcus Borg

When Jesus and his disciples came near Jerusalem, he went to Bethphage on the Mount of Olives and sent two of them on ahead. He told them, “Go into the next village, where you will at once find a donkey and her colt. Untie the two donkeys and bring them to me. 3 If anyone asks why you are doing that, just say, ‘The Lord needs them.’ Right away he will let you have the donkeys.”

So God’s promise came true, just as the prophet had said,
“Announce to the people
of Jerusalem:

Your king is coming to you!
He is humble
and rides on a donkey.
He comes on the colt
of a donkey.’”

The disciples left and did what Jesus had told them to do. They brought the donkey and its colt and laid some clothes on their backs. Then Jesus got on. Many people spread clothes in the road, while others put down branches which they had cut from trees. Some people walked ahead of Jesus and others followed behind. They were all shouting,

“Hooray for the Son of David!
God bless the one who comes
in the name of the Lord.
Hooray for God
in heaven above!”

When Jesus came to Jerusalem, everyone in the city was excited and asked, “Who can this be?”

The crowd answered,

“This is Jesus, the prophet from Nazareth in Galilee.”

Matthew 21:12-17
Jesus went into the temple and chased out everyone who was selling or buying. He turned over the tables of the moneychangers and the benches of the ones who were selling doves. He told them, “The Scriptures say, ‘My house should be called a place of worship.’ But you have turned it into a place where robbers hide.”

Blind and lame people came to Jesus in the temple, and he healed them. But the chief priests and the teachers of the Law of Moses were angry when they saw his miracles and heard the children shouting praises to the Son of David. The men said to Jesus, “Don’t you hear what those children are saying?”

“Yes, I do!” Jesus answered. “Don’t you know that the Scriptures say, ‘Children and infants will sing praises’?” Then Jesus left the city and went out to the village of Bethany, where he spent the night.

Selma, 1965 Gloria Larry House
Amid the ghosts of civil rights marchers
in Selma
in the summer so hot,
the children sang in the paths
of the afternoon showers,
“Before I’d be a slave,
I’d be buried in my grave. …”
From the freedom school window
We watched them come
across the lawns of the housing projects
down the rain-rutted dirt roads,
through the puddles waiting cool for bare feet.
(Touch the dripping bush, break a leaf and smell
the pungency of green.)
They were tattered angels of hope,
plaits caught at odd angles
and standing indignantly,
a ripped hem hanging like a train,
grey knees poking through denim frames.
Dancing the whole trip,
they performed their historic drama
against the set of their
wet brick project homes.

The Gospel of Jesus (according to the Jesus Seminar) 21:1-12
Led by one of Jesus’ disciples, the police show up at the place Jesus and the rest of his followers were gathered. Because Jesus had often gone to the place, Jesus’ followers knew the place too. And the police seized Jesus and held him fast. And the disciples all deserted Jesus and ran away.

They brought Jesus before the high priest.

The ranking priests bound Jesus and turned him over to Pilate, the Roman governor. Then Pilate had Jesus flogged and turned him over to be crucified.

And the Roman soldiers bring him to the place Golgotha (which means “Place of the skull”). And the soldiers crucify him.

Now some women were observing this from a distance, among whom were Mary of Magdala, and Mary the mother of James the younger and Joses, and Salome. These women had regularly followed and assisted him when he was in Galilee, along with many other women who had come up to Jerusalem in his company.

Then Jesus breathed his last.


Two things I have learned about the Bible in my study of it and preaching and teaching on it over the years.

  1. How earthy, political, and real it is regarding the struggle between the powerful and the marginalized.
  2. How all of that is white-washed with institutionalized theology.

It wasn’t until I was out of seminary and several years into the ministry when I learned that the parade on Palm Sunday is the story of a political demonstration. The shouts of “Hosanna” and the waving of palm branches could be the ancient equivalent of chants for justice and the waving of handprinted signs demanding that “Black Lives Matter.”

I now see the story of Jesus riding in on a donkey as street theater. He organized the march but he didn’t get a permit. The children singing his praises didn’t make it a family friendly event.

Child, the Greek “pais” in the New Testament refers not only to young humans but also slaves.  Servant is simply a nice word for slave.  (Pais) is translated as servant or slave in Matthew 8:13:

And Jesus said to the centurion, “Go; it shall be done for you as you have believed.” And the servant or slave (pais) was healed that very moment.

Jesus healed the centurion’s slave.

(Pais) is the same word in Matthew 21:15.

“But when the chief priests and the scribes saw the wonderful things that He had done, and the children (pais) who were shouting in the temple, “Hosanna to the Son of David,” they became indignant.”

What a difference a translation makes. Read Matthew 21:15 with the plural of (pais) as slaves instead of children:

“But when the chief priests and the scribes saw the wonderful things that He had done, and the slaves who were shouting in the temple, “Hosanna to the Son of David,” they became indignant.”

It is a little more threatening isn’t it? Slaves demonstrating in the temple. Shouting in the temple. It could be children, but it could be a word used to say something more. This isn’t a children’s parade. This is a protest march where the marginalized, the least of these, the oppressed, the slaves, those without a voice, shout in the temple.

Again, the modern equivalent could be this: These voiceless are disrupting the proceedings at city hall. “Ain’t I a Woman? Say his name! Justice now!” Of course the mayor and the city council, excuse me, the chief priests and the scribes, are indignant and decide to close this demonstration down, and vow to arrest the demonstrators.

What are these slaves, these marginalized, these children, shouting?

“Hosanna to the Son of David!”

That is an odd phrase for children to shout, unless they are simply shouting what the grownups are shouting. I am going to come back to what they were shouting. First, we need to talk about the theological whitewashing of this shout and this event, and the entire theological project.

The theological whitewashing wants “Hosanna to the Son of David” to be interpreted as little children recognizing the magic of Jesus, as if only children can see the true meaning of Christmas and so forth. Son of David is the same as Messiah which is the same as Christ which is Jesus the Christ who is magic and is the son of a divine being who has come to take us to heaven if we believe in the magic. This phrase and this parade is seen as a recognition of Jesus’s divinity.

What I am calling theological whitewashing is what other scholars call spiritualizing. Very early after the radical, revolutionary Jesus was lynched by Rome along with thousands of others with the collaboration by temple authorities, Jesus was turned into a magical figure. He became a god or the son of god. This process began even before the writing of the gospels themselves. That is why we need to read these texts in between the lines and “against the grain” as New Testament scholar Shelly Matthews puts it. That is why scholarly institutes like the Jesus Seminar that are not beholden to church institutions are so critical in helping us peel away the layers and look at how these texts were created and the power interests in their creation.

This whitewashing eventually became Christian Orthodoxy and became the theology approved by Constantine and the Roman Empire 300 years later. This is the theology that we have inherited to this very day. When you think about it, you don’t want your main figure, Jesus, a radical demonstrator against the empire, who was executed by the empire to be the representative of the empire…without a makeover.

The makeover is to turn him into a son of God who ends up looking a lot like the empire’s gods and has the interests of the empire in mind. The interests of this theological son of God, Jesus, are not those of the voiceless and the marginalized, the slaves, those oppressed by the empire and its tools. This theological Jesus gets you to heaven through the machinery of empire’s church. The energy and the focus is about how sinful you are as an individual and how you need to spend your time getting saved from hell and whatever threats the ecclesiastical machinery throws at you. Don’t worry your heads about the political matters such as economics and war and oppression. Worry instead about getting to heaven. The theology of Jesus and the sacraments and the preaching are all about that.

That is why it took me so long to realize that we have essentially been duped by the creed makers and creed believers and the theologians and the leaders of our institutions. This institutionalized theological whitewashing is not conscious. It is similar to racism. We marinate in it. We have for centuries.

A sidebar about racism as it relates to this. I am a racist. If you are white, so are you. No need to be insulted or defensive. If you are a White American you are racist. Racism is not an individual character flaw, per se. It is the result of 400 years of history. The very category of whiteness is a racist construct. Being white gets us things. It gets us stuff. It gets us power. It gets us access. It gets us protection.  It is done by denying that racism exists. It is not in white people’s interests to admit or to recognize racism. Those who identify or who are perceived as white benefit from racism and we have for centuries and we do to this day.

In a similar way that the institutionalized whitewashing of Jesus serves the interests of the ecclesiastical power structure, so racism serves the white power structure. There is a great deal invested in denying this. When I call white people racists, don’t take it personally. It is what is. Racism is a bad thing. We need to dismantle it. It causes great suffering and injustice.

Here is where it is personal and can become a personal character flaw, if you will. When we, I am speaking as a white person, when we are exposed to the reality of racism and we begin to be shown our individual complicity in it, then the issue becomes a personal and moral one. Will we become defensive? Will we deny it? Will we hide beneath the racist tropes that keep us in our protective bubble?

Or will we listen? Will we begin the work of learning about the history and the reality of racism and will we find the courage to see our own complicity in it? Will we join in the struggle, in the march, in the Palm Sunday parade and commit ourselves to dismantling it? That is where it is personal. White people can’t help but be racist. We can decide what to do about it.

One of the first tasks is to listen to the experience of people of color. This is from an article by Jim Wallis of Sojourners, who wrote the book America’s Original Sin:

“White parents must start to truly listen to and believe the experiences and perspectives of black parents. When genuine listening and honest dialogue occurs, we have a much better chance of changing hearts and minds, which is the best way to change and eventually end the horrible and unacceptable violence battering communities across America.”  (Article, Let’s Get Personal About Racism)

Listen to and believe the experiences and perspectives of people of color.

When we see people of color demonstrating on the streets, shouting hosanna in the temple, telling us tearfully on the camera how they are treated, listen to them! It is not the time to say, “Oh that really isn’t true” or “You are misunderstanding me” or whitesplaining reality for them. It is time to listen and trust their experience.

“White parents must start to truly listen to and believe the experiences and perspectives of black parents.”

When people of color talk about being targeted and profiled by police. Listen to them. Trust that their experience is real. Then do some research. It’s there. An excellent series of articles is Investigate West: Unequal Justice.

This is from their webpage:

“Unequal Justice is a joint project of InvestigateWest and the Pamplin Media Group, made possible in part by a grant from the Fund for Investigative Journalism. Researcher Mark G. Harmon from the Portland State University Criminology & Criminal Justice Department provided statistical review and analysis.”

This is from one of the first newspaper articles on this series entitled, The High Cost of Being Black in Multnomah County published by the Portland Tribune:

“In Multnomah County, ticket by ticket, arrest by arrest, African-Americans are charged three to 30 times as often as white residents for everything from pedestrian and transit fare violations to drug charges and crimes related to interactions with police.  For black people in Multnomah County, unequal treatment in the criminal justice system is nothing new.  Lauretta Reye Austin, 22, described being hassled by a cop while waiting at a MAX station.

Teressa Raiford, 46, and a leader of Don’t Shoot PDX, said it was only after talking to white girls that she learned police didn’t know all young kids by name — just the black kids.”

This is what is being shouted in the Temple.

I took a detour from talking about the phrase shouted by the slaves and/or children when they disrupted the halls of power:

“Hosanna to the Son of David!”

I talked about how that has been whitewashed by the ecclesiastical power structure as a term of divinity for Jesus as opposed to the radical revolutionary he was. Then I talked about how that theological whitewashing has come down to us as Christian Orthodoxy and remains as such to this day.

I made a comparison between that and institutionalized racism in our country. Both of these forms of whitewashing are unconscious to those who benefit from them. If we are interested in the truth, not only of Jesus and Christian origins and what it means to be a follower of this radical Jesus today, but also the history and reality of racism, we have to do some work. We have to learn and listen.

So what did the slaves mean when they shouted “Hosanna to the Son of David?” David was of course king. He represents the golden age of Israel’s freedom and sovereignty. The promise is that his “house” his kingdom would always be in YHWH’s interests. A son of David would be the promise of a restoration.

That they are shouting Hosanna to the Son of David in the temple at passover, the most important and politically charged event of the year, when Jews re-enact the deliverance from slavery in Egypt, well…you could not utter a more politically-charged slogan.

This is revolutionary shouting. The Jews are oppressed by Rome. The temple authorities are Jews in collaboration with Rome. Who is the son of David? Jesus. Jesus is the peasant with an attitude. He is fomenting a new world order with a new phrase that is always on his lips in the forms of parables and stories—the kingdom of God.

That is not another name for heaven. That is the name for a new way of organizing power in this world. It is a reality breaking into this life. It is a realm of justice, peace, and freedom for the least of these. The poor, the outcast, the slave. The children. The children of God.

You know why there are marches and demonstrations and disruptions? Why traffic is blocked and meetings of the community leaders are disrupted and people lie down on the courthouse steps and whatever else? The reason that happens is because they are not heard. The people not heard the most in our society are people of color and in particular, women of color. For my money, to follow Jesus is to listen to them.

“Hosanna to the son of David” is a freedom shout! It is a shout for justice! It is a proclamation of a new order directed at the halls of power.   They shouted this while surrounded by Roman soldiers on the temple walls who marched into the city from the west, from Rome to stand guard over the temple, to keep the pax Romana, to ensure law and order. They marched in, not on a donkey, but on war horses.

It was a grand parade. They are the modern equivalent to cops in riot gear. They have a job to do. They serve the interests of those who pay them. They serve the power structure. They are tough. They have their riot gear on and their pepper spray and rubber bullets, excuse me, they have their shields and swords and whips.

In the midst of these, the voiceless, seemingly powerless slaves shouted with fear, trembling, and courage: “Hosanna to this Son of David,” Jesus, this rabble-rousing, parable spouting, God-intoxicated revolutionary who is calling out the injustice, the slavery, the abuse, the enforced poverty and landlessness, caused by the ruling elites.

In him and in themselves, they found their power. They found their voice.

It is the same story today.

It is the same story throughout history.

It is the same invitation to all of us.

Whose side are we on?

In whose parade will we march?