Parody and paradox
Over the years, every Palm Sunday has spoken in ways I did not expect. Today is no different. I no longer fixate on the question whether Palm Sunday happened or is the narrative artistry of Gospel writers. That question no longer interests me. Whether an historical event, or the Gospel writers’ way of looking back on who Jesus was and is, the entry into Jerusalem is filled with parody and paradox. While Caesar’s troops ride into Jerusalem on tall white stallions, Jesus rides in on a donkey as a crowd welcomes his coming with palm branches, the symbol of Jewish resistance to Roman occupation. They are looking for the long-awaited king, the Messiah, who would put an end to national humiliation by a foreign occupation. Jesus was the warrior-king whose purpose was to restore the nation’s glory.
This year, Palm Sunday drew me to Jesus standing before Pilate. “Are you a king, then?” or “So, you are a king, then!” begs the question of Jesus’ understanding of himself. Jesus’ response is as paradoxical as his ride into Jerusalem: “You have said so.”
“You, Pilate, and Caesar, and my compatriots — not I — have said so!” This refusal to claim royal authority is what captured my attention this year. I imagine Donald Trump responding to Judge Juan Merchan’s question tomorrow when the judge unseals the indictments.
“So, you are a King?” “Damn straight! I’m the king who will make America great again.” “But, Mr. President, we don’t have kings in this country.” “Take a look outside, Your Dishonor. Count the crowd! Count the flags, the AK-15s, the gas masks, the helmets, and battering rams; look at the Proud Boys, the Oath Keepers, the Michigan Wolverines, the Congressmen, who know who I am. You can indict me, but you can’t judge me without my consent, and, if you convict me of what I did not do, all hell will break loose.”
Paradox: two indictments — opposite responses
At his arrest, Jesus makes a telling reply, a question and a declaration. “Have you come out with swords and clubs to arrest me as though I were a bandit? Day after day I sat in the temple teaching, and you did not arrest me,” he says. Then comes the parody of the Roman legions who occupied Jerusalem: if he wishes to defend himself, twelve legions of angels would stand with him.
‘Legion’ is the Latin (Roman) word for a Roman military unit, a battalion of some 2,000 soldiers. Jesus’ “twelve legions” do not bear arms; they are angels (messengers), not soldiers, and their number (24,000) far outnumbers the Legions that occupy Jerusalem. Furthermore, Jesus is not to be mistaken for a ‘bandit’ (i.e., an armed insurrectionist). Jesus sees himself as a teacher of Wisdom and Truth. Even when charged with a capital offense, Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ, makes no claims for himself other than as a teacher. It’s quite a contrast with an indictment in the age of QAnon.
What kind of person can charge another person, in this case a former President of the United States, who got more votes than any sitting President in history, and leading candidate (by far!) for the Republican Party nomination, with a Crime, when it is known by all that NO Crime has been committed, & also known that potential death & destruction in such a false charge could be catastrophic for our Country? Why & who would do such a thing? Only a degenerate psychopath that truely [sic] hates the USA, 2023!Donald Trump, Truth Social, March 24, 2023.
“Then you are a king!” said. Pilate. “You say that I am a king,” he answered, “for this reason I was born and have come into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth hears my voice” (John 18:37).
Within hours, on what we now call Good Friday, the Jesus who bore the cross of truth cried out a plea for mercy: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
Gordon C. Stewart, Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness (2017 Wipf and Stock), 49 two to four page meditations on faith and public life; Brooklyn Park, MN, April 2, 2023.
I have always been puzzled by this reply by Jesus to Pilate, “You say so.” Maybe it has been lost in translation. Perhaps it should have a question mark, “You say so? Who told you that? What do you mean by that? Pilate must have understood it in that meaning because he replied, “Am I a Jew?” He must have sensed that Jusus’ meaning of the word “king” was somehow different than the Roman meaning. (A distinction so often lost on Churchians down through the centuries.) I never got to these thoughts Gordon, until this piece of yours drove me to commentaries to seek an answer. This comes from Lange’s Commentary which enlightened me. Thank you! But as to YOUR comparison of Jesus and Trump–GENIUS too! A Fantastic meditation imho.
“John 18:33. Art Thou the King of the Jews?—The boundless perfidy of the Jewish accusation is distinctly reflected in Pilate’s presentation of it. It is an ambiguous charge, forged out of Jesus’ avowal that He is the Messiah; a charge embracing falsehood (since Jesus had no intention of being a political character), treason against their Messianic hope (which they abandoned in this case), and self-condemnation (since they hope for a political Messiah).—Art Thou? asks Pilate; not: sayest Thou that Thou art? The question need not necessarily be apprehended as purely derisive. Pilate might think thus: if His only offence was one of the tongue, He will deny that He is such a personage: but if He is a dangerous enthusiast, He will acknowledge the allegation. There is also, beyond a doubt, an incidental play of sarcasm.
John 18:34. Dost Thou say this of Thyself, or, etc. [Ἀπὸ σεαυτοῦ συ τοῦτο λέγεις ἤ ἄλλοι εἶπόν σοι περὶ ἐμοῦ].—Design of the question. According to Olshausen, Neander (and my Leben Jesu, p. 1058) Jesus desires to ascertain in what sense Pilate puts the question: whether in a Gentile-political or a Jewish-theocratical sense.55 Meyer combats this assumption: 1. By the assertion that Jesus wished only to know the author of the accusation. The author, however, stood officially at the door. 2. By the declaration that it is not supposable that Pilate would thus separate the Messianic conceptions. He might, however, be taught thus to separate them. By the term: “King of the Jews,” Pilate could understand nothing but a political seditionary urged by fanatical motives. The Sanhedrists knew this; but they also knew that Jesus claimed the Messiahship in another sense, and they now made use of the Messianic name to fit out a false accusation. Jesus could not acknowledge the Messianic conception of Pilate, but neither could He disown the theocratical Messianic conception. Hence, this distinction was to be made thoroughly clear. Like Meyer, Tholuck mistakes the decisive weight of Christ’s distinotion. It was necessary for Pilate to see that they were trying to humbug him by means of a perfidiously interpreted religious conception. And thus in the middle ages and in the time of the Reformation,—even down to the present day—the Hierarchs have, with evil consciousness, stamped reformation as revolution.
John 18:35. Am I a Jew? [μήτι—looking to a negative answer—ὲγώ—a Roman governor—Ἰουδαῖόδ εἰμι].—With Roman pride he declares that he is not a Jew, i.e. that it is hence impossible that he should put the question in the Jewish sense;56 he has but framed it in accordance with the statement made to him by the Prisoner’s nation (τὸ ἔθνος τὸ σόν, sneeringly) and the high-priests. Compelled, however, to surmise the lurking of an ambiguity in this statement, he inquires, in a genuine Roman sense: What hast Thou done? [τί ἐποίησας].—Pilate’s answer was manifestly inapplicable to the question: Art thou Mine accuser, or do the Jews accuse Me? It is appropriate, however, to the question: Hast thou, or have the Jews, formulated the accusation?
John 18:36. My kingdom is not of this world [ἡ βασιλεία ἡ ἐμὴ οὐκ ὲστιν ἐκ τοῦ κόσμου τούτου. Ἐκ relates to origin and nature; yet Christ’s kingdom, though not of this world, is yet in this world and over this world. Mark the emphatic repetition of My, and this world, as also the demonstrative ἐντεῦθεν in opposition to cælitus.—P. S.].—This answer, the distinction between the purely theocratic and the purely political idea of a kingdom was manifestly contemplated from the very beginning, in the question of Jesus [John 18:34] and introduced by that question. First He acknowledges that He has a kingdom (My kingdom); passes on immediately, however, for Pilate’s pacification, to the negative definition of His kingdom. It is not of this world as to its principle; it lays, therefore, in respect of its tendency, no claims to this world and does not, in respect of its character, come into collision with the existent secular empire of the Romans. Proof: If it were of this world, I should have fighters after the manner of the kingdoms of the world, and the very least that they could do would be, as worldly combatants, to prevent the base and contemptible resurrender of My person to the spiritual forum of the Jews.—My servants [οἱ ὑπηρέται οἱ ἐμοί]—Interpretations: 1. The servants that I have, disciples, angels (Lampe, Luthardt).57 2. The servants that I then should have (Meyer,58 Tholuck [Lücke, Hengstenberg, Alford]). He, however, really has a kingdom, and He also really has servants. With such a fancy sketch: had I a worldly kingdom, and legions, My servants would liberate Me,—the innocence of Jesus would be poorly proved. But when He says: I have servants, but not one makes the slightest attempt at My liberation—this, to Pilate, who was acquainted with the nature of the disturbance, contains a striking proof of Jesus’ innocence. The kingdom of which Christ speaks, however, does not wait for its beginning until the cessation of the kingdoms of the world (as Meyer asserts); neither does it itself become a world-kingdom (comp. Tholuck, p. 416). It conquers the world and makes the kingdoms of the world subject unto itself, in order to abolish and absorb the entire old form of the world in the kingdom of heaven.” https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/lcc/john-19.html
Thank you for this thought-provoking meditation. It belongs in a sequel to your book “Be Still! Departures from Collective Madness” that lives on my bedside table. When I dip into it, I nearly always find something that is as relevant today as it was when you wrote and published it. Thank you.