by Gordon C. Stewart (copyright)
Was Jesus of Nazareth guilty as charged?
The charge against Jesus of Nazareth was that he “refused to pay tribute to Caesar” and that “he stirred up the people.” One translation called him a “seditionist” or, in a congressman’s language, a subversive, an enemy of the state. The late lay theologian and lawyer William Stringfellow argued that Jesus was a revolutionary. Not a rhetorical revolutionary, but one whose very existence threatened his world in a revolutionary way.
Years of pouring over the Gospel texts and the Dead Sea Scrolls for clues as to the nature of the time of Jesus of Nazareth have not quite brought me to the stark nakedness of Bishop James Pike, but I’m close.
The Bishop was in Washington, D.C. for a meeting of some sort. His friend Anthony Towne went to his hotel room to take him to breakfast. When Anthony knocked on the door, the Bishop shouted out, “Come on in, Tony, the door’s open.” He opened the door to find the Bishop sitting in an arm chair, Dead Sea Scroll manuscripts scattered around the floor surrounding the chair, sitting there in the altogether. The Bishop was so entranced with the Scrolls and the Scriptures that he had forgotten to dress; he was unaware of his nakedness. Bishop Pike later died alone in the Judean wilderness searching for the historical Jesus.
I’m not as obsessed with the question as James Pike was, but I am nonetheless intrigued, fascinated, confused, and excited by Jesus of Nazareth and the New Testament witness to him precisely because of the new information that invites us to ask again who Jesus was.
Christians often see the cross as something that God intended for Jesus as the Son of God, as if God sent his son into the world that we might kill him and that Jesus was surely innocent of the charges brought before Pilate. Rarely do we consider the possibility that Jesus was guilty as charged. Likewise, what we in the church call Palm Sunday/Passion Sunday is often observed in a way that paints Jesus as the non-political spiritual man whose kingdom is not of this world, contrary to the people on the street who mistakenly hailed him as the warrior king whose aim was to throw Rome out of Palestine.
Palm Sunday provides a window into the question of whether Jesus was guilty as charged. Go beneath all theological assumptions to step onto the road with the people who waved the branches and ask what they were doing there and why Jesus did what he did. But before we look at the parade into Jerusalem we remember that the death we observe on “Good Friday” was a political execution, the Roman equivalent of the electric chair, the firing squad, and the gas chamber. The charges against him at the trial are clearly political. “We found this man inciting our people to revolt, opposing payment of the tribute to Caesar, and claiming to be Christ, a King” (Luke 23:2, Jerusalem Bible). Jesus was executed as a revolutionary against the Roman Empire.
Behind the New Testament texts lie the familiar strains of the older texts from Zachariah and II Maccabees.
The background of Palm Sunday in the Book of Zachariah
One of the first things to notice about the Palm Sunday episode, the “triumphal entry” into Jerusalem, is that the demonstration is not spontaneous. “The master has need of it” – the words the disciples have been instructed to speak to a man in town who owns a donkey – is code language, arranged in advance. Furthermore, Christ rides on the donkey, not a horse. Traditionally this has been taken to mean that he refuses the title of king and prefers to come instead in humility, riding on a donkey. But look more closely at the setting for the donkey passage in the literature of Zachariah and you will find an oracle against a foreign occupier. It is in the context of his oracle against oppression that Jesus chooses to ride on a donkey (or two donkeys!). Here’s the Zachariah passage:
“Near my house I will take my stand like a watchman on guard against prowlers; the tyrant shall pass their way no more, because I have now taken notice of its distress. Rejoice heart and soul, daughter of Zion! Shout with gladness, daughter of Jerusalem! See now, your king comes to you; he is victorious, he is triumphant, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey. He will banish chariots from Ephraim and horses from Jerusalem; the bow of war will be banished. he will proclaim peace for the nations. His empire shall stretch from sea to sea, from the River to the ends of the earth. As for you, because of the blood of your covenant, I sending back your prisoners from the pit (in which there is no water?” – Zachariah 9:8-11, Jerusalem Bible.
Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem is rooted in the hope of Zachariah. Riding the colt identifies Jesus with the long-held hopes of Jesus’ people for an end to their bondage – economic, political, financial, cultural, spiritual, imperial bondage. The Zachariah text occurs in a section of curses against oppressors. To cherry pick humility from the text while ignoring the context and symbolism of the donkey fails to do justice to the sweeping hope of an altogether new and totally revolutionary transformation.
The background of Palm Sunday in Second Maccabees
The people lining the streets are waving branches hailing Jesus as the Messiah, the liberator of the nation from foreign occupation. The palm was a symbol of Jewish resistance. At an earlier time in the Second Century BCE Simon Maccabaeus was hailed with palm branches after a successful Jewish warfare that had regained the nation’s freedom and reclaimed the integrity of the Temple. Here’s the text:
“Maccabaeus and his companions, under the LORD’s guidance, restored the Temple and the city, and pulled down the altars erected by the foreigners in the market place, as well as the sacred enclosures. They purified the sanctuary and built another altar; then striking fire from flints and using this fire, they offered the first sacrifice for two years, burning incense, lighting the lamps and setting out the loaves. When they had done this they threw themselves flat on the ground and implored the LORD never again to let them fall into such adversity, but if they should ever sin, to correct them with moderation and not to deliver them over to blasphemous and barbarous nations. This day of the purification of the Temple fell on the very day on which the Temple had been profaned by the foreigners, the twenty-fifth of the same month, Chislev. They kept eight festal days with rejoining, in the manner of the Feast of Tabernacles, remembering how, not long before at the time of the Feast of Tabernacles, they had been living in the mountains and caverns like wild beasts. Then, carrying branches, leafy boughs and palms, they offered hymns to him who had brought the cleansing of his own Holy Place to a happy outcome. They also decreed by public edict, ratified by vote, that the whole Jewish nation should celebrate the same every year.” (II Maccabees 10:1-8)
In times such as this I join Bishop Pike in asking who he was and find myself quite naked and often alone in the search. But one thing I think I know. Bill Stringfellow nailed it. Jesus was a revolutionary of the most profound sort. His very existence – his being – was enough to bring charges from a world that refused to be disturbed by him. “See now, your king comes to you; he is victorious, he is triumphant, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey. He will banish chariots from Ephraim and horses from Jerusalem; the bow of war will be banished. he will proclaim peace for the nations. His empire shall stretch from sea to sea….”
Will we shrink Jesus of Nazareth to our own small size and purposes, or will we line the streets with festal branches for the humble man on the colt whose kingdom of justice, peace, and love is always being crucified but can never be extinguished?
This sermon was preached March 19, 1978 in McGaw Chapel at The College of Wooster, Wooster, OH.