Thursday, April 21, 2011

Passion Sunday

I wonder if you have ever found yourself doing a survey or questionnaire where you were forced to choose between alternatives, where there was no comfortable ‘don’t know’ or ‘neither agree nor disagree’ alternative?  For example the ‘yes’ or ‘no’ question – would you be prepared to pay more for electricity that comes from renewable sources?  Would you buy genetically modified food if it was cheaper?  Survey designers call this a ‘forced choice’ questionnaire design, and they know it makes us uncomfortable sometimes - if you are anything like me, you find yourself wanting to argue, to say, ‘yes, but ...’, to justify your answer or to point out that neither of the alternatives are particularly appealing.  We want an opt-out clause – but of course the designers of the questionnaire know very well what they are doing, they are interested in how we are going to behave when sitting on the fence isn’t an option.

Another thing that marketers and social researchers know about us, is that very often we are not rational – we make decisions about what we are going to buy or who we are going to vote for, a lot of the time, based not on what we rationally believe, but on how we feel.  And Jesus, it seems to me, knows this about us as well.

Today we begin Holy Week, and we begin in a festive atmosphere with some impromptu street theatre, we begin in a way that human beings have loved since time immemorial, with a procession.  In fact, the story of Jesus is framed with processions, at his birth we are entertained and possibly confronted by the procession of people and animals all heading to Bethlehem, shepherds and wise folk and donkeys and sheep and camels, and Herod’s men hot on their heels.  And we know that this week it will all end with another procession, with weeping women and soldiers and bedraggled prisoners dragging crosses through the streets of Jerusalem.  Processions invite us to follow, to see ourselves in the crowd, to imagine ourselves amongst the onlookers and to wonder what it is that draws us all to follow in fascination.  What it is that compels our attention.  But today’s procession is different, today’s procession draws us in with its circus atmosphere, its slightly strained mood of celebration not quite masking the serious business of being forced to make a life-changing choice by a comic-looking nobody on a donkey.

A book published a few years ago by Bible scholars Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan followed the last week of Jesus’ life and asked the question: ‘what did he think he was doing?’  It’s a fair enough question.  When something in my life goes topsy turvy I generally get asked that by a friend or family member.  What were you thinking?  What did you actually think you were doing?  And Borg and Crossan point out that the Bible tells us quite a lot about the last week, but mostly about what happened, and sometimes we get the impression of a series of events that unfold with clockwork inevitability, of characters including Jesus who get drawn inexorably towards an end that they didn’t choose and can’t escape from – and Borg and Crossan argue that on the contrary, Jesus knows exactly what he is doing, he chooses his destiny and acts provocatively, rationally and with devastating effectiveness.

The week before Jesus’ death, Borg and Crossan point out, there was not one procession into Jerusalem, but two.  Jerusalem, on the eve of the Passover – not just a regular Passover but a great Passover, which is to say a Passover that falls on a Sabbath and so happens only about once every fifty years – Jerusalem was a powder keg with, it is estimated, a million to one and a half million people crammed together, Jews from all over the known world.  Jerusalem at Passover was a riot waiting to happen.  And so the Roman prefect, Pontius Pilate, rides in on his war-horse from the west, from the direction of his headquarters in Caesarea by the Sea, heading to his palace in Jerusalem with cavalry and troops to reinforce the local troops at the Antonia Fortress overlooking the Temple until the holy day was safely passed.  He carries the imperial standard with its eagle, reminding both visitors and locals that the Roman Emperor is the only real power in this world.

And at the same time, on the same day, Jesus enters Jerusalem from the east, from the direction of the rising sun, from Bethphage on the Mount of Olives.  He rides a donkey – a peaceful mode of transport that reminds people of the prophet Zechariah’s prediction of a donkey-riding messiah who will restore God’s people by destroying the weapons and vehicles of war. [1] The people throw their coats and jackets down on the road to make a carpet for him – an action that reminds people of Elisha and Jehu, the reformer king who brought peace to an earlier time. [2] According to Matthew and Mark’s Gospels, people waved leafy branches as Jesus rode past and threw them on the ground in front of him – probably olive branches which then as now were a symbol of peace.  Only John’s Gospel has palms, and palms were reserved for conquering kings, which suggests that while the crowds understand that this is a procession for a king, they don’t quite get what sort of king Jesus is. Ironically, the Church continues to choose palm branches instead of olive branches, we carry a reminder in our hands of all that we still have to learn.

And Borg and Crossan say that Jesus’ action is deliberate, a deliberate parody of the military procession entering the great city from the opposite direction at the same time, an insult to the imperial power of Rome.  This is dangerous street theatre, devastatingly effective non-violent political protest of the sort that we see used two thousand years later by Mahatma Ghandi in his struggle to drive the British imperial forces out of his own country.  Jesus is setting up a challenge, and an alternative: which procession are you going to join?  It’s a forced choice – there is no fence to sit on.  Does this make you uncomfortable?  It’s meant to.

The power of Rome is of course the power we see displayed on our television screens every single night.  It is the institutionalised power of modern nation states, the logic of pre-emptive strikes and regime change, of no-fly zones and extra-ordinary rendition, of armoured personnel carriers and riot shields and weeping women and bewildered children lying in hospital beds with amputated limbs.  It is the logic of material prosperity that relies on coercion and inequality, the logic of sweatshops and outworkers, of land rights extinguished by mining and big business, of lost and stolen generations, of glue sniffing and sex abuse and military intervention in remote communities.  And Pilate’s procession reminds us that this is the only real power in our world, that our lives are lived in its shadow and that all this power actually requires of us - is our compliance.  And our complicity.  Because we – in our wealthy country, at any rate – we are the beneficiaries of this sort of power.

And on the other side of town the dusty mad-eyed prophet from the back blocks of Galilee begs to differ.  You can join this procession, instead.  You can choose to believe in relational power, in the power of sacrificial love, the power of noticing and attending to the needs of the marginalised and overlooked, the power of a love that attends not to its own need for security and comfort but to the demands of justice and compassion.  You can believe in the relational power of forgiveness, the power that challenges the law of retaliation with the vision of a future no longer hostage to past failure and conflict.  You can choose to believe that the most important reality in your life is the God who creates you in love - and who invites you to base your own life in the same logic of self-emptying love.  You can choose to believe that the logic of love is stronger than the logic of fear and retribution.

But you can’t follow both processions.

It always amazes me to hear the critique that Christianity is a religion for the weak and fearful, that Christianity is some sort of crutch for those who are too timid to get a life.  The forced choice we confront on Palm Sunday is an invitation to live fearlessly, an invitation to move beyond all that has limited our lives up until now and to choose what sort of power we believe in.  To choose which truth we believe and which truth we intend to live by.

Every year, actually, there is a peace rally on Palm Sunday.  There’s one this year, organised by socialists in Sydney – hopefully we might see this on our TV screens tonight.  It amazes me, also, that this most powerful and provocative action of Jesus is most effectively taken up, largely though not entirely by people outside the Church.  By people who get it.  By people who get that the prophet who trots into Jerusalem on a donkey on a spring day around 33AD forces us to make a choice.

If you follow this procession, it’s going to take some surprising twists, this week.


[1] Zechariah 9:9-10

[2] 2 Kings 9:13