Palm Sunday is an experience of liturgical whiplash. We begin with joy, celebration, with loud hosannas and singing, “All Glory, Laud, and Honor.” But the mood shifts as we enter the nave and sing Ride On! Ride on in majesty.” It’s a hymn that begins with the Triumphal Entry but ends with a foreshadowing of the cross:
In lowly pomp, ride on to die
Bow thy meek head to mortal pain
In the same way our own emotions and participation shift, too, from praise and joy to condemnation as we shout with the crowd in Jerusalem, “Crucify him! Crucify him!”
What does it mean for us to participate in this way? What do our cries of “Crucify him! Crucify him!” mean? I suspect that for most of us, if we think about it all, we interpret this in light of the doctrine of the atonement, understanding that Jesus died because of our sins, to make satisfaction for them. I don’t want in any way want to challenge that idea. Instead, I would like to think about these words differently, in light of the drama that unfolds in Matthew’s telling of Jesus’ arrest, trial, and death. And I would like us to reflect on it in a context with which we are very familiar, that of power politics.
We know that first-century Jerusalem was a powder keg of tension. The residents of the city and larger territory were deeply resentful of Roman rule. The years before and after Jesus saw repeated revolts against Rome and a generation after his crucifixion, Roman armies under the future emperor Titus would destroy the Jerusalem temple and put an end to traditional Jewish practice. In Jesus’ day, roman governors like Pilate would come down to Jerusalem from their usual headquarters of Caesarea Maritima with additional troops to keep the peace during Passover.
It was into this powder keg that Jesus and his Galilean followers staged their triumphal entry, clearly meant to evoke biblical images of monarchy and messianic expectation. We don’t know what Jesus expected to happen with this demonstration of messianic hope; whether he wanted to incite a response from Rome. While Roman rule was heavy-handed and could be ruthless, the empire sought to exercise its power primarily through local, indigenous agents. In the case of Jerusalem, the temple leadership, the religious elite, and the aristocracy were all deeply engaged in seeing to it that Jerusalem remained quiet. The populace’s passivity benefited everyone on top. Jesus’ arrival in Jerusalem threatened this uneasy peace.
It wasn’t just the Messianic symbolism of his entry that caused alarm. According to the gospels, Jesus spent the next days in the temple. He staged a non-violent action by overturning the tables of the money-changers, a critical node in the nexus of power and money. Over the next several days, he wandered through the temple precincts, teaching, answering questions of bystanders, engaging in debate with religious groups. Was he trying to stage a final confrontation with the religious and political authorities of Jerusalem?
After his arrest, and we might interpret Judas’ betrayal of him as an attempt by one of his followers to force that final confrontation, there’s an interesting dance among the political players. Now, it’s important to remember that Matthew is writing in the 80s, after the bloody Jewish wars of the 60s, after the destruction of the temple. It’s in his and his community’s interest to downplay Roman involvement in Jesus’ crucifixion. But he has another reason for emphasizing Jewish blame. His community is embroiled in conflict with the surviving Jewish community over the authenticity of their claims that Jesus is the Messiah and over the continued relevance of Torah—Jewish Law—for the faith and practice of his community. Every time we read this story, we need to acknowledge its ant-Judaism and repent for all of the evil that has been perpetrated against Jews because of it.
Behind Matthew’s interpretation of the events lies another set of struggles, those of the other actors in the conflict, Pilate and the Jewish authorities. They were each also caught in the midst of conflicts of their own. The Jewish authorities needed to protect their privileged position. They had a lot to lose, politically and economically. They probably wanted to prevent open rebellion by the populace and avert the heavy hand of the Roman Imperium. Pilate, too, wanted to avoid rebellion but he also must have known that his office with all of its perks would be in jeopardy if the Jewish people revolted.
So one could read the dance between the Jewish authorities and Pilate as a delicate balancing act as each group tried to jockey for position and achieve their desired outcomes. From Matthew’s perspective, the Jewish authorities achieved their goals by manipulating the mob. For his part, Pilate washed his hands of the matter, ignoring his wife’s pleas and letting the Jewish authorities win this battle. It’s likely he wouldn’t really have cared one way or the other. Sparing Jesus now would likely only have meant he would have been crucified at some later date, as those who rebelled against Rome were always killed.
In the middle of this power struggle was Jesus, his fate dependent on the political machinations of a ruthless and cynical Roman governor, and cynical and self-serving local authorities. And the crowd, as crowds so often are, eagerly stoked up to blood lust, seeking an outlet for their own fears, anger, and impotence. So they cry, “Crucify him! Crucify him! His blood be on us and on our children!”
And we cry, “Crucify him! Crucify him! His blood be on us and on our children!” Our culpability is so much the greater because the authorities to whom we shout were elected by us and their policies of economic warfare, racism, environmental degradation, and military adventurism are the direct result of our electoral choices. We all know too well the cynicism of our political system; all the ways in which politicians, donors, and the media manipulate us and each other to achieve their ends. Who are the victims whose deaths are the result of political gamesmanship at City Hall, the State Capitol and in Washington, DC? Who is crucified to protect our privilege, wealth, and power?
The cross symbolizes many things. It symbolizes Christianity, Jesus’ death for our sins. It symbolizes the brokenness of our world and God coming to us, in God’s son, to restore our relationship with God, and to restore the image of God in us. Above all, it symbolizes God’s love; the love of God that became incarnate in Jesus Christ, the love Jesus showed in his life as taught and healed on the dusty roads of Palestine, the love he demonstrated as he made his way to that place of execution and died on the cross. It also symbolizes the love of God that can’t be vanquished by political power and venality; a love that conquers death.
As we walk with Jesus this week, let us remember that love, the love that redeems us and redeems the world. Thanks be to God.