Jesus the Chart-Topper
April 5, 2009
1 When they were approaching Jerusalem, at Bethphage and Bethany, near the Mount of Olives, he sent two of his disciples 2 and said to them, ‘Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately as you enter it, you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden; untie it and bring it. 3 If anyone says to you, “Why are you doing this?” just say this, “The Lord needs it and will send it back here immediately.” ’ 4 They went away and found a colt tied near a door, outside in the street. As they were untying it, 5 some of the bystanders said to them, ‘What are you doing, untying the colt?’ 6 They told them what Jesus had said; and they allowed them to take it. 7 Then they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks on it; and he sat on it. 8 Many people spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut in the fields. 9 Then those who went ahead and those who followed were shouting,
‘Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! 10 Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David! Hosanna in the highest heaven!’
It is Palm Sabbath, and on Palm Sabbath Jesus was a huge hit with the crowds. That runs counter to our usual thought about Jesus. We do not think of him winning any popularity contests. John Lennon of the Beatles certainly did not think so. You might remember his comment back in 1966 when he proclaimed that the Beatles were “more popular than Jesus.”
That claim set off a storm of protest at the time. Problem was that whether you were looking at things from Lennon’s perspective or from that of the average churchgoer, no means existed in that time whereby the facts of John Lennon’s claim could be checked. The Beatles were looking at packs of screaming fans every day, while churches were not exactly being overrun by hordes of teenagers.
Lennon’s comment, taken in context, was really more directed as a slap at Christianity than at Jesus himself (“Jesus was all right but his disciples were thick and ordinary. It’s them twisting it that ruins it for me.”), but in the midst of all the hubbub nobody seemed to want to verify empirically if what he said about popularity was actually true.
These days, no rocker could pop off with such a statement without Gallup and a host of bloggers and pundits running the actual numbers. In fact, the internet search-engine Google offers a quick way for anyone to compare the relative popularity. It is called Google Trends. Type “Jesus” and the “Beatles” in the Trends search engine and out comes a graph that compares the Google search history of both entries. Now this graph is only a summary of the umpteen million searches done on Google, and I suppose it does not give any information about what Lennon said in 1966, but it does show that as of today about twice as many people research the name “Jesus” online as search for information about the Beatles. That could be because the Beatles haven’t cut an album in decades and half its members are dead, while Jesus is still the main subject of the world’s number one best-selling book.
In the midst of his comments to The London Evening Standard on March 4, 1966, John Lennon also said, “Christianity will go. It will vanish and shrink. I needn’t argue about that; I’m right and I will be proved right … I don’t know which will go first — rock ’n’ roll or Christianity.” Well, according to Google Trends, Christianity and rock ’n’ roll are both still around and the graph says that they are about dead even in search popularity. So wrong again, John.
On the original Palm Sabbath, however, there was no doubt about where Jesus stood on the popularity charts, at least among his followers. Coming up to Jerusalem from Jericho, Jesus and his disciples would have likely fallen in with hundreds of other pilgrims who would swell the population of the Holy City from about 40,000 to more than 200,000 for the Passover feast. Passover was a time of celebration, but it was also a time of high tension in Jerusalem. While the festival celebrated liberation from the tyranny of Egypt generations before, first-century Israel was still under foreign domination. The Roman occupation of their homeland chafed at many Jews. Riots and uprisings were common during the Passover, so Rome made sure that there was a military presence during that week. They sent more troops to the Antonia Fortress, which overlooked the temple complex.
Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan, in their book The Last Week, say that on that particular Sunday people in Jerusalem would have witnessed two parades, not one — the Pilate Parade and the Jesus Parade.
The parade of the Roman governor Pontius Pilate and a cohort of armored soldiers would have come into the city from the west. They provided the military deterrent during the festival. According to the contemporary historian Josephus, when Pilate first brought Roman troops to Jerusalem from Caesarea some time earlier, he committed an unprecedented violation of Jewish sensibilities by allowing the troops to bring their military standards and images of the emperor into Jerusalem by night and set them up in the temple. A massive protest demonstration in Caesarea’s stadium forced the removal of the standards, but only after the Jews used tactics of nonviolent mass resistance, lying down and baring their necks when Pilate’s soldiers, swords in hand, surrounded and attempted to disperse them. Josephus also speaks of protests that broke out on another occasion when Pilate appropriated temple funds to build an aqueduct for Jerusalem. On this occasion, Pilate had Roman soldiers, dressed as Jewish civilians and armed with hidden clubs, mingle with the shouting crowd and attack the people at a prearranged signal. Many were killed or hurt. Pilate, as you can see, was not a popular procurator. His parade was greeted with sullen silence.
On the east side of the city, though, another parade was being planned. Jesus sent his disciples to get a colt. Jesus then rode this young donkey down the steep road from the Mount of Olives to the Golden Gate of the city, with a crowd of his supporters shouting “Hosanna!” — a Hebrew word that mixes praise to God with a prayer that God will save his people. They spread their cloaks on the colt and cut branches from the surrounding fields and laid branches and cloaks on the road to make a carpet for Jesus. This was a recognition of royalty. You can be certain that on the other side of town they were not laying down cloaks and branches for Pilate. On that day, for those who were with him, Jesus was maxing out on all the charts.
Today as we think about crowds of people waving palm branches and cheering, we have to be careful not to miss a crucial point. Jesus was intentionally setting up a comparison between the violence and cruelty of the empire and the peace and love of the kingdom of God. Borg and Crossan see the Palm Sabbath parade as a pre-planned political protest. Jesus knew about Pilate’s parade. He deliberately staged a parade of the exact opposite kind. The symbolism of a ruler riding on a donkey would not have been lost on those putting their cloaks in the road, for they would have remembered the words of the prophet Zechariah: an image of a king coming into Jerusalem with shouts of joy from the people. He is “triumphant” and “victorious,” but he is “humble” and rides on a donkey instead of a war horse (Zechariah 9:9). In fact, continues the prophet, “He will cut off the chariot from Ephraim and the war-horse from Jerusalem.” This king is not a conquering hero who uses weapons of mass destruction; this king will break the power of military might with humility, justice and a peace for all the nations (Zechariah 9:10).
Jesus was fond of telling parables. This parade is action parable. Pilate’s procession embodied the glory of the empire that ruled the world. Jesus’ procession embodied the kind of kingdom that God was ushering in through Jesus’ ministry of love.
The rest of Holy Week really comes down to a continued struggle for popularity. Jesus has it on Sunday but, in Mark’s time line, on Monday he drives the moneychangers out of the temple and that turns the authorities against him. Ultimately, Jesus was killed over money. The temple was a huge source of income for plenty of people. It has often been noted that probably nobody much cared about what Jesus said, but when he attacked the temple, he attacked money, and thus he signed his death warrant. He went to the bottom of all the charts, at least as far as the rulers of Judaea were concerned.
But that is later on. Today is Palm Sabbath and the lesson is about two parades in Jerusalem—two parades and a clash of worldviews. We still have the same clash. The empire’s worldview of status, power, military might, and coercion is as present and dominant in today’s world as it was then. So is the desire for comfort, security, self-interest, and wealth. I suspect if we polled Americans on “Kingdom of God” vs. “American Dream,” the kingdom would lose big time. We may admire Jesus, but we are not necessarily ready to follow him down that road of suffering, sacrifice and servanthood that ultimately leads to the redemption of the world. As if to underscore the point, the traditional route Jesus took down the Mount of Olives went through an ancient cemetery, as it still does today. That is a stark reminder of where the Jesus parade will lead.
Some of those same folks who were waving branches on Sunday were gone by Friday, having abandoned Jesus to the powers of the temple and the empire. They read the polls and chose self-preservation over the way of Jesus. The question we have to ask on Palm Sabbath is which parade is really our parade? Most Jews that day in Jerusalem hated Pilate, but, in the end, they followed Pilate’s parade anyway. No matter what they thought of Pilate, they were more impressed by a Roman legion than a Jewish donkey.
What about us today? I suspect that we are more impressed with stealth bombers and Abrams tanks that old stories about Jesus. The strange thing is we all know that Jesus was right. We all know that the worldview that Jesus represents is the right way, but we still do not follow that way—because we are lazy, or intimidated, or we just don’t care enough. When Jesus is popular, we are fine. When everybody is saying good things about Jesus, we are right in there with them. But what about when Jesus is not popular? Where are we then?
Keep the faith. Talk the talk. Walk the walk. Remember that no matter what the current popularity polls might say about Jesus, in the end everyone will acknowledge him as the ultimate chart-topper or as the Apostle Paul puts it in the letter to the Philippians
“So that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue should confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father” ( 2:10-11).
Borg, Marcus, and John Dominic Crossan. The Last Week. San Francisco: Harper Collins, 2006.
Cleave, Maureen. “How does a Beatle live? John Lennon lives like this.” The London Evening Standard, March 4, 1966. Reprinted on About.com Web Site. Viewed October 6, 2008.
Google Trends, google.com/trends.
If you have questions or comments, email Tony Grant
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