On Palm Sunday we hear about a tragedy that unfolds at the hands of tyrants and a destructive empire. Admittedly, during Jesus’ lifetime, such images of power and control were rather commonplace. Crosses dotted the countryside, serving as reminders of the fierce and decisive response that could be expected should anyone question or challenge the authority of the Roman Empire. Power was won through violence and the humiliation of opponents.
We can see this violent domination practiced just about everywhere. Politicians no longer run on platforms of core beliefs, but instead on shaming their opponents. Business tycoons approach competition as the enemy, showing no mercy while seeking to drive them bankrupt on their climb to the top of the heap. And I cannot tell you how many times I’ve heard violent language used in athletics or seen teammates inflict serious injury in the quest for glory. As a teenager I suffered painful, illegal picks in basketball and the spiking of a leg in cross country.
I even experienced this in a seminary flag football game. After two bloody noses and a concussion, a retired bishop in the stands walked onto the field and stopped the game between downs. We knelt on the field around him while he reminded us that we were going to be priests. Yes, some of us truly needed that reminder. We were not playing in the NFL pro-bowl; we were seminarians playing on a high school practice field with fellow members of the Body of Christ.
Human beings, it seems, have yet to fully understand the destructive, corrupting influence of power. Palm Sunday reminds us of the consequence this quest for glory has on Jesus’ life. Into Jerusalem, rides a strange figure; an itinerant preacher who had already gained enough influence to disturb the authorities of his day. A teacher identified as a prophet by many of the poor folk who followed him. A man whose followers were beginning to suspect, was more than an ordinary man.
Into a world of power struggles, violence, and dominance, rides Jesus, the carpenter’s son from Nazareth. Jesus who refuses to be influenced by corruption and violence. In Matthew’s Gospel, he preaches the Sermon on the Mount and what is noticeably missing is mention of violence and dominance. Instead Jesus tells the crowd gathered before him that the God who invites all people into God’s kingdom welcomes not so much the powerful, the victorious or the dominant…but instead the grieving, the poor, the peacemakers, and the persecuted. The very ones that the world would shun as ‘losers,’ God celebrates and blesses. The heart of Jesus’ message is that the human system is not working, but there is an alternative—a kingdom of grace, equality, compassion, and mutual service. A world in which power is not grasped and asserted over others, but is given away and shared through mutual submission.
As we enter into Holy Week, immersing ourselves in experiencing Jesus’ last days of ministry on earth, let us be reminded of this call to remain peaceful in a world that is anything but. A world in which we are easily swept up by mob mentality and shout with the crowd shouting, “Crucify him! Crucify him!” Spend time today talking with children about choosing grace and compassion over the forces of violence.
[Image Credit: Cara B. Hochhalter, Palm Sunday: Even the Stones via Art in the Christian Tradition: a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN.]