Campaigning with Jesus
28 After he had said this, he went on ahead, going up to Jerusalem.
29 When he had come near Bethphage and Bethany, at the place called the Mount of Olives, he sent two of the disciples, 30saying, ‘Go into the village ahead of you, and as you enter it you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden. Untie it and bring it here. 31If anyone asks you, “Why are you untying it?” just say this: “The Lord needs it.” ’ 32So those who were sent departed and found it as he had told them. 33As they were untying the colt, its owners asked them, ‘Why are you untying the colt?’ 34They said, ‘The Lord needs it.’ 35Then they brought it to Jesus; and after throwing their cloaks on the colt, they set Jesus on it. 36As he rode along, people kept spreading their cloaks on the road. 37As he was now approaching the path down from the Mount of Olives, the whole multitude of the disciples began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the deeds of power that they had seen, 38saying,
‘Blessed is the king
who comes in the name of the Lord!
Peace in heaven,
and glory in the highest heaven!’
39Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, ‘Teacher, order your disciples to stop.’ 40He answered, ‘I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.’
Well, we're in an election campaign. And we are seeing all the usual ridiculousness; we even have one party ridiculing the electric vehicle policy of another, although it has the same policy itself! No wonder we ordinary voters get a bit cynical!
Here..., we need to be careful. Even the relatively peaceful elections of Australia are life and death affairs: people will live or die depending on the results of this election; certain political parties favour the rich and the privileged far more than other people, and the consequence of their election will be to move Australia farther away from anything remotely like the Kingdom of Heaven in which God loves all people just the same, and treats all people with just the same respect. Longer hospital queues, and lower unemployment benefits, actually kill people.
This is all relevant because the bible reading for Palm Sunday starts out with an election campaign. It doesn't sound like that, because the official lectionary leaves out some very important text, but that text is the context of the reading. The official Revised Common Lectionary text says in verse 28, "After he had said this, he went on ahead, going up to Jerusalem." As we know, after he had said this... is Luke's way of saying to us: "Go back and read the story before the Lectionary reading. You won't be able to understand the Lectionary reading properly unless you read the story before it."
So if we go back, here is what we get! This is the story that comes just before Palm Sunday.
11 As they were listening to this, [Jesus] went on to tell a parable, because he was near Jerusalem, and because they supposed that the kingdom of God was to appear immediately. 12So he said, ‘A nobleman went to a distant country to get royal power for himself and then return. 13He summoned ten of his slaves, and gave them ten pounds, and said to them, “Do business with these until I come back.” 14But the citizens of his country hated him and sent a delegation after him, saying, “We do not want this man to rule over us.” 15When he returned, having received royal power, he ordered these slaves, to whom he had given the money, to be summoned so that he might find out what they had gained by trading. 16The first came forward and said, “Lord, your pound has made ten more pounds.” 17He said to him, “Well done, good slave! Because you have been trustworthy in a very small thing, take charge of ten cities.” 18Then the second came, saying, “Lord, your pound has made five pounds.” 19He said to him, “And you, rule over five cities.”
20Then the other came, saying, “Lord, here is your pound. I wrapped it up in a piece of cloth, 21for I was afraid of you, because you are a harsh man; you take what you did not deposit, and reap what you did not sow.” 22[The nobleman] said to [this slave], “I will judge you by your own words, you wicked slave! You knew, did you, that I was a harsh man, taking what I did not deposit and reaping what I did not sow? 23Why then did you not put my money into the bank? Then when I returned, I could have collected it with interest.” 24He said to the bystanders, “Take the pound from him and give it to the one who has ten pounds.” 25(And they said to him, “Lord, he has ten pounds!”) 26“I tell you, to all those who have, more will be given; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.
27But as for these enemies of mine who did not want me to be king over them—bring them here and slaughter them in my presence.” ’
This is an election campaign in the days when people didn't get to vote. In fact, some scholars think this story reflects a real incident concerning Archelaeus who was the son of the King Herod who tried to kill Jesus as a baby. When that first King Herod died, his son Archelaeus went to Rome and lobbied Caesar to get his father's job. At the same time, another political group from Jerusalem sent a delegation to Caesar to persuade him not to appoint Archelaeus. Archelaeus won Caesar's support, and when he came back to Jerusalem, he killed numbers of those who had opposed him.
That's what "election campaigns" used to be about, and I think we can see that the lobbying still happens, even if the payback for the losers and the opposition is not usually death, here in Australia. But do you see what else happens: "those who oppose the tyrant end up being killed; the collaborators got richer, as usual. Tyranny ruled. Nothing has changed." (One Man's Web)
When we look at the parable, we seem to have been trained to try to find God or Jesus in the story of the three servants and the nobleman. But God is not there. This parable is about a world without God; a world which doesn’t listen to God. What Jesus is saying to the people who are listening is that this is what happens when you live according to the politics of the world. People are killed; the rich get richer, the poor get poorer, and the innocent are killed.
In fact, if we must fit Jesus or God into that parable, then Jesus is the third servant; he is killed because he won't play the game of winners and losers. And if there is one person everyone in the game hates more than the losers, it's the person who says the whole game is a waste of time.
It says the people "supposed that the kingdom of God was to appear immediately," and that's why Jesus told the parable. He was saying that if you think I'm going to go in and start a campaign to be the new king, you are wrong. That never works. All that happens is people get killed, the rich get richer and the poor and the losers are always worse off. You know that's what happened when people tried to stop Archelaeus, even though it was for all the right reasons. The same thing will happen if I try it."
"So ... I am going to do something else..." and this is where the lectionary finally joins the story. Because it says,
"After [Jesus] had said this, he went on ahead, going up to Jerusalem.
29 When he had come near Bethphage and Bethany, at the place called the Mount of Olives, he sent two of the disciples, 30saying, ‘Go into the village ahead of you, and as you enter it you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden. "
Luke is clearly telling us Jesus has this event planned.
Jesus has it planned because there is a problem. Everyone expects him to come into town and take the place over and overthrow the governor and the corrupt people in the temple... even though Jesus has told them that never works. They just can't imagine things happening any other way. So Jesus decides to do something else in order to try to break open their imagination.
Yes, he lets them see he really is the Messiah. He does that by entering Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives. You may have noticed that the Mount of Olives gets mentioned twice in the reading; Luke wants us to notice. It's because in the popular thinking everyone knew the Messiah would come to restore Jerusalem to God's glory, from the Mount of Olives. It says that in the Book of Zechariah the Prophet. (Chapter 14)
But then, Jesus changes the story people are expecting, because he rides into the city from the Mount of Olives on... a donkey. And the same book of the Prophet Zechariah was quite clear in Chapter 9: the king on a donkey is the king who is coming in peace. Jesus was very clearly saying that he was not part of an election campaign to be top dog. He was on about something else altogether different. He was not playing their game; if you like, what Jesus was on about was something above all that.
What happens? Well, his followers get it. In Luke's story, it is his followers who lay down their cloaks like Sir Walter Raleigh. They commit themselves to him. But... as I said before, if there is one person everyone hates more than the losers, it's the person who says the whole game is a waste of time. So Jesus is set up, betrayed, deserted, and killed. That's how the game is played, and if you won't play, you get killed anyway.
Does that mean Jesus was just one more loser?
No! He knew it was going to happen. He had told people it would happen. Jesus is completely outside the game of winners and losers, because he knows that real, deep, profound life only happens when we stop playing the game, and live with compassion; when we seek to treat all people just the same-- with justice; when we refuse to live in luxury that others cannot have and, instead, seek to sit with them...
That is what victory is... if you like the idea of a victorious life. It is about being with, and for, those who have less, the losers, and the sick, and all the others who don't fit in... so that they can fit in. And the world will not thank you for that because it wants to have people who don’t fit in; it wants people to blame; it needs enemies to be against.
Let me paint you a picture of Easter... which happens every day.
Jesus is walking towards his death. We all are, actually, aren't we? We all die. But he is choosing how he will die. He is deliberately acting with compassion and love, knowing it means he will probably die sooner than later, because someone will get upset and bring him down.
Me? Well, I like to play it safe. I like to make sure I don’t do things that will get people upset with me. But Jesus is standing there waiting for me, and for all of us, and he's saying, "Come this way... Love all people just the same. Do the dangerous loving thing. It might get you into trouble. Even in Australia, it might get you killed. But your life will be richer, deeper, freer... He's saying it to all of us.
And if you're like me... well, that's a hard invitation; I've only got so much courage for each day, you know? But here is the grace of Easter: He calls us. He offers to go on ahead before us. He won't reject us if we find that, actually, we don't have much courage at all— period! But every step into danger, oddly, is a step away from death's control, and from the fear of death. Every little love opens us to a little more freedom...
Love people where you can. Risk it. Take the plunge.
And what about the election? Vote carefully; it does matter. But most of all, be like Jesus; don’t ignore politics, do better: Treat all folk exactly just the same. That's what love is. Amen.
Andrew Prior (2019)
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!