The Politics of Palm Sunday

About a year ago a preacher in Texas tweeted “I’ve seen a lot of people leave a church because it doesn’t match their political party. I’ve rarely seen someone leave their political party because it doesn’t match their church.” 

It’s a pretty good tweet, but we shouldn’t find it too surprising. Our human tendency to identify with our own political interests over everything else including the the Word of the Lord and be willing to kill for it is as old as Adam, or at least Cain… 

In general you might describe my church as a centrist or “purple” church where we avoid partisan politics and resist the pull of polarization by trying to keep the main thing the main thing. All of that is, I think, laudable, well, and good, but the truth is some days you’ve got to pick a side. 

Jerusalem in the year 33 AD was a polis no less partisan than our own, maybe even more so. The religious elites in Jerusalem along with the hoards of pilgrims in town for Passover were trying to operate a polis under the gaze of the Roman Empire. They were permitted to live in peace, but not the abundant peace of God’s shalom, only peace of a sort, the politically partisan Pax Romana punctuated by bodies pierced to crosses along Roman roadways. It was a politically intense time (as all that alliteration was supposed to illustrate). 

That’s why the first Palm Sunday is rightly understood as both a religious and a political event. I mean, they’re storming the capital for Christ’s sake (albeit armed with nothing but foliage and a foal).

There’s a legend that Jesus’ Palm Parade on donkey-back was like a politically charged parody of a royal Roman procession happening on the same day, but perhaps it wasn’t a joke. Perhaps it was the beginning of a coup.

At first it appears the people are coalescing around this one man Jesus, but if you keep reading the story, Jesus doesn’t do himself any post-parade political favors when he gets into town. He throws a tantrum at party headquarters, chases his fundraisers out with a bullwhip, and starts cursing everything from Pharisees to fig trees. 

This isn’t the behavior of a politician seeking re-election. This is a prophet picking a fight, pronouncing judgment, even on his own people. Post-parade Jesus has, after all, made himself quite clear, you’re either for him or you’re against him. 

By the end of the week he’s formed a bipartisan coalition because in the end the one thing the Palm and Pilate parties can agree upon is that it may be “better for one man to die for the polis than for the nation to perish.” And so Caiaphas, Pilate, and We the People all manage to reach across the aisle and agree that Jesus needs to die. 

Psalm 118, the Psalm assigned for both Palm Sunday and Easter, is part of an even longer set of Psalms called the Hallel, which for centuries have been chanted together by Jews on high holy days like Passover. It’s no wonder then that this is the Psalm the Palm Paraders sing on the week of Passover. It’s a song that mixes religion and politics because for Israel, high holy days mark not just biblical victories, but political ones. They and therefore we worship a God who has always acted politically. 

The Passover is the story of God’s election of Israel over and against the Empire of Pharaoh. The anointing of David as king is the story of God’s election of one man to rule in his name. The celebration of their return from exile is the celebration of God’s re-election promise to restore the kingdom. 

So in the religio-political fervor of the moment, the people put Jesus on a donkey and reach for this Psalm, shouting “Hosanna to the son of David. Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord, who comes to save us.” But then the polls (poles) shift, and in the only politically democratic moment recorded in the Bible, a Good Friday runoff election, the people vote for Barabbas. As for Jesus, they shout “Crucify him!” 

I haven’t watched the news in weeks. I could tell you I gave it up for Lent but the truth is it’s been longer than that. I’ve tried to keep up through our local paper but there’s only so much Prince William County Data-center-related content one can stand. Despite my efforts to keep my head planted firmly in the sand, this week the news got to me of this latest shooting in Nashville. 

At this point what happens after one of these events is mostly cut and past politics, but today, Palm Sunday, we are invited to respond to the news with another kind of politics, a different kind of response to the tragic ways of the world. The eucharist, Holy Week, and we the church, are a particular kind of political statement, a politics unto ourselves. 

At this table, and in this Holy Week, we are invited into the politics of Jesus which begins with palms then leads inexorably to the cross. We are invited to remember this story and willingly see ourselves, identify ourselves with the sinners in the story. The killers. 

We take our place in the story in the political position of both Rome and Israel: as the Empire that will do anything to stay in power, and as the hyper-religious who will judge and vilify those that would curse us or stand in our way. 

It’s not as hard as we want to think to see ourselves in them, the people whose sin makes us willing to kill, or abide killing, in order to keep the status quo. 

It is a political statement, therefore, to acknowledge all of this and then submit ourselves to this table and to the political policy statement that is “Take. Eat. This is my body which is given for you… All of you, as you are. 

Even while there are still broken praises in your palms, denial on your lips, silver in your purse, and blood on your hands the Lord bids you come, put down your weapons, and come eat. Come with your enemies, come as my enemies and eat at my table.

Whatever despair, doubt, or disease that has you reaching for your drug or your weapon of choice, put it down and come to the table of a new kind of party, a new kind of peace. 

Come and behold the one who did not elect to save himself from us, but nevertheless elects to save us from ourselves. 

Today, Palm Sunday starts off looking like a political coup. By next Sunday we will know that’s because it is. He is our king. For us he has conquered sin and death. We are his people. He is our savior. And this is his politics. 

This is not the way of the world. It is not the way of the sword. It is not the way of the gun. It is the way of the cross which, being the Way of the Lord, has become for us the way to life. Come to the table. Come to the cross. Come to the Lord and let him save you. 

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