Hosanna in the Highest!

We admire their literature. Our laws reflect their laws and legal vocabulary. Their architecture and engineering are on display in our nation’s capitol everywhere you turn. Their political principles of the separation of powers and checks and balances are our principles. 

Yet the bootheel of Roman tyranny, the brutality with which they subjected their enemies, is legendary. And in terms of their culture—and I’m talking about the period after the Roman Republic—the time from Octavian on was characterized by moral decay of unbelievable proportion, increasingly decadent even in the minds of Latin philosophers and the most popular writers of the day.

That’s the Rome Israel is subjugated to when Jesus rides into Jerusalem at Passover: a lethal occupying army, severe hardship, economic privation, and things were going to go only from bad to worse. The people were at a crossroads. The question was how to secure real peace.

To many Jews there was but one hope: overthrow the Roman tyrant. A few decades after that first Palm Sunday in 70 AD, the Roman general Titus would be collecting his armies and marching against Jerusalem. He would soon surround the city and eventually take it, plunder it for all it was worth, then destroy it. He went to the Temple and, after desecrating it, he leveled it so that not a stone was left upon another. The so-called ‘Wailing’ or ‘Western’ wall was just a retention wall. It had little to do with the Temple itself. It just held up the platform on which the Temple was built. Nothing left, and it has never since been rebuilt.

The people were wiped out. The atrocities were astonishing. A hundred thousand Jewish men women and children were taken captive as trophies of the victory. And, according to the historian Josephus, over one million Jewish men, women, and children were killed. It’s not surprising that Jesus wept over Jerusalem as he approached the city and then said, “If you had only known on this day what would bring you peace but now it is hidden from your eyes.” The Jews thought the answer was a political solution. Emboldened, eventually they did in fact revolt against Rome, and it was suicidal.

The days will come upon you,” Jesus said, “when your enemies will build an embankment against you and encircle you and hem you in on every side. They will dash you against the ground, you and the children within your walls, they will not leave one stone on another because you did not recognize the time of God’s coming to you.” [Luke 19. 43 – 44]

As Jesus rides a donkey into Jerusalem, Pontius Pilate represents Roman authority. Pilate’s contemporary Philo describes him as, “naturally inflexible, a blend of self will and relentlessness.” If you were a Jew living in Jerusalem at that time you definitely would have supposed that life would be better if we could get rid of him.

Pilate had full powers of life and death over the people. All capital crimes had to be referred to him. That’s why when Jesus was tried by the Sanhedrin under Caiaphas and found guilty, the imposition of the death penalty could not be made until the case was referred to Pilate. The prosecuting attorneys had to change the description of the crime. As a legal matter, given Roman law, Pilate would not have imposed a death penalty for blasphemy against the Jewish God. So now the complaint was that this Jesus bar-Joseph was making himself the equal of Caesar. Pilate takes the bait and condemns him.

When Jesus rides on a donkey into Jerusalem at Passover, he deliberately stages the whole thing. So what is going on? Is he, as so many preachers have taught, showing us what meekness looks like? I’ll speak to this and more in the sermon at each of our three services on Sunday, April 2nd. Palm Sunday / Sunday of the Passion worship is liturgical whiplash. It’s dramaturgy in the highest. Fasten your seatbelts. You’re in for a ride!