A King Riding on a Colt toward a Cross
The Scripture we have just read from the Gospel according to Mark is one of only two Gospel narratives in the NT—the other being John—that has Jesus entering Jerusalem on Sunday of the week at the end of which he will be crucified and then raised from the dead on the following Sunday. Mark’s account of Jesus’ entry appears to be triumphal in character and style. Jesus instructs his disciples to go ahead of him and obtain a colt upon which he will ride as he enters Jerusalem. While this account of securing the colt may seem odd and confused, Mark intends for us—his readers—to hear the echoes of the Hebrew prophet Zechariah who wrote:
“Rejoice greatly…O daughter Jerusalem!
Lo your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he,
humble and riding…on a colt…
and he shall command peace to the nations;
and his dominion shall be from sea to sea.” [Zech 9.9-10]
A king, triumphant but humble, riding on a colt. So too, Jesus rides a colt, and folk begin rejoicing, throwing their cloaks before his path as well as tossing leafy branches and shouting their own chorus:
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!
Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David!
Hosanna in the highest heaven! [Mark 11.9-10]
Palm Sunday, then, a King riding a colt—but we know as Mark knew and perhaps the celebrative chorus did not know—Jesus was riding on a colt toward a cross. As it turns out according to Mark, this Jesus on a colt hearing tributes fit for a king will end up on a Roman cross with the derisive inscription: “King of the Jews”. No hosannas spring forth in this kingly mockery by imperial Rome. No joyous crowds sing for this crucified man mocked as a pretender king. Some in this crowd will taunt Jesus as he hangs on the cross, according to Mark: why doesn’t he save himself from this horrible death, if he really is the Messianic King. And Jesus himself, hanging on this cross, will cry out:
“Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” which means
“My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” [15.34]
It can sometimes escape us Gentile readers that Mark’s Jesus is echoing the dereliction expressed in Psalm 22:
“My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from helping me…
I am…scorned by others, and despised by the people.
All who see me mock at me..
‘Commit your cause to the Lord;
let him…rescue the one in whom he delights.’
I am poured out like water,
And all my bones are out of joint;
my heart is like wax;
it is melted within my breast;
my mouth is dried up like a potsherd,
and my tongue sticks to my jaws;
you lay me in the dust of death.”
It is inescapably clear that in Mark the cheering crowd of Palm Sunday is utterly and distressingly absent later in the week as Jesus is arrested, tried, beaten, and killed upon a cross. That absence is indeed sobering, and for us the question is: how does it come about that the earlier cheers became mute and absent?
If we are to see our way forward on Palm Sunday and not become that sort of crowd that gets into uncostly cheering but fades in time of crisis, we need see some other concerns Mark has been highlighting throughout his Gospel.
First, at the very beginning of his Gospel, Mark says writes to tell a story about the “good news of Jesus Christ the Son of God”. And then he mentions a passage from the prophet Isaiah apparently indicating that John the Baptizer was preparing the way for Jesus and did indeed baptize Jesus. No birth stories and childhood; only an adult Jesus now proclaiming the Kingdom of God and calling folk to repent and live in response to that coming Kingdom.
Second, as in the other Gospels, Jesus calls some special followers to be his disciples and play a leading role in proclaiming the Kingdom. Jesus will spend special time with these disciples attempting to educate them in the discourses and practices of his own kingdom-proclaiming mission.
Third, in proclaiming the Kingdom Jesus tells fascinating and often puzzling or vexing stories and parables, including stories about forgiveness and suffering. Jesus often heals all sorts of folk who have wounded bodies and souls. On repeated occasions it will seem to Jesus that his disciples haven’t quite grasped his Kingdom talk.
Fourth, according to Mark, Jesus’ activities and words assume and convey an authority about what the God of Israel is doing in this present age—and what God will yet do. That authoritative presence and speaking will bring Jesus into conflict with some other Jewish teachers and priests. Remember now that the Jews in Palestine were under the boot of the Roman Empire and Jews were themselves divided as to just how they might faithfully live under such Gentile rule with its heavily armed garrisons of soldiers imposing Roman law and order on Israel.
Politically—meaning the politics within Israel on how to respond to the politics of the Roman Empire—those were intense and tumultuous times. Available to the people of Israel were traditions of expecting a Messiah that would finally free Israel from the continuous domination by various Gentile empires: from the Egyptian empire, to the Assyrian, to the Babylonian, to the Persian, to the Greek empire of Alexander, to now the Roman Empire.
For Jews the pressing theological questions were exactly also a political questions: what is God going to do about Israel’s subjugation by all these Gentile empires and now this Roman empire with its willingness to use overwhelming force to impose its law and order on its conquered peoples and nations.
It is also the case that Jesus is seen as challenging the authority of those in Israel who practiced accommodation with the Romans and those Jews teaching segregation and possibly revolt from Roman rule and culture . Some Jews accommodating andsome Jews wanting armed revolt.
Where does Jesus stand? Mark recounts an encounter of Jesus with some Pharisees and Herodians that will bristle with reverberations through the succeeding millennia of the church.
So Jesus is asked: “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?”[12.15] Knowing that they are putting him to the test regardless of how he answers: if “yes, pay taxes to the emperor” Jesus will appear as an accommodationist, and if he says “do not pay taxes to the emperor” Jesus will appear as a rebel against the emperor. So Jesus says in response to the question: “show me a denarius” and then he asks:“Whose head is this, and whose title?” They all know that the coin bears the image of the then emperor Tiberias Caesar under the title ‘the divine son’ and so the interrogators reply “the emperor’s”. Jesus is quick to say: “Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s and to God the things that are God’s.”
Now friends in Christ, centuries later and certainly in our lifetimes, folk in the church have often cited this utterance of Jesus as meaning—there are two realms of human life: the realm of politics and government and the realm of private faith and the church. The adage for some Christians becomes: do not confuse religion and politics; Jesus has nothing to do with the politics of the nations and his followers should avoid politics in Jesus’ name as well.
But I can assure you that the good Jews who heard Jesus’ words knew that the only God there is is Yahweh, the God of Israel, and Yahweh creates and rules over the whole world. There is nothing that Rome has or can do that does not fall under the overarching rule of God.
Whether some Romans understood that meaning is questionable, but it does increasingly become clear to them that this Jesus is a trouble-maker disinclined to adore and worship the power of Rome and its emperor/king. Jesus is becoming a political problem to the Romans.
Now Mark knows that this Jesus from Nazareth will end up on Roman cross. He also knows that among his contemporaries—around the 6th or 7thdecade of that century—are persons known as the ‘disciples of Jesus’—roughly the twelve closest followers. And Mark knows and shows in his stories that these same disciples were repeatedly clueless about Jesus’ own self-understanding as messianic prophet who will collide with both Jewish and Roman powers. These disciples thought they would have privileged authority and powers when Jesus’ Kingdom would finally defeat the evildoers of the world.
Alas, we have read Mark before and we know that one and all of the disciples finally abandon Jesus and leave him to the frightening instrumentalities of punishment by the empire. Mark knows that it does turn out later that Peter becomes a leader of the Jesus movement subsequent to Jesus’ death and resurrection. But Mark must record that just this Peter repeatedly denied any acquaintance or complicity with Jesus as the powers of Israel and empire were arresting and prosecuting Jesus. We know as well that Judas played an active role in betraying Jesus to the officers of law and justice in Jerusalem.
Mark knows and we know that the disciples abandonment of Jesus was complete and utterly inexcusable throughout Jesus’ arrest, trial, and crucifixion. As Jesus hanged expiringly there on the cross only a few women followers stood vigil—but at a distance.
Mark does know, as do many of his friends, that the crucified Jesus is raised from the dead and in that raising a new movement of folk is launched, a movement of folk for whom the crucified and raised Jesus is Lord and Savior, a movement of folk who believed that the very life of Jesus of Nazareth as the Prophet of the Kingdom of God, as the Crucified Savior, and as the Resurrected Presence is truly Sovereign in the world now and in the world to come.
So, here we are: it is Palm Sunday and a week of prayer and self-examination seems ahead of us as we dare to come to grips with what it means to have Jesus as our Savior. And as we pray and contemplate, remember this as well: for roughly the next three centuries after Jesus’ resurrection few were the followers who thought it was now their appointed task to rule the empires and raise the sword to slay the evildoers in Jesus’ name.
Hence, I propose that each of us ponder with great honesty and introspection just what it might mean now—right here in Tulsa and in this state and in this nation—to be a disciple-follower of Jesus who confesses that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God and the Savior of the world.
In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, One God, Mother of us all. Amen.
First Christian Church
copyright@Joe R. Jones
A Palm Sunday sermon preached at First Christian Church, Tulsa, OK, March 28, 2010, as part of The Roy Griggs Lectureship.