Occupy Jerusalem

Occupy Jerusalem

Reading the gospel accounts, Palm Sunday sounds like a spontaneous outpouring of enthusiasm for Jesus.  Certainly there were many people who joined in the demonstration spontaneously, but careful thought and planning had been put into the event.

The Romans and the Chief Priests were in charge in Jerusalem, and Jesus came to town to challenge them.  Like the Arab Spring and the Occupy Movement, Jesus knew he needed large numbers of supporters in a mass public demonstration or he would be marginalized maybe even eliminated his first day in town.  So he planned a parade.

Bethphage and Bethany were small villages on the eastern slope of the Mt. of Olives.  Jesus had several supporters in these villages including Mary, Martha and their brother Lazarus.  To evade arrest, from Sunday through Wednesday Jesus left Jerusalem and spent the night at different undisclosed locations on the Mt. of Olives.  So we know he had many supporters in these villages.

Jesus had arranged for a donkey to be available in an attempt to emulate Zechariah 9: 9  Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem! Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on an ass, on a colt the foal of an ass.

Bible Scholars Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan also claim that the demonstration accompanying Jesus into the eastern gate of the City was timed to match a militaristic parade at the Jaffa Gate on the western side of the City consisting of the Roman Governor, Pilate, leading a squadron of Roman Calvary from Caesarea into Jerusalem to keep order during the Passover.  This might suggest that not only had Jesus come to town to challenge the Temple authorities but also the Romans, and this would explain why later in the week Pilate did not hesitate to sign the order to crucify Jesus.

In case anyone doubts Jesus’ intention look at what the crowds were chanting:  “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.  Blessed is the kingdom of our Father David that is coming!”  This was not good news for the Romans.  If the crowds were ready to re-establish the kingdom of our Father David, the Romans would have to be driven out.  In addition the Temple would lose the favored position it enjoyed under the peculiar arrangements of the Roman Occupation.  The Romans kept order, and the Temple collected their taxes, and they also participated in foreclosing on peasants who had been taxed into debt, and then pushed them off of their land.  The High priestly families, collected the foreclosed upon peasant holdings and incorporated them into huge landed estates, hiring back a few of the peasants as impoverished day laborers.  The economic oppression of the system was grinding the vast majority of the population into poverty, while a privileged few profited.

Some scholars might be so bold as to compare the situation in First Century Israel to the economic unrest that has fueled the Occupy Movement.  Although I want to give Jesus credit for having the foresight to initiate his movement in the Spring of the year.  We might even go back and look at Palm Sunday as the first demonstration in the Occupy Jerusalem Campaign.  Like the Wall Street Protest Demonstrations today, Jesus was sponsoring a largely non-violent movement.  When he overturned the tables of the money changers, no one was killed or even seriously injured.  Jesus was leading a non-violent resistance campaign against the Romans and the Jewish establishment.

This view of Palm Sunday may be unsettling for some people.  In Sunday School we were often taught that Jesus meek and mild came riding into Jerusalem on a humble donkey, because he was spiritual rather than political.  Hardly!!! The choice of a donkey was a political symbol every Israelite could recognize.  Jesus was saying he was the promised messiah of Zechariah.  And if we turn to Zechariah chapter 9 let’s look at verses 10 and 11:  10  I will cut off the chariot from Ephraim and the war horse from Jerusalem; and the battle bow shall be cut off, and he (the Messiah) shall command peace to the nations; his dominion shall be from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth.  11  As for you also, because of the blood of my covenant with you, I will set your captives free from the waterless pit.  Notice the claim of authority made in Zechariah:  “he shall command peace to the nations; his dominion shall be from sea to sea. . .”  This Messiah may have been non-violent, but he was political, not some other worldly spiritual sky pilot.  The blood of his covenant mentioned in Zechariah and offered by Jesus to his followers at the Last Supper was to set the captives free.  Jesus was setting in motion a spiritual movement intended to subvert the Roman Empire.  Jesus is Lord, not Caesar.

Those who worship the might of the Roman Empire, those who believe in the golden rule that says, “those who have the gold make the rules,” need to understand that the Jesus movement stands over against the tyranny of power and wealth.  Jesus is calling those who follow him to enter into a Commonwealth of God, where everyone gathers at a common table to break bread together, food is shared and the poor are fed.  And in the breaking of the bread as the followers of Jesus pray with and for one another, the risen Christ is present with them and miracles begin to happen.

Was Jesus just a starry eyed idealist, who can be dismissed out of hand, or is there any hope that the Jesus movement might really succeed?   What if a critical mass of people embraced the non-violent, compassionate, sharing way of Jesus?  Can non-violent revolutions actually succeed?  The Fall of the Berlin Wall, the Fall of the Soviet Empire, the velvet revolutions of Eastern Europe, the end of apartheid in South Africa all suggest it might be possible.  Certainly the road is bumpy and the way is never easy.  Greed, racism and the lust for power will always seek to subvert our better aspirations.  But what if we decided to follow Jesus over against the forces of greed and power that corrupt our political system?  Could we make a difference?

We start with small steps.  Every Thursday evening we share soup and bread, and we pray with and for each other.  We also break the bread and share the wine of the Lord’s Supper, all are welcomed, and everyone who comes is fed.  You are welcome for Soup and Bread this coming Thursday.  That is a small but not insignificant beginning.

I think another small but significant step we can take is to follow the lead of Dr. Pippa Abston in protesting the proposed cuts to our State Mental Health program.  Alabama is in a race to the bottom to reduce taxes and eliminate compassion from government.  We have many people in our congregation who will be adversely affected.  People who are mentally ill are one of the most vulnerable and marginalized populations.  Besides advocating non-violence, and sharing with the poor Jesus ministered to the sick including the mentally ill.  Jesus calls upon us to advocate for their welfare.  One of the outreaches of our congregation is our support for the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill (NAMI).  Joining Pippa in fighting the cuts to the Mental Health budget is just an extension of our mission.

Small steps, baby steps aimed at subverting the oppression of the poor and the marginalized.  But not only are we called upon to resist the oppression of wealth and power, like Jesus we are also called upon to help liberate the wealthy and the powerful from their own obsession with material riches and control.  Jeffrey Sachs in his new book the Price of Civilization speaks eloquently to this problem.

The logic of profit maximization, combined with unprecedented breakthroughs in information and communications technology, has led to an economy of distraction. . . . The end result is a society of consumer addictions, personal anxieties, growing loneliness in the midst of electronic social networks, and financial distress.  This is true of the super-rich as well as the rest of society.

Despite great American affluence, our decisions as consumers of goods, services and bytes are not delivering the well-being and peace of mind we crave.  Americans urgently need to regain our footing.  The starting point is that we must recognize the snares that the economy has set for our psyches.  We must begin by reclaiming our balance as individuals, consumers, citizens, and members of society.

The way of Jesus can help to liberate rich and poor alike from the unhealthy imbalances in our society and economy.  As we share in relationship in the community of faith, praying with and for each other, caring for one another, seeking the Risen Christ who lives among us, we find the sense of community, the love, the purpose that makes life worth living.

Like Moses, Jesus came to set the people free.  Palm Sunday invites us to join the Jesus parade to free ourselves from our enslavement to wealth and power.  And if we follow Jesus through this Holy Week, he will bring us to Maundy Thursday.  And there at the Sharing Table Christ will mark the door posts of our lives with the blood of the lamb, so the angel of death will pass over us, and we will be free to leave the Empire of Death and cross over into the Promised Land of the Commonwealth of God.

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