"Who Is Your King?"

Mark 11:1-11

Sermon Preached by Gregory Knox Jones

April 1, 2012


When Jesus entered Jerusalem, the city's population had jumped from 40,000 to a whopping 250,000.  The city was bulging with pilgrims who had come to the Holy City to celebrate the Passover Feast.  Was it a coincidence that Jesus entered Jerusalem when he did?   Not by a long shot.  He chose this moment because this was the crucial religious festival when Jews recalled God liberating them from an oppressive government.  Pontius Pilate entered Jerusalem at the same time as Jesus and for the identical reason.

Pilate was the Roman governor who ruled the territory that included Jerusalem.  But Pilate had no fondness for the premier city of Judaism.  He chose to live 60 miles west of Jerusalem in Caesarea Maritima.  When Camilla and I led a group of Westminster members to Israel/Palestine two years ago, we visited the ruins of this coastal city.  It is a beautiful spot that lies on the sparkling waters of the Mediterranean Sea and enjoys soft breezes.  Jerusalem is inland and can get uncomfortably hot.  However, the main reason Pilate had contempt for Jerusalem was because it was filled with people who deeply resented the Romans occupying their land.

Pilate and his troops marched into Jerusalem every Passover to display their military muscle.  The show of force reminded the Jewish pilgrims who was in charge and that it was foolish to get any wild ideas about insurrection.

It's safe to say that the atmosphere was tense when Jesus entered Jerusalem.  Moreover, his Palm Sunday parade appears to have been carefully scripted.  The first few verses of this morning's passage focus on the details of Jesus' plans.  He gives two of his disciples precise instructions.  They are to go into the village ahead of them where they will find a colt.  They are to untie it and bring it to him.  If someone tries to stop them - "Hey, what are you doing?" - they are to say, "The Lord needs it and will send it back here immediately."

As they enter the village and find the colt, it plays out as Jesus had predicted.  Some say, "What are you doing untying the colt?"  And the disciples respond as Jesus instructed.  The people of the village allow the disciples to take the colt.  Did they permit them to take it because the disciples sounded like trustworthy fellows, or were the villagers already in on the plan?  Had word been sent ahead for them to have the colt waiting for Jesus?

The disciples lead the animal to Jesus.  He mounts it and rides down the slope of the Mount of Olives into the Kidron Valley and then up the hill to Jerusalem.  As he rides, people throw palm branches before him and some spread their cloaks on the road.  It is a poor man's red carpet treatment.  Those who are part of his procession, those leading him and those following, are shouting, "Hosanna!  Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!  Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David!"

Living in a democratic society 20 centuries later, we are so far removed from the conditions of the first century Jews that we fail to hear the defiance in their shouts.  We generally miss the fact that this was a non-violent protest against the ruling authorities.  The Romans, who occupied Palestine, made it clear that there is no king but the Roman Emperor.  The Jews knew that if they defied Roman rule, the emperor would not hesitate to come down on them with an iron fist.  But the people were desperate, and they saw in Jesus the leader for whom they had been yearning.  So when Jesus came riding into town, there were shouts of "Hosanna!"

Years ago I was led to believe that "Hosanna" was roughly equivalent to "Alleluia," a shout of praise.  But that's not what "Hosanna" means.  It means "save us" or "deliver us."  The people were calling out to Jesus to save them from the Romans; to deliver them from the occupation.  And when the followers of Jesus hailed him as the one who would reinstitute the kingdom of their mightiest king, David, they were talking treason.

Ever wonder why Jesus chose to ride a colt into Jerusalem?  The gospels tell us numerous times that Jesus walked wherever he went.  Why would he suddenly decide to ride?  Most of us miss the point, but you can bet that the first century faithful knew exactly what Jesus was doing.  They were well acquainted with the words of the prophet, Zechariah, who centuries before had said, "Shout aloud, O daughters of Jerusalem!  Your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a colt, the foal of an ass." (Zechariah 9:9)

Later in the week, when Jesus is dragged before Pilate, what did Pilate ask him?  He asked, "Are you the King of the Jews?"

From 63 BCE to shortly after Jesus was born, Herod the Great ruled Jewish territory.  During his reign, he rebuilt the Jewish temple and built a luxury palace in Jerusalem for himself.  He also built a number of other palaces and fortresses throughout the land.  To pay for this construction spree, he heavily taxed the Jewish people, driving the great majority of them deeper into poverty.  After Herod's death, local Jewish leaders were selected to collaborate with Rome in ruling the people.  Rome assigned this role to the leaders of the temple.

On that first Palm Sunday, when Jesus entered Jerusalem, he did it in a way that sent a signal that he was there to challenge the oppressive rule of the Romans.  The following day, Jesus conducted another public display to challenge the leaders of the Temple.  He overturned the tables of the money changers and accused the temple leaders of turning God's house of prayer into a den of robbers.  He was not the first Jewish revolutionary to direct his wrath against the temple whose leaders were in collusion with Rome.  The Essenes, who produced the Dead Sea Scrolls, had already moved to the desert because they rejected the legitimacy of the temple and its leaders.

Why did Jesus provoke the political and religious leaders against insurmountable odds?  It was inevitable if he remained faithful to the mission God had given him.  Through his teachings and healings, Jesus announced the kingdom of God.  That is, God's vision for humanity, in which people treat one another with compassion, where everyone receives justice and all live together in peace.

The prophet Micah said, "What does the Lord require of you but to do justice to love kindness and to walk humbly with God?"

The prophet Jeremiah said, "Thus says the Lord: Act with justice and righteousness, and deliver from the hand of the oppressor anyone who has been robbed." (Jeremiah 22:3)

When Jesus began his ministry he quoted Isaiah: "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free." (Luke 4:16-19)

For Jesus to remain obedient to God - to bring good news to the poor and to lift the yoke of oppression - demanded that he oppose the Romans and their crushing system of taxation that kept the majority in poverty.  He also had to oppose the chief priests, the elders and the scribes who had swapped their allegiance to God for their loyalty to the Roman emperor.

A colleague says that whenever he imagines the religious officials denying their deepest convictions and selling out to the Romans, he remembers "the devastating newsreel in the movie, Bonhoeffer, that shows German Lutheran bishops in their clerical collars, on the platform at Nuremberg, before a huge crowd, shaking hands with Adolf Hitler and raising their right arms in the Nazi salute."1

Before Jesus entered Jerusalem, he told his followers three times that his mission would cost him his life.  He first predicted his death in the eighth chapter of Mark.  That's the passage in which Peter rebukes Jesus for saying he will be killed and Jesus lashes back at Peter saying "Get behind me, Satan!"  In this first prediction, Jesus does not say that God has predetermined that he must be put to death for our sins.  He says he will be killed for a different reason.  He says that he "must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed."  (Mark 8:31)

In the following chapter, Jesus predicted his death a second time.  He did not say that this was part of God's plan.  Instead he said, "The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him..." (Mark 9:31).  In the next chapter, Jesus predicted his death a third time.  The gospel writer says that Jesus and his disciples were heading to Jerusalem and those who were following Jesus were afraid.  And well they should have been.  Jesus said he "will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles (meaning the Romans); they will mock him and spit upon him, and flog him, and kill him." (Mark 10:32-34)  In each of the three predictions, Jesus said that the ruling authorities will kill him.  Yet despite knowing that his opposition was ruthless and would not hesitate to murder him, he refused to be deterred from his mission.  When Jesus prayed, "Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven," then he enlisted every fiber in his body to make it so.

His determination to remain faithful to God's mission regardless of the consequences inspired Dietrich Bonhoeffer to oppose Adolf Hitler and Nazism.  It inspired Archbishop Oscar Romero to stand with the poor and to speak out against the death squads in El Salvador.  It inspired Martin Luther King, Jr. to fight for a colorblind system of justice.  It cost them their lives to stand up against the dark forces in our world, but they took their cue from Jesus and were resolute in remaining faithful to God.

The way of God is not control and coercion, but rather compassion.

The way of God is not domination and oppression, but justice.

The way of God is not persecution and violence, but peace.

Jesus was willing to sacrifice his life for a new world - God's kingdom - and we can only stand in awe of such courage.



1.      John Buchanan, "On Trial: Who is Your King?" March 2010.