Sermon - Matthew 21:1-11
"The Politics of Jesus"
When we lived in Bangkok, Thailand, our family got to see then President of the U.S., Richard Nixon. I was in the third grade and the route that Nixon made through the city just so happened to come through a major boulevard near where we lived. I remember how we all gathered up and went and stood on the edge of the streets. It was very similar to the parades we see here in downtown Killeen. And we were all standing on roped-off streets - with probably thousands of others - waiting to see the President. We had our little flags and we were waving them. We all waited with baited breath.
And then it began to happen. Far down the straight thoroughfare we saw several vehicles approaching. There were motorcycle police with lights flashing. There were long, black, dark-tinted limousines. Each time a car passed we wondered if that was the President. Finally, after several cars and motorcycles passed by, a long, black car - with motorcycled-police all around - came right toward where we were standing. As the car approached we all waited. People were cheering, flags were waving. And the car passed right in front of us, and on our side of the street, I saw a smiling face of President Nixon, and a hand waving. And just as soon as I caught a glimpse - the face and the hand - they were gone. That was the one and only time I have seen one of our Presidents up close. Living very near the Crawford Ranch of President Bush, I can see that this type of fanfare is still a part of the way presidents travel.
I suppose it was very similar to this when Jesus entered Jerusalem. And then in many ways it was completely different. The way Richard Nixon - or any other President would have - entered into the city was what we=d expect from a dignitary. We=d expect the authority and the security and the fanfare. The way I read Jesus= entry, it was in some ways like this, but in other ways it=s worth a second look.
It was a planned event, even down to the details. It wasn=t on a whim that he entered in this way. In fact, much of what Jesus did and said had political ramifications behind it. Now when we think of politics we tend to think of our own context - partisan politics in the U.S. I don=t think the politics of Jesus can ever be interpolated into our own era of Democrats and Republicans. Some attempt to make that leap, but I don=t think it can be done historically. C.H Dodd, in an article entitled, AThe Kingdom of God and the Present Situation,@ wrote these words: The Gospel is firmly rooted in a story of that which once happened. The story is familiar. But we should observe that the situation into which Jesus Christ came was genuinely typical and too long to tell here. The forces with which he came into contact were such as are permanent factors in history: - government, institutional religion, nationalism, social unrest. . . . (Christian News-Letter, 1940). That article was written in 1940, but its words I think are timeless. Then in 1972, John Howard Yoder wrote a book entitled, The Politics of Jesus. In this book Yoder reveals the non-violent ethics and methodology that Jesus presented as marks of God=s realm. This non-violent approach mixed with his radical statements and actions made for a very political figure.
And the entrance into Jerusalem is not without its significance. The Jewish people wanted a liberator and deliverer. They had lived for generations under Roman rule and persecution. The people wanted to be set free. The story of the Exodus resonated in the hearts and minds of the people. The justice of the prophets were at the heart of the Hebrews hope and perseverance. It is no wonder that the people shouted, AHosanna!@ We tend to think of this as a praise for the divine son of God. I think it was more directed to their hopes of being released from Rome. One interpretation of "hosanna" is Asave us." The people saw Jesus coming into the city as one who would set the people free just as Moses had done in Egypt. And Jerusalem was the place where these promises and hopes were to come to fruition. But the way they wanted him to do this was where they missed it.
Jesus rode in on a donkey according to the texts. We usually think of donkeys as beasts of burden as our southern neighbors use of "burros." The donkey then was an animal of nobility and royalty. In wartime and in battles, kings rode horses; but when they came in times of peace, they rode on a donkey. Jesus was making a very political statement - the realm he represented was non-violent. The liberation and revolution that he wanted to bring was not one to wage war, but one to wage peace. This is where even the disciples missed the mark. According to some NT scholars, as many as half of the original 12 disciples were zealots. Zealots were revolutionaries, insurrectionists. We would call them terrorists. Judas was a zealot, as his name "Iscariot" indicates. An alternative interpretation of his actions towards Jesus were not to turn him over to the authorities, but rather that by his actions he might force Jesus, in order to defend himself, finally at the last minute to start the holy war through which Judas expected the advent of God=s kingdom to be brought about. (Yoder, 56) The hope of Judas was the hope of much of the Jewish people and some of the prophetic writings speak of such a liberation. But Jesus= political orientation was always not what people expected.
For one thing, the ranks from which Jesus came was not expected. A recent historian has called Jesus a "Mediterranean Jewish peasant." (Crossan) He came from the lower class. His environment was mainly agrarian (his parables and language give evidence of this). He was not a part of the upper crust of his society. Yet his words and actions constantly challenged the political structures of both religion and government. It was no wonder that the politics of this so-called peasant would result in death by execution - the common way to get rid of rabble rousers. What was it about the politics of Jesus that made him such a threat; so much that it got him killed? Again, we could talk all day about this stuff, but I=d like to give you two morsels to think about.
I think the politics of Jesus were so scandalous because he was non-violent. The realm of God that Jesus presented challenged and dismantled the structures of dominance. It is a given in governments that some dominate others, and where some dominate that means that some are also oppressed. The stories that Jesus told about kings or rulers or bosses - stories that seemed to parallel God=s nature - always seemed to undercut the ones in power. Jesus revealed a God who does not dominate others. The God Jesus reveals is a God of love and grace and acceptance and incarnation. The doctrine of incarnation is crucial to our understanding of God. Jesus reminds us that God does not come to dominate, but to dwell in our midst! This so-called kingdom of God turns out to be more of a family and a community and a sit-down dinner, where everyone is on level seating. It=s not an earthly system of domination. As someone once said, "Jesus was killed for doing what prophets do."
The politics of Jesus also went against the religious establishment. It seemed that the main emphasis of the Jewish religion had come to be ritual and law and regulations. Jesus re-presented all of these things not so much in how they should be observed. Rather Jesus embodied a religion that was to be lived out. For Jesus the spirit of the law was more important than the letter of the law. At the heart of the Jewish tradition was a love for God. Jesus affirmed that by also showing that in order to love God - truly, genuinely, ethically love God - then you have to also love others, and not just others who are within your own circles, but especially those who are outside of your circles - the poor, the sick, the widows, children, sinners.
Matthew=s Gospel reminds us that the entry into Jerusalem was among other things a political statement. The politics of Jesus are not to be left in the texts however. Matthew won=t let us do that. Matthew=s Gospel reminds us that if we are to follow Jesus then it comes with a price. What is that price? I think it can be summed up by the same forces that Jesus came in contact with and are still with us today - governments, institutional religion, nationalism, and social unrest. To me this means that we are to do what Jesus did, and that is what the Lenten journey is all about. It begs reflection and self-examination, in that, if we are to be disciples of Jesus the Christ, if we are to be the people of God, then what does it mean to live in our world as it relates to those areas, those forces that Jesus faced - systems within our government, the way our religion has become institutionalized, the way some people put country -whatever country it might be - before God, and the way our society still hopes for, longs for, and yearns for a messiah. The Jesus most people want is not the Jesus of the NT. The Jesus I read about in the Gospels is still today a radical and a revolutionary.
So where do we find ourselves in this story? If we honest, then I'd say on both sides. On the one hand, we can easily welcome Jesus into our midst, and into our churches. But like the ones in Jerusalem, we can turn our allegiances quickly. The same Jesus that entered Jerusalem comes to us and challenges our status quo. Sometimes, because the challenge is too strong, we join in the jeers and calls for execution. Where do we find ourselves today?
The call for us today is the same call that Jesus gave nearly 2 centuries ago. If anyone wishes to follow me, let them take up their cross and follow me. Simply put, "How far are we willing to go to follow? All the way to the cross? All the way to deathrow?" Following Jesus the Christ does not mean that we automatically identify ourselves with one expression of partisan politics. But what I think it does mean, is that by following Jesus we identify ourselves with an ethic that automatically challenges the political structures in our world - both in our governments and in our churches.
So if Jesus were to come riding into our world today, I would join in with the others, "Hosanna! Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in God=s name! . . . Save us! Help us! Save us from ourselves before it=s too late! Help us have the courage to follow you! God help us all!" Amen.
John Dominic Crossan. The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant. New York: Harper Collins, 1991
John Howard Yoder. The Politics of Jesus. Grand Rapids: Eerdsmans Publishing, 1972.