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Intention: Striving for Justice

For some of you what I’m about to share is “old hat” but for some of you this may be brand new information. You see, it’s hard to fully appreciate and comprehend the events and impact of what we now call Palm Sunday without understanding the social, political and religious situation at the time. Please note that I attribute much of the scholarly information to Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan and their book, The Last Week.

In the half century following the rule of King David and his son, Solomon (which ended roughly 900 years before Jesus), Jerusalem went from its greatest period in history – not only was it at its largest, most powerful, most prosperous, most united, and safest, but it was a time of justice and righteousness, David especially was seen as the shepherd-king, a protector, a man of goodness and justice – to the center of a “domination system.”

This domination system manifested in three ways:

Political oppression – Jerusalem and the surrounding area was ruled by “the few, the powerful and the wealthy… ordinary people had no voice.”

Economic exploitation – Between one half and two thirds of the society’s wealth, which came primarily from agricultural production, lined the pockets of the wealthy and the powerful. This was accomplished with laws about land ownership, taxation, indenture of labor through debt, and more.

Religious legitimation – It was believed at the time that those who ruled did so by divine right. Therefore, God must also want all the laws and systems they put into place.

So, Rome had been in control of Jerusalem and the Jewish nation since about 63 BCE at which point they began ruling through the high priest and the wealthy families. Rome trusted the wealthy to rule with a fairly free hand as long as they maintained order, were loyal to Rome, and collected and paid the annual “tribute” to Rome (read: really big tax).

The rich got richer by accumulating land – either through the decree of the king, or by forcing the owners into foreclosure. Then the peasant class, who had owned and worked their own farms for generations, were forced to work in a commercialized agricultural system, often not even able to bring enough food home for their families. In short, the system was corrupt and was shaped and enforced by those who benefitted most.

Mark’s entire message in his Gospel is to recast the reader’s understanding of the “kingdom of God.” Jesus could have spoken of the “family” of God, or the "people" of God, or the "community" of God, but he used the words “kingdom of God” to invoke an image very different from the kingdom they knew, a kingdom of domination and oppression.

If you think about it, everything Jesus said and did was contradictory to the domination system – politically, economically and religiously. Allow me to name just a few:

  • Jesus actually cared about the poor, the widow, the outcast
  • He healed on the Sabbath (Sabbath was created for man)
  • He criticized the wealthy and powerful for their acts of supposed religiosity – praying in public, giving greater sums of money. He called them hypocrites, viper’s brood, whitewashed tombs.
  • He welcomed children
  • He talked to women

    He told people that they were worthy by showing them what love looks like (love your neighbor as yourself)

  • He turned over the tables of the moneychangers as a statement against the corrupt leaders of the temple
  • The wealthy lived in the cities. The other 90% of the population lived in rural areas making money for the wealthy. The majority of Jesus’ ministry was in the countryside, to the working and peasant classes.
  • Jesus said, "The first shall be last and the last first."
  • Jesus taught, "If someone is going to be great, they must be a servant of all."
  • He blessed those who were poor in spirit, who hungered and thirsted for justice, who showed mercy, who worked for peace, who were persecuted because of their struggle for justice.

Palm Sunday takes place at the beginning of the week of Passover, one of the largest Jewish festivals celebrating their liberation from slavery in Egypt. Around 200,000 Jews would be expected to make a pilgrimage into the city for this celebration.

What happens even today when 200,000 people are expected to turn out in a city? The police and perhaps even the national guard come out in force. The same thing happened back then.

Every year, Pontius Pilate, the Roman Governor who lived on the coast, led a miliary procession of imperial cavalry and soldiers into Jerusalem to keep the order and to shore up the Roman garrison overlooking the temple and its grounds. This show of force was meant to remind people that not only was Rome in charge, but that the emperor was not simply the ruler of Rome, but was the (self-proclaimed) Son of God.

There is no question in my mind that Jesus planned a counter procession on the same day as the imperial procession for a reason. He made sure the people were forewarned of his coming, so they could be prepared with palm branches and cloaks. Then he chose a young donkey to echo the prophet Zechariah who proclaimed that a king would come, humble and riding on the foal of a donkey. The king that Zechariah was talking about would bring peace to the land – there would be no more chariots or war horses, or swords. No more imperial processions, but peace. In other words, another reign like King David's.

This is how Jesus cast himself. But the whole point was not really to make him king, it was to point beyond himself to the God he served to say that God’s kingdom is the one we must follow, and that kingdom is one of equality, justice, harmony, compassion and hope. one in which all people are treated as sacred beings of equal worth.

It seems convenient to me that traditional/conservative Christianity has deflected the main purpose of Jesus to their belief that he supposedly “died for our sins.” The evidence lies contrary to that. He died because he dared to stand up to the domination system of his day – an intertwined system of political, economic and religious oppression. Jesus nailed them all, and was literally nailed in return. He pushed all their buttons in the hope for change. And he was executed for it because he became too popular and hit too close to the mark.

Maya Angelou has said that when she’s approached by people who say, “I’m a Christian,” she responds, “Already? I’m in my eighties and I’m still trying.” 

So many days I don’t want to be associated with Jesus or being a Christian, until I’m reminded of his brave stand for justice, and his constant proclamation of a God of love. This is the Jesus I want to follow, even though this Jesus is really hard to follow. I'm still trying.

This Jesus of justice yanks us out of our comfort zones. He is clear about where God stands in the matter of justice – with the poor, the marginalized, the outcast, the oppressed. The kingdom we’re called to align ourselves with is the kingdom of heaven, not the kingdom of rich, elite, powerful people who make and enforce the systems of domination that still exist today.

There have been protest marches forever. And most do about as much good as Jesus’ protest parade on Palm Sunday. But as Martin Luther King Jr. reminded us, “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

It took over 70 years for women to obtain the right to vote in the United States. This did not guarantee the right to own property, to not be considered her husband’s property, to equal pay, to being protected from spousal abuse, to be in control of her own body… these fights took decades more and are still on-going. The Me, Too movement is evidence that we have a long way to go.

Slavery ended in 1862, but the Civil Rights Act didn’t pass until 1964, forbidding discrimination based on sex and race. As is obvious, we’re clearly not there yet.

The Stonewall riots in 1969 are thought to be the beginning of the fight for rights for LGBTQ people. In 2013, the Supreme Court finally legalized same-sex marriage. However, just in the first three months of 2023, 435 anti-LGBTQ bills have been presented in state legislatures across the country.

Frankly, all of these things hurt my heart. And these are by no means the extent of the injustice in our systems in this country. The domination systems have not been dismantled, and it is up to us to keep trying to become Christians who actually follow Jesus’ example and work to bring about change that benefits ALL people equally. Every voice is needed, every dollar is needed, every signature on petitions is needed, every body is needed to march and support, every vote is needed, every action of kindness and equality is needed as we walk through our days. This is too important to ignore.

Love & Light!