Last week, I watched a news story about a priest who was involved in the immigration demonstrations a few days ago. A reporter asked him if he was involved in the process for political reasons, and he said “no.” Instead, he said, it was a moral issue.
Underlying the interview was an assumption that the “moral” and “political” realms are distinct, and that it would be improper for a Christian leader to move into the realm of the political. I think such an assumption is wrong – wrong, because a moral view of the world that refuses to involve itself in the politics of power, wealth, and privilege is impotent.
The gospel of Jesus is – by its very nature – political. At its heart, it involves the question of whether God’s kingdom or men’s kingdoms will have dominion over the earth. The thing that Jesus stood for – the liberation of mankind from sin and bondage through the coming of God’s kingdom – put him on an inevitable collision course with the institutions of his day which perpetuated systems of political oppression. To look at his life in any other way is to ignore blindly the issues that mattered most in his teachings.
Palm Sunday represents the beginning of the end of Jesus’ life in human form, and the beginning of the beginning of God’s kingdom. It also marks the beginning of a feast that celebrated the liberation of God’s people from (literal, political) bondage, and the beginning of the end of the temple in Jerusalem, where corruption and injustice had reigned for all too long.
Jesus’ arrival on a donkey was intentionally staged – possibly several days in advance of Palm Sunday. It was an effort to demonstrate that the arrival of the true king – a king who reigned in spite of his seeming powerlessness. The arrival of the true king was in stark contrast to the Roman cavalcade which likely arrived on the same day with thundering hoofbeats and the sound of armored centurions marching through the city gate.
Jesus’ complaints about the keepers of the Temple would be no mere moral issue, disconnected from the political and social oppression of Rome. To the contrary, what he said and did during the next few days was intentionally geared to threaten the collapse of a delicate politically-charged truce that was perpetuating a system of injustice. It was his threat to the carefully negotiated balance of power between Rome and the Temple that got him killed.
To welcome Jesus on Palm Sunday, then, is not only to embrace the coming of the one who offers personal forgiveness of sins – it is to choose sides with the true king – the one who comes to subvert all human systems – including those that are political – to the power of God’s Kingdom of justice and mercy.