There’s been a saying bumping around my church world off and on for about 20 years:
“Christ came into the world to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.”
A little reading of the gospels might just confirm that in your mind. Jesus spent time healing the sick and preaching about helping the poor while spending a few choice words on the wealthy. While that feels like a good Christian aphorism, it’s not from the Bible. Check out this link. I’ve confirmed this from other sources and it seems this little saying was first applied to newspapers 1902. Christian preachers started applying it to the church around 1987 and I recall first hearing it in a church setting in the mid-1990‘s. Despite the saying’s origin, it can be seen throughout Jesus’s ministry. We’ll see that as we unwind the events of his last week.
When I approached this first chapter of, The Last Week, in 2011 I spent much of my thought relating what happened 2,000 years ago to my current Palm Sunday experiences, like being given palm branches to wave, or marching around the building during Sunday service.
This time I am stuck by a phrase that Borg and Crossan use a lot in this chapter: domination system. The authors spend sometime discussing this and I am struck by its importance in my current thinking about this week.
The domination system was the Roman occupation and how the Romans held control over Jerusalem and the Jewish people. It was a system of oppression that used local collaborators to enforce control and gain what the Roman’s really wanted: Tribute in the form of taxes, heavy taxes. Normal Roman protocol was to send in the Roman Legions to conquer and then put locals in charge of a new puppet government. These collaborators were allowed to hold power as long as they kept the peace and kept the tribute flowing to Rome. In the early years of Jesus’s time this local ruler was Herod, but at the time of Jesus’s march into Jerusalem, Herod was gone and Rome had installed a local military governor, Pontius Pilate.
Pilate maintained control with a garrison of troops and by selecting the priests who ran the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem. The Temple was the center of the community and they aided the Romans by collecting taxes and other methods. The priests acted to legitimize the domination of Rome in the name of God. Over time the general population got poorer as land was converted to producing crops and goods for Rome rather than for the Jewish people.
Wealth became concentrated in the hands of the few at the top and some of the things the temple use to do, like caring for the poor, fell away. Any priest who wanted to keep his job in the temple, supported Rome, not Jewish custom or theology. This set the stage for general conflict between the Jewish people and the temple authorities and ultimately Rome.
On the last page of the chapter, the authors state that there are two themes for the week:
Death and resurrection – as many of us have been taught in church.
Confrontation with the domination system – as Jesus did all week.
It’s the latter of these two that interest me at the moment. Jesus’s message to his followers was in direct opposition to the message coming out of Jerusalem and the Roman occupation. He’d already had a few run ins with religious authorities and likely knew his teaching made them a little nervous – especially as his following grew. There’s a lot going on here – more than just a guy riding into town on a colt with crowds waving palm branches.
What really gets my mind working isn’t that he came to confront the system but rather how he chose to do it – first with a bit of political theater and later by willingly walking to his death. The theater part is his ride into Jerusalem. What doesn’t get talked about in the gospel is what was happening on the other side of town when Jesus was doing his thing. Over there Pilate was marching into the city at the head of a Roma Legion with all the pomp and ceremony that the Romans could muster.
It should be noted that Pilate didn’t live in Jerusalem – he had a nice palace down by the sea – and only came to Jerusalem to be in the city during the Jewish Passover. This event gathered a great number of Jews into the city and swelled the city population. Historically there were always problems with this many people and more than a few anti-Roman agitators running through the city. The Roman solution – send the governor in with an army large enough to suppress any likely trouble. First, Pilate marched his troops through the city with an impressive display of arms and military strength – enough to impress the locals of the futility of resisting. Then Pilate would take up residence in Jerusalem until the crowds went home.
Jesus on the other side of town does the opposite – rides into the city on a non-military animal at the head of an unarmed group of followers proclaiming his usual messages which did get the crowds worked up and hopeful. It was a courageous move to openly declare his presence in the city and let it be known his criticism of the system was here. He knew that such a move would put his life at risk, but yet he does it and leads his disciples on the same path. If we think of this as a model for personal action, it makes me wonder if I have been courageous enough in my life when standing up to injustice.
So, on Palm Sunday (as we call it), Jesus rides into Jerusalem to comfort those afflicted by the domination system and give them hope of something better.
He will start afflicting the comfortable temple authorities on Monday.
Till next week,