Notes From The Balcony

Progressive Reflections on Post-Modern Living in a Multifaith Age

Lent Reflections – Two Parades

Two Parades

When they were approaching Jerusalem, at Bethphage and Bethany, near the Mount of Olives, he sent two of his disciples and said to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately as you enter it, you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden; untie it and bring it. If anyone says to you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it and will send it back here immediately.'” They went away and found a colt tied near a door, outside in the street. As they were untying it, some of the bystanders said to them, “What are you doing, untying the colt?” They told them what Jesus had said; and they allowed them to take it. Then they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks on it; and he sat on it. Many people spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut in the fields. Then those who went ahead and those who followed were shouting, “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David! Hosanna in the highest heaven!” Then he entered Jerusalem and went into the temple; and when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve. Mark 11 (1-11)

While Mark tells this familiar story is such a way as to suggest that Jesus and the disciples are just getting to the Jerusalem area, in my previous post I have argued that they had been around for a couple of days. The point is not a big one. It simply avoids any interpretation where it is claimed for Jesus that he has some sort of special powers of clairvoyance. Such a claim, even if true, doesn’t forward the point of the story and is finally distracting.

Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan talk in their new book, The Final Week, about two parades and while I don’t quite buy their complete analysis, their insight as to how this event is related to Pilate’s entry into Jerusalem is very helpful.

Pilate lives most of the year in Caesarea Maritima (Caesarea-by-the-Sea). The traditional site of Strabo’s Tower, it is contrasted with the more well known Caesarea Philippi (Panea). This port city on the coast was built by Herod the Great and served as the residences and administrative facilities for the Roman occupying authorities during the first century Common Era.

But, because of the temptation that arises to insurgence and rebellion, especially around the time of this festival of Jewish emancipation, Pilate personally leads at least a cohort of Roman troops to the temple city for the sake of making a strong public case for maintaining civil order during all the festivities. The troops would be stationed at the local citadel and placed on guard around the temple mount walls during the largest events attended by the assembled masses during the week.

Under Herod the Great, the temple mount had been remodeled and expanded to some 37 acres for a courtyard which could easily hold some 400,000 pilgrims. The temple construction was ongoing and would continue almost up until the time that the temple was razed in 70 CE.

The white and gold city was amazing and always new. Mark has Jesus with his disciples sitting in awe on the Mount of Olives looking at the large stones. This is hardly the disciples first trip to Jerusalem, so their amazement must be at the latest construction.

Bill McCracken has helpfully pointed to some of the symbolism at play between a king (or general) arriving either on a horse, or on a donkey. One is traditionally understood as a symbol of war and the other is seen as a symbol of peace.

I want to suggest an alternate but complementary reading for your consideration.

Clearly the Gospel writers hark back to the 9th chapter of Zechariah to find a context for this story. Interpreters tell us that the book of Zechariah is really at least two different texts written by very different authors, but we don’t need those sorts of details at this point. Please note the following verses:

Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem! Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.

oth of the gospel traditions, the Synoptic and the Johanine, see Jesus’ procession-like ride as somehow an imitation of this oracle from Zechariah.

Each of the four stories tells it a little differently, but the associations between Jesus’ action in Jerusalem and the prophetic text are obvious. What is a little more unclear has to do with what the Zechariah text is about. What is the cultural situation at hand that occasions these words? You will not be surprised to find that scholars disagree. But it seems to me that the following reading is at least plausible. Please note the verses immediately prior to the more familiar text.

The word of the LORD is against the land of Hadrach and will rest upon Damascus. For to the LORD belongs the capital of Aram, as do all the tribes of Israel; Hamath also, which borders on it, Tyre and Sidon, though they are very wise. Tyre has built itself a rampart, and heaped up silver like dust, and gold like the dirt of the streets. But now, the Lord will strip it of its possessions and hurl its wealth into the sea, and it shall be devoured by fire. Ashkelon shall see it and be afraid; Gaza too, and shall writhe in anguish; Ekron also, because its hopes are withered. The king shall perish from Gaza; Ashkelon shall be uninhabited; a mongrel people shall settle in Ashdod, and I will make an end of the pride of Philistia. I will take away its blood from its mouth, and its abominations from between its teeth; it too shall be a remnant for our God; it shall be like a clan in Judah, and Ekron shall be like the Jebusites.  Then I will encamp at my house as a guard, so that no one shall march to and fro; no oppressor shall again overrun them, for now I have seen with my own eyes.

Now comes the geography test!

Can you place all of these cities and kingdoms on a map? If you do, you will find that they represent a generalized descent through Palestine and Canaan on the way to Egypt.

There are many (including some Jews) who would have interpreted the rise of Alexander the Great as messianic. For many, he was described with familiar titles: the Christ, the light of the world. Do these opening verses in chapter nine trace Alexander’s turn south after the Battle of Issus in 333 BCE? I think this reading is entirely plausible.

But in contrast – i.e. in contrast to the new emperor who rides on the great horse, (Alexander’s horse, Bucephalus, may be the most famous mount of ancient history), riding on a donkey, here comes a different sort of monarch.

Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem! Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.

The verses immediately following our text are interesting as well.

He will cut off the chariot from Ephraim and the war horse from Jerusalem; and the battle bow shall be cut off, and he shall command peace to the nations; his dominion shall be from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth. As for you also, because of the blood of my covenant with you, I will set your prisoners free from the waterless pit. Return to your stronghold, O prisoners of hope; today I declare that I will restore to you double. For I have bent Judah as my bow; I have made Ephraim its arrow. I will arouse your sons, O Zion, against your sons, O Greece, and wield you like a warrior’s sword.

Borg and Crossan truncate the text and state that these verses are about a ruler who will bring peace. The phrase actually says that this Prince of Peace “commands peace” and the later verses don’t speak about an end to empire, just a change in where the capitol city is to be found!

This humble King will come to reconcile the warring kingdoms, the north and the south, although it is not clear how such a restoration would happen given that the northern Kingdom is gone, wiped out by the Assyrians. Nevertheless, the restoration of a united monarchy is clearly part of the messianic vision of the Jewish people. Peoples traditionally at civil war with each other are re-formed as one body, a bow and an arrow against (isn’t this interesting?) the GREEKS!

Some would say that Zechariah is predicting Jesus as messiah – that is a little too easy for me. It abuses the text. It is now almost four hundred years later and it is not the Greeks who are claiming to unite and rule the world, but the Romans.

Borg and Crossan’s contribution has to do with noting the fact of Pilate’s triumphant entry. They describe it well.

Imagine the imperial procession’s arrival in the city. A visual panoply of imperial power: cavalry on horses, foot soldiers, leather armor, helmets, weapons, banners, golden eagles mounted on poles, sun glinting on metal and gold. Sounds: the marching of feet, the creaking of leather, the clinking of bridles, the beating of drums. The swirling of dust. The eyes of the silent onlookers, some curious, some awed, some resentful.

Borg and Crossan are equally clear about the religious context.

Pilate’s process displayed not only imperial power, but also Roman imperial theology. According to this theology, the emperor was not simply the ruler of Rome, but the Son of God. It began with the greatest of the emperors, Augustus, who ruled Rome from 31 BCE to 14 CE. His father was the god Apollo, who conceived him in his mother, Atia. Inscriptions refer to him as “Son of God,” “Lord” and “Savior,” one who had brought “peace on earth.” After his death, he was seen ascending into heaven to take his permanent place among the Gods.”

Tiberias, emperor during Jesus’ public ministry continued to bear divine titles.

There are a couple of points found in Mark’s story that interest me greatly. The first has to do with the crowd and the branches that they are waving. Each of the Gospel writers spins this detail a little differently. Mark talks of leafy branches cut in the fields. Matthew speaks of branches cut from the trees but does not say what kind of trees. Luke has the crowd continue to spread their cloaks on the ground. No branches at all. John indicated the crowds went out to meet Jesus when they heard he was near town. They were carrying Palm Branches. When Jesus saw the crowds, he got a donkey and then started a procession.

There is a curious mixing of imagery here. This triumphant procession appears to be less a Passover parade, but one more like what one would expect to see during Sukkot where people assembled waving gathered bunches of four different kinds of plants. The cries of Hosanna echo verses from Psalm 118 again associated with Sukkot but also with Passover. More radically though there are the echoes of 1 Mc 13 where Simon Macabbeaus is greeted marching into Jerusalem with songs and Palm fronds. Passover celebrates the emancipation from Egypt, the bringing out of slavery a people and the molding of those people into a nation over a forty year period. But much of the imagery in this text is about taking back the city.

Oops, is it the wrong season for this parade? What might that possibly mean?

Well, the second interesting detail is that Mark tells us that Jesus gets to the Temple mount late in the afternoon, about closing time if you will. He looks around and then goes back to Bethany for the evening. This is not a very triumphant ending to the procession. Something else is going on here.

Borg and Crossan are correct in saying that there were two parades that day. Pilate came to town in all of his Roman glory. But they also suggest that Jesus came to town through a different gate having also planned to do a parade. I agree and I disagree. For me, this second parade is more spur of the moment.

I think we have what we called in the 60s, my generation, an example of “Guerilla Theatre.” Ched Myers similarly speaks this event as “street theatre.”

What made Jesus late for the temple? Now this is pure speculation on my part. But I can see Jesus and his group, as well as lots of others forced to the side of the road, and commandeered as spectators for Pilate’s grand entry.

It is political season here in Atlanta, and at least before our primary election this winter, we had lots of political dignitaries come to town. Do you notice what happens when they visit – for at least an hour in advance; the travel route is shut down. Patrol cars with flashing lights block intersections. If you want to cross town, it is better to go the long way around on the interstate.

By now, Jesus knows that given the delay he is not going to get to the temple in time to do much festival business – so why not have some fun. He sends a couple of disciples to borrow a donkey and then he stages his own ad hoc alternate parade. Everybody, at least all the Jews, gets the joke.

My point here is that this street theatre is less about who Jesus is declaring himself to be, and more about who Jesus is declaring Pilate not to be.

That bears more thought. I will return to this issue in the near future.

Additionally, in such a context, we also might want to think about what we are doing when we have our kids process down the aisles waving branches this coming Palm Sunday. This may be their first radical political demonstration! Who knows?

Let me conclude by picking up a point that Paula Fredriksen makes in her book, Jesus, King of the Jews. She points our that there is a straight line that can be traced between this street parade, Jesus’arrest, the so-called trial before Pilate and his crucifixion with a sign hanging around his neck saying “King of the Jews.”.

We will examine this question when we look at the evening of Jesus’ arrest.

Lets keep talking.

Grace and Peace,


Graphic from public domain


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