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by Joshua Vis
Last Sunday, I explored the idea that Jesus never really integrated his message about God’s coming kingdom with his insistence that he must die and rise again.
Jesus began his ministry proclaiming that God’s kingdom was coming soon and this kingdom would be just and good. The proper response was to change one’s life dramatically. Care for all people. Do good deeds. Jesus proved the veracity of his claims by doing deeds of power. He attracted a following because this was a message that Jews of Jesus’s era both understood (It fit with their religious tradition.) and desired (Most Jews hoped God would decisively deliver them from their enemies.).
Then Jesus hit his inner circle with the revelation that he would be crucified and then raised from the dead. No one believed this unprecedented messianic blueprint. The disciples ignored it and continued to put their hope in promises like this: “Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see that the kingdom of God has come with power” (Mark 9:1).
The Triumphal Entry as Sign of the Kingdom
Scholars debate the historicity of many of the events of Jesus’s life, except for the events at the end of Jesus’s life. Jesus was crucified by the Romans. There is no meaningful dissent on this. Jesus likely showed his displeasure for the current temple complex (the cleansing of the temple) in the last week of his life. Again, most scholars believe this happened. And most scholars believe that Jesus was hailed as the coming king, the messiah, as he entered Jerusalem for Passover, an event Christians call the triumphal entry or Palm Sunday.
Jesus orchestrates this triumphal entry, asking two of his disciples to get him a donkey to ride into Jerusalem. Jesus appears to have known the sacred texts of Judaism well. He must have known the symbolism of this manner of arrival to Jerusalem. The coming messianic king would enter Jerusalem in this way.
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.
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. (Zechariah 9:9-10)
Jesus’s followers have no trouble sorting out what Jesus is indicating. In all four gospels (all four!), Jesus’s disciples hail him as the coming king as he rides this donkey into Jerusalem. In Matthew, Mark, and John (John too?!), they shout, “Hosanna,” which means “Save, now!” Here’s what they are thinking:
The messiah is coming to Jerusalem to inaugurate God’s coming kingdom. The Romans will be toppled.
Satan and his demons will be defeated.
This is what we’ve been waiting for!”
Jesus’s followers are not misreading the signs. Jesus does not stop them when they declare him their coming king. Jesus allows their cries for salvation to go unchallenged. He wants this. This entry could only be understood as further confirmation, by Jesus, that the kingdom truly was imminent.
What in the world is Jesus doing? If he knows that he is going to be arrested and killed, why is he indicating that he is indeed the coming messianic ruler of the kingdom of God?
Try as we may to make sense of Jesus’s actions here, these are not the actions of someone communicating that death and resurrection are around the corner.
God’s “No” to Jesus’s Hopes?
So what is happening in this story? Here’s my idea. It doesn’t fit with our normal conceptions of Jesus. It presumes that when we say that Jesus was one hundred percent human, we actually mean it.
At some point in his ministry, Jesus suspected that the kingdom was not going to come in the way he had envisioned. God was not going to intervene in a convincing and unambiguous fashion. Jesus was reluctant to accept the “death and resurrection” alternative, as any human would be.
When Jesus came near to Jerusalem, he was seeking and hoping for God’s decisive intervention. The triumphal entry is Jesus’s plea to God—
Let’s do this now. What, honestly, is the point of death and resurrection?
The endgame is your kingdom on earth. Let’s do it now, God.
You don’t need my death and my resurrection.
Let’s do this how you, God, have typically done. Let’s choose violence and domination.
We know that the Old Testament attests to a God who intervenes violently. At times, Jesus claims that violence and terror will accompany the arrival of the kingdom. The book of Revelation narrates God’s kingdom coming with unspeakable violence. The triumphal entry says, “Let’s do that and let’s do it soon.”
But that didn’t happen. God said “no” to exercising power and inflicting violence.
Maybe those images of a god who intervenes violently are actually idols, idols we should reject. Instead, perhaps we should look at the image of Jesus suffering and dying on the cross, without also contending that God was looking down at Jesus on the cross with satisfaction. Maybe this is true: “I desire mercy, not sacrifice” (Hosea 6:6; Matthew 9:13).
No to Dramatic Intervention. Yes to Love.
In keeping with my larger theme here in Lent on The Twelve—Lent without Easter: No one gets to experience Easter, but we all experience Lent—I leave you with this. Stop hoping that God is going to intervene and make it all ok. God did not do that for Jesus and God is not going to do that for you or me. Even after Jesus’s resurrection, the disciples, and now all of us, are left with the world as it is. We have to face unknowing and sadness and suffering, and, choose to affirm life anyway. And we should affirm life! Life is incredible!
The message of the triumphal entry is that we should reject the idea of a fantastical and mercurial God who occasionally breaks into our world to save someone from pain and suffering. Likewise, the cross says “no” to that version of God. Instead it asks us to find the courage to hope in each other, in our acts of love, mercy, and kindness toward one another—not because God has abandoned us, but because God has empowered us.
God urges us to choose to love one another. God will not be experienced through miraculous interventions. Rather, God will be experienced through acts of justice, graciousness, kindness, mercy, and love. Through everyday acts that celebrate life-as-it-is and seek the flourishing of all peoples, God becomes manifest in our lives. This portrait of God affirms our lives as they are (often difficult and sometimes wonderful) and it affirms God’s presence in our lives (often unclear but sometimes evident). It asks each of us to pick up our cross and say “yes” to a painful, but wonderful life of loving this crazy world and the people in it. Because maybe this is true: “No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us” (1 John 4:12).