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In my post on The Twelve last Sunday, I observed that although Jesus said, “the Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many,” Mary’s anointing of Jesus didn’t seem to work like that.

Today is Palm Sunday, and that seems to be true again–only now it is even more political.

Jesus enters Jerusalem with a bang. He descends to Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives, heading straight for the temple in order to drive out the merchants and teach. Before this descent, he sends his disciples to acquire a colt that has not been ridden. The owners of the colt are to be told, “The Lord needs it.” The disciples bring the colt to Jesus, cover it with cloaks, and “set Jesus on it.” As he rides on the colt, they cover the path with cloaks and “praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the deeds of power that they had seen.” They sing Psalm 118, “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of LORD.” Except in Luke, unlike in the other Gospels, they make one change: “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the LORD.”

What is Jesus doing? He enacts Zechariah 9.9-10, which depicts a victorious ruler of Israel riding on a colt because he has brought peace. Psalm 118 is a psalm sung by a king with his people in gratitude for a victory. Jesus re-enacts the entry of the Maccabees who entered Jerusalem in celebration of victories over the Seleucids (see 2 Maccabees 10.7, 1 Maccabees 13.51).

Everyone does what they are told, including the owners of the colt. They even take it up themselves to put Jesus on the unridden colt, probably because no one should ride on animals that are burdened with kings. Sergius Bulgakov, an important twentieth century Eastern Orthodox theologian, summarizes all of this: “the Lord had total power in Jerusalem; on this day He was the king of his people.”

My question is this: Why would any of us want to recognize someone with that much power?

Power, Masters & Slaves

A respected New Testament scholar mentioned to me recently that he has had to recognize that referring to Christians as slaves of Christ (Romans 1.1, Ephesians 6:6, I Corinthians 7.22) won’t play in many African-American contexts. The word translated as master, as in the master of slaves (Ephesians 6.5), is kurios. This is the same word that the disciples use to acclaim Jesus in this triumphant entry. Jesus comes in the name of the Lord, the Kurios. The disciples are doing at this triumphal entry what Paul says in Philippians 2 that every knee should do before the name of Jesus: bow. Jesus doesn’t just come in the name of the Lord. He is the Lord, the Kurios, the Master.

Modern democratic ideals don’t appreciate the idea of one being, human or otherwise, having total power over human beings. Western history – and other histories – testify to the need for that lack of appreciation.

Slavoj Zizek

Some intellectuals working through the implications of Christianity, such as Hegel, the death of God theologians in the 1960s, and the contemporary philosopher Slavoj Zizek have argued that, if human beings are to be free, God will have to give up God’s power over creation. We just can’t be free if God has total power. We are fooling ourselves if we think otherwise. A benevolent dictator is still a dictator. A benevolent slave-owner is still a slave-owner. A benevolent occupier is still an occupier.

We don’t put up with human masters and lords anymore. So, is it appropriate to say, in our context, that Jesus is the king sent by the Lord? To say that Jesus is Lord? Are we going to say that Jesus is Lord, but, you know, a good lord? He is a master, but, you know, a good master?

We might want to dismiss this. But, this is a debate about the fundamental reality that we all share and it is simultaneously a social problem we face. It is about who God is and who we are in Christ. It is about how we live our lives day-to-day. It circulates under the surface of our struggles over immigration. It undergirds new approaches to spirituality. It lurks wherever we struggle through friendships, marriages, and child care. What kind of power does God have? What kind of power should we have over one another?

The Power of  Joy, Persuasion & Vulnerability

I can’t solve this puzzle on my own, not in any way. Other Christians from contexts less historically burdened by false power will have to help.

But, I offer this. If this text is an indication, we need Jesus to be Lord if we are to know joy. The disciples “began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice for the deeds of power that they had seen.” What had they seen? They had seen Jesus heal a man with an unclean spirit (ch. 4), a paralytic (ch. 5), the diseases of a multitude (ch. 6), a woman with twelve years of hemorrhaging and Jairus’ deceased twelve year old daughter (ch. 8). And much more.

They also saw Jesus rejoice. He rejoiced in the Holy Spirit (Luke 10.21) when they returned from doing their own healings. They were instructed that they should not “rejoice” because the spirits would submit to them. They should instead “rejoice that your names are written in heaven” (10.20), meaning that what prophets and kings had wanted to see and hear, they had now been chosen to see and hear (10.24).

As I said last week, the depth of Jesus’ vulnerability is the greatness of his power. Karl Barth wrote that the triune God is Lord because God’s glory – God’s power – is “His overflowing self-communicating joy.” God’s joy is God’s power to be vulnerable to another’s worth. God is worthy of love and obedience, worthy to be acclaimed and worshipped, because God’s vulnerability before our worth overflows.

In other words, God in Christ isn’t worthy to be Lord simply because God commands us into being. Just being created and even repaired by God isn’t enough. God does not simply “conquer,” Barth wrote. God “persuades and convinces.” God creates relationships but doesn’t force them. God enjoys God’s self and the rest of creation, and God is so beautiful and joyful that we cannot help but be drawn into praise and gratitude.

Jesus, God in Christ, healed because he enjoyed those he encountered. At the triumphal entry, the disciples were learning from God in Christ what it would mean to be vulnerable to the worth of others, just as God in Christ was vulnerable to them. In Christ, God shared the power and vulnerability of joy, across all manner of boundaries. That vulnerability was about to be tested and even reshaped. But it was there, and Jesus wouldn’t allow some of the Pharisees to diminish it.

May this joy, this power and vulnerability, be with all of us this Sunday.

But, even if it is not, there are always the stones. If we are silent, “the stones would shout out.” If we need to be silent for some reason, the stones will take care of business. I hope they shout with joy in any case. Maybe they already do.

Keith Starkenburg

Keith Starkenburg teaches theology at Trinity Christian College in Palos Heights, Illinois.

8 Comments

  • mstair says:

    ” … and God is so beautiful and joyful that we cannot help but be drawn into praise and gratitude.”

    and yet, why do so many today seem to miss the attraction?

    “In a shift that stands to impact both religion and politics, survey data suggests that the percentage of Americans who don’t affiliate with any specific religious tradition is now roughly the same as those who identify as evangelical or Catholic.” (https://religionnews.com/2019/03/21/nones-now-as-big-as-evangelicals-catholics-in-the-us/)

  • Daniel J Meeter says:

    Marvelous. If I may engage? God’s creative power, from the Torah’s point of view, is by means of God’s Word, God’s speech. God’s power is not like some divine magician’s, waving his wand, or some supreme superhero with a supreme superpower to point and make fire happen. God’s power is in God’s speech, and always was, from the beginning. Which requires listeners. And now God’s speech is focused in the life and death of Jesus Christ, and God says, There, now, I’ve said it, and said it to you, and I’m saying it, and inviting you, and my power in the world is not coercive and manipulative but conversational, invitational, “covenantal.” Does this follow with what you write above. But that leaves something open for me, which is then what is the power of the Holy Spirit, with whom, like Gene Rogers, we must go beyond Barth?

    • Keith E Starkenburg says:

      Hi Daniel – yes, I agree with Gene that Barth’s theology needs work in order to fill out the triadic constitution of God’s identity and action. But, that’s mostly Gene modifying Barth, following Barth’s lead but working through need for a theology of the Holy Spirit that gives a witness to the nonviolent character of God’s action. Will need a longer conversation!

  • John vS says:

    “Modern democratic ideals don’t appreciate the idea of one being, human or otherwise, having total power over human beings. Western history – and other histories – testify to the need for that lack of appreciation.”
    We can only wish that your statement above is true. But in so many areas that total power over a human does play out in our modern society. We allow, and some condone, the killing of infants, that seems to be a rather powerful move. A tax system and a government welfare state overpower a segment of our modern society just for starters.

    • Keith E Starkenburg says:

      I didn’t mean “all modern democratic ideals,” nor all modern democratic practices! Thanks for that note though.

  • RLG says:

    Thanks, Keith, for your take on Jesus’ lordship or vulnerability or both. I found myself quite confused by the end of your article. I’m not quite sure how you want us to view Jesus’ triumphal entry in Jerusalem or how Christians are to respond to it. If the story of this entry is more than legend (even historical) then it points to the total failure of such entry. If Jesus, as you say, is depicting a ruler who (because he is riding a colt) is bringing peace, then it seems as though his mission is a failure. No sooner does he complete his ride into Jerusalem than he is pulled off his donkey by the Jewish authorities and cited and condemned for instigating a riot and defaming those in authority. Where is the victory or peace. Where is the victory and peace as the masses of people turn their backs on Jesus and have him crucified? And if his resurrection and ascension to God’s throne in heaven is true, where is there any evidence of any kind of rule from there? Look at the world and church today. Or is this present reign still an expression of Christ’s vulnerability? If his return to earth in power and authority is to be soon, as the apostles expected, when will “soon” ever come? Or will it?

    The Palm Sunday event is really quite confusing. Your take, or interpretation of this story doesn’t really do much to clear up the confusion, either. It seems to be an attempt to whitewash an embarrassing account. I appreciate your attempt to make sense of the Bible’s narrative. I guess that’s what theologians do, form a theology from a narrative. But so many different attempts. And the Spirit will lead the church in all truth. Thanks again, Keith, for your effort. I really am glad for the variety of article we receive on this website.

    • Keith E Starkenburg says:

      Thanks for your comments. It is interesting as a writer to see the range of interests and questions that emerge. In my parlance, you are asking why Jesus’ return is delayed, why his kingship is not fully fulfilled de facto, whether there are signs of Christ’s kingship in history, etc. It is a good question, and at some point I’ll write more about it! Although many others have already thought about this.

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