Palm Sunday as Street theater? Guerilla theater? Political theater?
One May Day around 1970 I was asked to take part in some anti-war guerilla theater on the Trinity College campus. An improv group was staging spontaneous anti-war skits all over the campus all day long. My job was to disrupt them. Dressed in a long, leather coat and military cap, I was to play the role of the Specter of Fascist Doom. Once they had attracted a crowd and were into their anti-war skit, I would show up shouting them down, ridiculing their phony liberal stunts and even physically disrupt what they were doing. Evidently I did a good enough job at it that people, even people I knew well, were worried about me. They offered to buy me coffee to calm me down, tried to break my “character,” and were honestly concerned about my well-being! Over the next ten years or so I participated in other street theatre troupes and demonstrations, including the one-day No Nukes rally that shut down Manhattan with the fabled Bread and Circus oversize puppets leading the way. Not a car on the streets that day! Talk about getting the world’s attention.
Then there was the Saturday afternoon we drove two car loads of youth group, food and clothing into Manhattan to distribute to homeless people. It was around 1991. One group of homeless persons told us to go park near a small park across the street from the United Nations and just watch and wait. Sure enough, from beneath the UN came a woman in a bathrobe and fuzzy pink slippers. She made her way across the street into the park where there was a public toilet. When she was headed back across the street I spoke to her about our mission of food and clothing. She said she would be right back. When she returned she invited us down into a service tunnel below the UN where a small community of people had set up camp with cardboard boxes. Some explained that they even had apartments elsewhere in NYC, but felt this was a safer place than the neighborhoods they came from. They told us that when an important dignitary would visit they would be sent back to the streets for a few days, after which they would return to their refuge beneath the international community overhead.
When interpreting a story like Jesus’s entry to Jerusalem, usually referred to as Palm Sunday, or his Triumphal Entry, we need to remember a few things about that ancient city and its militarized life as part of the Roman Empire on that particular day. The Old City is surrounded by a wall. Homeless people, the poor, the lame, the blind, orphans, widows, outcasts of all kinds were usually relegated to being outside the walls to ply their trade as beggars. This would be particularly true during the festival of Passover when true believers and curious visitors from all over the ancient world would be there. Pontius Pilate’s job was to keep the peace, make sure there were no rebellions, no demonstrations. So the streets would be cleared of one and all who might make a scene and whose presence might be “unpleasant”.
Further, when the emperor or king or other high officials would visit, they would arrive in procession, often on horseback, the rabble being further marginalized ,appointed folks would line the roadway leading into the city cheering and welcoming the leader, even if they despised the regime. Like at the UN, the way would be cleared for a triumphal and controlled procession, mitigating any sense of danger or demonstration.
So it is Passover in Jerusalem. Jesus has a plan. He sends two of his disciples to get a couple of less than royal steeds – a donkey and her colt. We can imagine the crowd outside the walls of Jerusalem. Not your A, B or even C list characters, but all the hoi polloi who had been rousted out of the streets by Pilate’s legions to keep the peace as the crowds in the city swell for the Passover festival. Jesus mounts the donkey. The people tear off parts of their already ragged clothing and tree branches and begin a mock-procession like that of the emperor’s – only it is not. It is political theater at its best. It makes fun of the emperor. It makes fun of King Herod. It flies in the face of all of Pilate’s careful preparations for another peaceful Passover.
Simply put, it makes a statement against all the powers that would control and regulate Judean society at the expense of those who had been expelled from the city – the poorest of the poor, the one’s Jesus says God loves. The people along the road are loving it! And why not? It’s their first taste of what it can be like to be a Roman citizen! And after all, had not this young man from Nazareth shown them the first shreds of dignity they had ever experienced in their marginalized lifetimes?
Once in the city, we are told, the city is in “turmoil.” “Who is this?” people are asking. What is he up to? Why doesn’t somebody do something to stop it? Who let all these people inside the gates of the city?
The prophet, “they” say. Prophet’s in the Bible are not fortune tellers. Biblical prophets beginning with Moses, Elijah, Isaiah, Hosea all the way up to Jesus are bearers of an alternative consciousness to the dominant consciousness. They critique and challenge the status quo. Is it right to spend so much time and money on festivals and sacrifices while God’s people suffer? The Passover festival and ritual meal, the Seder, is itself an embodiment of such an alternative consciousness – we were slaves in the empire, God heard our cry, God sent us a man who could lead us to freedom. What a perfect time for Jesus to launch his plan.
What happens next tells the tale of what his plan really entails. He and his rabble go to the Temple courtyards where there is a marketplace to support the religious rites. People are selling animals for the appointed sacrifices. If you travel a long distance to the Jerusalem Temple it may be too exhausting for your livestock, so fresh, perfect sheep, goats and doves are on hand for your convenience. There is also a currency exchange. You cannot make offerings to the Temple priests with Roman coins which bear image of Caesar and the words, “Caesar is God.” It would be sacrilege. It would be blasphemy. Jesus drives out the animals and overturns the tables of the currency exchange! He strikes at the heart of the Temple, and thereby the city’s, economy. The religious and civil authorities cannot be pleased.
It is a prophetic gesture charged with meaning: the religious and civil authorities have lost all sense of the vision God has for G od’s people. Those who are excluded from life in the Empire and life in Jerusalem will not be forgotten – at least not by Jesus and those who follow in his Name. Such affluence and arrogance inside the city while outside the city walls people are suffering will not ultimately be allowed to continue. This cannot make God, my Father, happy. Then Jesus returns to Bethany, the city of Mary, Martha and Lazarus, to get a good night’s sleep before the week’s events unfold.
Triumphal Entry? Or, political, guerilla theater? Recently the church has come to call Palm Sunday The Sunday of the Passion. I like to think of it as Jesus’s passion for God and those whom God loves – the poor, the homeless, the dispossessed, all whose lives are marginalized by the dominant societal consciousness and economic practices.
It can be interpreted that things did not end well. After all, just a few days later Jesus would be executed by the state – crucifixion on a Roman cross, also outside the walls of the city - a fitting location for one who devoted his life, death and resurrection to the cause of all who live outside the system.
But, the Caesars are gone, and Jesus’s little demonstration community remains. There are, of course, new Caesars, and new marginalized communities outside the walls of mainstream society. To honor Palm Sunday would be to honor Jesus’s passion for God and his love for those whom God loves. Amen.