I gave this particular talk on Palm Sunday 2017, the day when Islamo-fascists martyred 44 Coptic Christians in Egypt.
Authoritarianism, religious and political, is on the rise across the world. On Palm Sunday I addressed the question: 'How did Jesus really respond to religious and political oppression, and what can we learn from His response?' (given that Jesus was oppressed and put to death by both religious - Jewish, and political - Roman - authorities).
The Hebrew people are living under Roman occupation and rule. Roman rule was harsh and brutal. Death by crucifixion, as thought-up by the Romans, was the most painfully slow and cruel form of execution imaginable, and was widely used across the Roman Empire. Crucified bodies lined the roads. Jesus's mode of execution was not unusual, merely common execution for the common man.
The Romans were the original fascists. The term 'fascist' derives from the Roman fasces - a bundle of rods with a projecting axe blade, symbolising power in ancient Rome, and adopted as an emblem of authority in Mussolini's (fascist) Italy.
Jesus and His people were living under fascist rule. Literally. Its interesting to note how Jesus was 'counter-cultural' in his approach to His Roman oppressors. The Jews hated the Romans (quite understandably), yet Jesus engaged Romans in conversation and healed their sick, which would have been an unheard of thing for a Rabbi/spiritual teacher to be doing. In truth, Jesus was far harder on the Jewish religious leaders. One gets the impression that He considered them far worse. No Pharisee was ever commended for their faith, as was the Roman Centurion in Luke 7: 9.
Back to our Palm Sunday reading from Matthew 21. Jesus goes to Jerusalem for 'Freedom Week', the Jewish Festival of Pesach, or Passover. He enters Jerusalem, not on a warhorse, as would have been ridden by a warrior, but on a donkey, itself a symbol of peace for the Jewish people. Thus fulfilling the prophecy of Zechariah 9: 9-10:
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.
Crowds line the streets, welcoming Him in with cloaks laid down and palms held aloft. "Hosanna to the Son of David"...the warrior king...one who will Make Israel Great Again.
Cut to a week later. After the Last Supper, the betrayal at Gethsemane, the arrest, imprisonment, denial and trial. Jesus is before Pilate, the Roman Procurator. A crowd gathers outside. Its the same crowd who less than a week earlier welcomed Jesus in. Now they're in an altogether different mood. More of a mob than a crowd.
A week, they say, is a long time in politics. And this has been a very long week.
Pilate, unsettled by the complexity of the case before him, by the calm innocence of Jesus, and by his own wife's disturbing dream, offers the crowd an option. A choice. Jesus Barabbas or Jesus Nazarene?
Jesus (Yeshua, Joshua) means 'The one who saves' (Heb). Jesus Barabbas, we are told, was a political rebel and an insurrectionist (Mark 15). One who wished to save his people through armed conflict. Jesus of Nazareth is a different kind of saviour to the one the people had come to expect. Jesus hadn't come on a warhorse to bring conflict, but on a donkey to bring it to an end. Jesus is the Prince of Peace.
“Whom do you want me to release for you", Pilate asks the crowd, "Jesus Barabbas or Jesus who is called the Messiah?” The one who saves through conflict, or the One who saves through peace? The people choose Barabbas.
Who will you choose?
St Michael in the Hamlet & Christ Church Toxteth Park, Palm Sunday 9 April 2017