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The apparent politics of Holy Week
As the writer of the Gospel of Luke tells it, the Pharisees who were gathered around Jesus during his Triumphal Entry on what is now known as Palm Sunday, ask the teacher to order his disciples to stop proclaiming so loudly that “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!” The Pharisees are concerned about collecting the attention of the authorities for this deeply political event and action. The theater of the Triumphal Entry is not subtle – Jesus is coming in as a new King, not the King the Jewish people expect, not the King that will accommodate the Roman authorities, but a king nevertheless.
Jesus tells them that he can’t tell the disciples to quiet down, because “if these were silent, the stones would shout out.” The radical and political message Jesus is bringing on Palm Sunday must be declared even if it is dangerous and impolitic to do it. Jesus knows what he faces this week as he enters Jerusalem. He knows that addressing the forces of death might get him killed, and he is prepared.
The Pharisees are not opponents to Jesus here. In fact, in Luke 13, they warn Jesus that Herod wants to kill him.
At that very hour some Pharisees came and said to him, “Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.” He said to them, “Go and tell that fox for me, ‘Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work. Yet today, tomorrow, and the next day I must be on my way, because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem.’
Here, again, the Pharisees try to warn Jesus of the death that awaits him, but Jesus intensifies his rhetoric, calling Herod a “fox,” and he himself preparing for death.
The Pharisees protest the loudness of his disciples because they want to protect Jesus. They remind me of Black mothers who speak to their sons about how to talk to police so they don’t get brutalized (and often that doesn’t work either). Jesus proceeds anyway because he is ready to subvert the order of the earth and defeat death – his work here, which is intrinsically political – will result in his own death.
It’s important that we name the material consequences of Holy Week because we can often soften them down into emotional or spiritual ones alone. To be sure, when we follow Jesus, take up our own cross, suffer, and die to what we need to, we become more emotionally and spiritually whole. We become more human this week. But also, the powers of sin and death will be shaken and destroyed this week. The crucifixion of Jesus changes everything. And that means that this world’s order will go radically changed as well.
We see two precursors to this just in the text that leads up to the Triumphal Entry and what precedes it. In Luke 19, before Jesus enters Jerusalem, he has his encounter with Zacchaeus, a tax collector who defrauded many people. Jesus dines with him and Zacchaeus pays back more than what he owed people and makes things right. Zacchaeus is a demonstration of the kind of change and repentance we can make when we follow Jesus to the cross.
After he enters Jerusalem, Jesus enters the Temple and pushes out all the people buying and selling there, and overturns the tables of the money changers, who are charging a high exchange rate for a currency that can be used in the Temple. He changes the Temple from a “den of robbers” to a house of prayer. The ill come to him for healing. Jesus subverts the political order and restores the Temple to what it should be.
Jesus gets right to work, he powerfully responds to the authorities, and it results in his death. Jesus isn’t concerned about appearances, isn’t motivated by vanity, and isn’t trying to build a political partnership with the ruling authorities. He moves forward with daring courage and conviction.
Prophets act in this way, eschewing conventional political insight, to move us to a new way of doing things, one that fills the valleys and lowers the hills. Martin Luther King gives us a great example. King partnered with Lyndon B. Johnson to pass major civil rights legislation. King endorsed him for president and they had a winning and positive relationship. After several activists in Selma were murdered for protesting for voting rights, the Voting Rights Act was passed by Congress in four months. The law made racist literacy and poll tests illegal. And for the first time, the majority of Black Southerners had access to vote. It was a great victory for King and Johnson and it showed the strong relationship between the two of them.
But King didn’t settle for a political victory here. King sacrificed his relationship with Johnson to condemn the Vietnam War, in which Johnson had just ordered a surge of troops. King was advised not to speak out against the war because he had enjoyed a successful political relationship with Johnson and he shouldn’t disrupt that. But that “peace” was a false peace, and in the fact of wretched war, King had to speak.
King kept going, kept being faithful, despite the bad politics of it. King kept going until they assassinated him. Jesus kept going until they killed him. Jesus’ life ended in death because of the life that he led and lived. There are many ways to explain what will happen this week, Jesus’ death, and we should normalize talking about all of them. So yes, Jesus died for your sins. Yes, he died to make reparations. Yes, Jesus died to defeat death. But Jesus also died because of the life that he lives.
For us as Christians, this Holy Week, we are invited then to take up our cross too. We’re invited to live the life of following Jesus, even if it threatens the peace of our household, the peace of our lives, the peace of our society. We’re caused to be holy disrupters. And sometimes the things we disrupt will fall apart, but if they do, that is OK. That is worth it. It’s worth losing some things in order to live fully into what Jesus calls us to.