Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem resembles a pride parade, and our guy is a clown. (Listen.)
I know I’m not the only person here who finds the palm parade a little awkward, a little cringe-worthy. We look ridiculous, waving jackets and branches as we sing our way into the building. But compared to Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, it’s very tame indeed. Because in that story, you have a bloke on a wacky ride surrounded by a bunch of shirtless guys waving stuff and singing in public. It’s joyful, vulnerable, disruptive; and the modern equivalent which comes to mind is a pride parade.
Think of it. Yes, you see people like us, indeed you see some of us; but you also see topless dykes on weird and wonderful bikes; trans women with their fabulously plump breasts and their fabulously glittery floats; and shirtless gay guys wearing flags like capes as they romp on down the street: it’s more than a bit similar. Yet I suspect that drawing this connection makes some of us uncomfortable. Because as a group, I think it’s fair to say, we’re not very demonstrative, we’re not totally fabulous; indeed, many of us are reluctant to be public let alone flamboyant in our faith. So when it comes to Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, most of us have some work to do.
Or perhaps not. Because we could tell the story like many churches, with great pomp and seriousness. Perhaps you’ve been in a church where priests process in costly robes while acolytes swing golden thuribles. The nave is lined with banners; the air heady with incense. The congregation stands and sings Glory! Praise! Honour! while a pipe organ contributes crashing chords and sparkling notes. Here is our king, these processions say, and he looks exactly like the emperor coming into town, only, you know, he’s our guy. It’s a comfortable way to celebrate it, all wealthy and triumphant in the pews: and we could be like that.
But if we take Matthew’s story seriously, then we need to admit: Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem is not like this at all. Instead, Jesus’ entry makes a mockery of all that is serious, pompous and self-important. It upends any suggestion of power, domination or wealth. Instead, it’s foolish, ludicrous, powerless, and seemingly ineffective: and our guy is a clown.
What do I mean by this? Well, when a ruling authority comes to town, there is a ritual. The Very Important Person appears, riding a noble beast, while the crowds line the streets and honour them. I myself participated in a watered down version when, as a little girl, we were marched out of school one day to line the main street in Fremantle. There we stood in the hot sun for an eternity waiting for the Queen to arrive. At last some cars appeared, driving slowly; and as the people called and waved, I got a glimpse of a white glove turning listlessly at a car window. Or maybe I imagined it. Either way, I have to say, it was underwhelming.
Of course, the Queen did more than ride in a car that day, just as first century Jewish or Greco-Roman rulers do more than ride in procession. In fact, the entrance of a first century VIP to a city follows strict protocol.
First, they ride a noble beast. So does Jesus come in on a warhorse or stallion? No, he does not. Instead, Matthew tells us, he enters ‘mounted a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.’ Yes, Matthew’s using this image to link Jesus with a prophecy of Zechariah; yes, donkeys are associated with kingship: but they’re also an object of derision and scorn — and in this story Jesus is riding TWO of them!
Let’s just pause on this image. How, exactly, does he do this? Does he straddle both of them in a hilariously wide-legged stance? Does he move between animals, flipping from back to back like a circus act? Does he stand over the little colt and crouch-walk as he pretends to ride? I don’t know: but there is already a hint of performance here, and of foolishness, and of Jesus clowning around.
Once inside the city, the VIP is welcomed with elaborate speeches from local dignitaries. So, does Jesus receive this welcome? Again, he does not. Instead, the people ask, ‘Who’s this?’ They’ve got no idea. And to Jerusalem, ‘the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it’ (Matthew 23:37), the crowds reply, ‘This is the prophet Jesus, from Nazareth in Galilee.’
In John’s story, Nathanael asks, ‘Can anything good come out of Nazareth?’ (John 1:46). He clearly doesn’t think so, and that the question was ever asked tells you the answer: in this culture, nope, not at all, what a joke! So again, we see foolishness. Jesus, the great nobody from nowheresville, is riding into town. No one has heard of him, and so his supporters out him as a prophet.
Finally, in a classic entry sequence, the VIP heads straight to a temple and performs an act of ritual sacrifice. So, does Jesus do this? Well, he indeed goes straight from parade to temple, but not to engage in sacrifice. Instead, he takes Zechariah’s prophecy further by throwing out the moneychangers who, at rip-off rates, turn Roman coin into Jewish offerings, and kicking out the traders who, at inflated prices, sell birds for sacrifice. Then he heals some blind people and some lame people, enraging the religious authorities: but it’s futile. Because the minute he walks out, I am sure that the moneylenders and bird sellers and religious authorities immediately shake themselves off, right the tables, sweep the floor, and go back to business as usual. Again, Jesus looks foolish, even futile.
Then there’s the cloaks. In first century Palestine, people only wore two garments. Take off your outer garment, and you’re left with a loose tunic. Socially, you’re regarded as naked. And the story tells us that people took off their outer garments and spread them on the road for Jesus to make his entrance.
Given all this, it’s a bit hard to swallow the Jesus-as-better-king narrative. Because he’s not a new and improved emperor; instead, he disrupts the entrance narrative and turns all such tropes on their head. For this is a story of nearly naked people, vulnerable people, parading in the streets singing and praising a nobody. ‘Hosanna!’ they sing, ‘Save us!’ as they walk and dance and maybe even vogue. They are a parody of neo-Nazis, and riot police, and stern religious types who have no sense of humour and not one spark of joy; they’re a parody of every army, ever, and every general and his parade.
So Jesus’ parade isn’t a show of wealth and power and the threat of military violence. Instead, it’s a show of vulnerability and foolishness coming to town. It’s street theatre, a jester’s joke. It tells the world that Jesus will not dominate, but comes to heal and serve. He will not enslave and exploit people; instead, he empowers and liberates them. He will not give grand and pompous speeches, just niggling stories, outrageous jokes. Nor will he sacrifice the lives of vulnerable people to the military machine or religious purity. Instead he nullifies the sacrificial system once and for all, and gives his own life to this end.
And unlike every other VIP, Jesus finds his place at the margins and dwells among the people there. So his vanguard is not rank upon rank of trained soldiers carrying high tech military gear, but a messy crowd of fabulous folk parading in their underwear. And what does he seek with these fabulous folk? The healing of the world and the reconciliation of all peoples: and it starts right there at the margins, among them.
So if we want to follow Jesus, we need to get comfortable with fabulous folk and anyone the world tries to tell us is ‘other’, and we need to stop trying to mask the ‘otherness’ that is us. We need to link arms with people who sing in the streets and embrace the disruptive power of theatre. We need to proclaim the gospel even when it offends humourless religious types; and we need to share the good news with hurting people who will never walk into a church.
And in this time of global climate catastrophe, economic instability, rising authoritarianism, unchecked corporate powers and a violent religious right, we need to look to the vanguard. The nonviolent protesters who pray on the steps of military corporations; the Christian hippy dippies at the Palm Sunday rallies; the people holding daggy cardboard signs at every climate march. We must stand with the LGBTIQA+ folk who dare to dress up and dance in the face of hostility and rage, and with the unarmed, vulnerable people who hold their ground at Blak Lives Matter events.
We need to get over the cringe factor and wave our branches boldly and proclaim our faith loudly and pursue peace in every corner of this world, even when it feels embarrassing and pointless. Because Jesus himself looked like foolishness, futility and failure, and it was only after his death that his deepest truth and power were seen. So this is the work, these are our people, and he is our guy: and joining in is how he saves us from our pinched and hopeless lives.
This Holy Week, then, may the joyful jester, the clown, the Christ, disrupt our sacred narratives. May he shatter our self-importance and our complicity with the powers, and fill us with new confidence. And may he find us, and we him, with arms linked and singing, as we walk with fabulous friends and strangers against the forces of violence and death. Ω
A reflection by Alison Sampson on Matthew 21:1-11 given to Sanctuary on 2 April 2023 © Sanctuary 2023 (Year A Palm Sunday). This reflection took a provocation by the ever thoughtful and good humoured Richard Swanson (here) and ran with it. Thanks, Richard! Photo by Clem Onojeghuo on Unsplash.
Sanctuary is based on Peek Wurrung country; full acknowledgement here. This week, native title was finally recognized for the Eastern Maar Nation: a week to celebrate. I pay my respects to elders past and present. The peace of the land be with us all.
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