Jesus and Che Guevara (A Palm Sunday sermon on John 12:12-16)


We Sydney-siders all like a good parade. Our city is indeed world famous for its parades, or at least for one parade that we have each year, and I’m thinking of course of the Mardi Gras that was held only a few weeks ago! Perhaps some members of our congregation marched in that parade?

In a few weeks’ time we’ll have another significant parade – the ANZAC Day march, and perhaps some church members will be marching in that? Perhaps some Trinitarians will march in both? It’s unlikely but by no means impossible.

I’ve only ever marched in one of these aforementioned parades, and it wasn’t the ANZAC Day march. It was a few years ago that I marched in the Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras. I only did it the once before returning to my closet (so to speak).

For those who don’t know, we had a group called ‘100 Revs say sorry’. The idea was to gather 100 ordained Christian clergy and march as a sign of public apology for the history of abuse carried out by the church against members of the gay and lesbian and transgender communities. Unfortunately we didn’t reach 100 Revs, and unfortunately we only did it the once, though I’ve kept my T-shirt in case we decide to give it another go! Perhaps I should take comfort though, for now, from the fact that Jesus (as far as we know) only ever participated in one parade.

The next day the great crowd that had come to the festival heard that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem. 13So they took branches of palm trees and went out to meet him, shouting, “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord – the King of Israel!” 14Jesus found a young donkey and sat on it; as it is written: 15“Do not be afraid, daughter of Zion. Look, your king is coming, sitting on a donkey’s colt!” 16His disciples did not understand these things at first; but when Jesus was glorified, then they remembered that these things had been written of him and had been done to him. (John 12:12-16)

That’s the Palm Sunday parade as recorded in the Gospel according to Saint John. All four Gospels record this central event in the life of Jesus, John’s account is by far the shortest. Each of the accounts in the other Gospels go into some detail about how the arrangements for Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem were made (how the donkey had been organised beforehand, etc.) and in the other accounts we are given some detail as to the reaction from the religious leaders that Jesus provoked.

John’s Gospel is relatively terse and to the point. We are told that:

  1. The parade happened
  2. That it was a fulfilment of Scripture
  3. That Jesus’ disciples didn’t have a clue as to what was going on!

To be more precise we should say that Jesus’ disciples didn’t have a clue as to what was going on at the time, but we are told that with the wisdom of hindsight, they later understood exactly what was going on, which I find painful because, even with 2000 years of further hindsight, I’m still having trouble working out what it was about!

It seems to have been all about Jesus laying claim to the title of God’s Messiah – a role that was broadly understood by the people in terms of being God’s chosen revolutionary leader who lead the people in a rebellion against the Roman occupying forces, and so lead them into a new era of theocratic independence.

The triumphal entry seems to be the moment when Jesus reveals Himself to the world as that God-anointed warrior-leader, ready to finally take the fight to the foreign occupiers, and yet we know full well that this is not who Jesus was and this was not the path He took! So why Palm Sunday? It’s all rather confusing.

Let’s be clear about this – the politically charged symbolism of Palm Sunday is unambiguous.

The people greet Jesus as He enters Jerusalem, crying “Hosanna”, which literally means ‘save us’!

Save us from what? From our sins? No! Save us from the Romans! That’s the agenda of the crowd, and it’s confirmed by their use of palm branches.

Palm branches weren’t simply the nearest things people could grab to wave at Jesus. Indeed, some scholars have suggested that Palm trees would not have grown anywhere near Jerusalem because the climate there was too cold, meaning that the crowd must have gone to some trouble to secure palm branches on account of their symbolic significance. For indeed the palm branch was an article of great symbolic significance in the history of the Jewish people, used most notably at times of national revolution!

The palm branch had figured as a symbol of national independence during the Maccabean uprising against the Greek occupation some generations earlier, and hence images of palms appeared on the coins that were minted during the period of the second revolt (A.D. 132-135).

When Judas Maccabaeus rededicated the temple altar after it had been profaned by the Syrians (164 B.C.) the Jews brought palms to the Temple (2 Maccabees 10:7). When Judas’ brother, Simon, conquered the Jerusalem citadel (142 B.C.), they took possession of it carrying palm fronds (1 Maccabees 12:51)!

Palm branches were symbols of Jewish political power, and by using palm fronds to welcome Jesus into Jerusalem the crowd were clearly designating Him as their national liberator. This is, as I say, consistent with their cry of ‘Hosanna’, and entirely confirmed by their subsequent cry of “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord – the King of Israel!”

And how does Jesus respond to the crowd’s designation of Him as their national liberator? Does he shake it off and say “please guys, my kingdom is not of this world! Please don’t misunderstand my mission here, which is to do with saving you from you sins and with reconciliation and not with any petty political agenda!”

No, He doesn’t say that. On the contrary, he says nothing (to the crowd, at any rate) but what He does is of great significance. What He does is to get on the back of a donkey, thus (according to the great prophecies of old) confirming to the crowd that He was indeed the revolutionary leader that they were waiting for.

The Gospel writer quotes from the Hebrew Bible: “Do not be afraid, daughter of Zion. Look, your king is coming, sitting on a donkey’s colt!” (John 12:15)

In so doing John actually quotes two Biblical prophecies that would have been well-known to every Jew:

  • “Do not fear, Zion; do not let your hands hang limp. TheLord your God is with you, the Mighty Warrior who saves.” (Zephaniah 3:16-17)
  • “Rejoice greatly, Daughter Zion! Shout,Daughter Jerusalem! See, your king comes to you, righteous and victorious, lowly and riding on a donkey” (Zechariah 9:9)

The words and symbols, designating Jesus as the leader of a new political uprising against the Roman occupation are unambiguous. This raises two important questions for me:

  1. Why would Jesus designate Himself as a revolutionary leader if He wasn’t?
  2. If Jesus wasn’t interested in the political situation of his people, why not?

I think this second question is too readily overlooked by us Christian people of the 21st century. We look back at situation of the Jews in the first century and I think we find it hard to take their national cause seriously. Indeed, we wonder what they were worried about. After all, if it hadn’t been for the Romans they wouldn’t have had an aqueduct!

Of course it’s one of the great benefits of living twenty-one centuries later and on the other side of the world, in a country that has never been occupied by a foreign nation (unless you’re an Indigenous Australian, in which case you might be justified in considering your country still to be under occupation). At any rate, it’s hard for us to take seriously what it must have been like for the Jews of the first century to spend their lives under the Roman yoke.

I think my study of modern Palestinian, which has been under occupation since 1967, has given me a greater appreciation of what it must be like to live under a foreign occupying power. You live in constant fear of foreign troops who patrol your streets and control your movements. Friends and family are regularly harassed at checkpoints, get arrested, their houses are destroyed or confiscated, and you live with the constant frustration of knowing that these people who control your lives don’t speak your language, don’t share your religion, and don’t really care about what happens to you.

The Romans took the whole brutality of occupation up to a higher level, of course. You couldn’t walk home sometimes without being confronted with rows of crosses lining the streets, each bearing a man being tortured to death – on public display for all to see, as a reminder of the fate that awaits all who oppose the Empire!

I am entirely sympathetic regarding the hopes of the first century Jews for independence from Rome. The Jews had been living under the Roman occupation for more than a generation by the time Jesus was born (63 B.C.) and it was a brutal occupation. No wonder they were looking for someone to come forward to free them from lives of ongoing servitude to the Emperor, and if not Jesus then who?

After all, Jesus had power! Everybody knew that! He had power to heal. He could apparently calm raging seas and turn water into wine! It seemed that He even had power to raise the dead! Surely then this was the man with the power to throw off the Roman yoke!

And we have to assume that Jesus cared. He cared about lepers and the demon-possessed persons, and lame and blind people and single women. Surely he cared about the welfare of his people as a whole, and surely He was disturbed by all the acts of violence and intimidation that were the very fabric of the Roman occupation!

And so I come back to my two questions:

  1. Why would Jesus designate Himself as a revolutionary leader if He wasn’t?
  2. If He wasn’t really interested in the political situation of his people, why not?

One answer to these questions that has been given a lot of airplay lately is that of Reza Aslan, who in his recently published book “Zealot”, argued that in fact Jesus did believe Himself to be a revolutionary leader. He was just unsuccessful.

I don’t know how many in my community have read this book. I read it when it first came out in July 2013 and frankly found it disappointing. Such an interpretation of the life of Jesus naturally requires a rather selective reading of the New Testament, though one of the things I found curious about Aslan’s Zealot’ reading of the Christian Scriptures was that he didn’t make much of the Palm Sunday event!

I don’t know why Aslan didn’t make more of Palm Sunday. He seemed far more interested in basing his case on Jesus’ statement that we should ‘render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s’ (Matthew 22:21) – a statement that he feels proves Jesus to be a revolutionary, though I find it difficult to see the connection!

Having said that, I think Aslan was on to something, and I think that we have been far too ready to dismiss all hopes for Jewish first-century political independence as being entirely irrelevant to the mission of Jesus. If that were the case, why did Jesus go to such lengths on Palm Sunday to confirm to the people of Israel that He was indeed the political revolutionary that they had been waiting for?

I believe Jesus did care about the suffering of those living under military occupation in the first century. I believe Jesus was ready to lead His people towards freedom and towards new forms of government that moved beyond totalitarian rule with all its brutality. I believe indeed that Jesus came to usher us all into a new world of justice and freedom and genuine and lasting peace! It’s just that He doesn’t use violence to inaugurate His kingdom. He uses the cross!

I appreciate that this doesn’t make sense to many in this world. Our world operates on the basis that might is right. Even so, it is the position of Jesus and the Apostles and the New Testament that suffering (and most especially the suffering of Jesus) can do more to change human history than can the mightiest of armies!

And so Jesus comes riding in through the gates of Jerusalem, waving to the adoring crowds, and accepting their designation of Him as the king of Israel – as the one who will lead His people into a new era of justice and freedom.

Jesus knows, of course, that the crowd’s expectations as to when this new kingdom will come and how, and what exactly it is going to look like, are not in full alignment with His own. Even so, He is happy to work with them where they are at.

Perhaps if the crowd had thought more about the prophecy from Zephaniah chapter 3 (as Jesus’ disciples later did) they might have had a better appreciation of the greater political vision of Jesus.

9 Then I will purify the lips of the peoples,
that all of them may call on the name of the Lord
and serve him shoulder to shoulder.
10 From beyond the rivers of Cush
my worshipers, my scattered people,
will bring me offerings.

On that day
they will say to Jerusalem,
“Do not fear, Zion;
do not let your hands hang limp.
17 The Lord your God is with you,
the Mighty Warrior who saves.
He will take great delight in you;
in his love he will no longer rebuke you,
but will rejoice over you with singing.”

At that time I will deal
with all who oppressed you.
I will rescue the lame;
I will gather the exiles.
I will give them praise and honour
in every land where they have suffered shame.

(Zephaniah 3:9-10, 16-17, 19)

First preached by Father Dave Smith at Holy Trinity Dulwich Hill, on Sunday the 29th of March, 2015.

Click here for the video.

Click here for the audio.

Rev. David B. Smith

Parish priest, community worker, martial arts master, pro boxer, author, father of four.


About Father Dave

Preacher, Pugilist, Activist, Father of four
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