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TURMOIL. Great word. It has a feeling about it. Something is bubbling up and about to boil over. There is tension. There is danger. The Greek word is seio and means to rock to and fro or to agitate, to quake or shake. And contrary to the parade and party atmosphere that we often associate with Jesus' entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, this is the more descriptive. The Holy City was a heated cauldron about to boil over. Governor Pilate was preoccupied with the political intrigues of faraway Rome. The puppet King Herod was viewed as a clown. The people were restive, ready for someone to lead a revolution.
Into these seething streets rides Jesus of Nazareth. He is mounted on a donkey -- the beast that the prophet Zechariah of old predicted would bear the Messiah. The people are shouting "Hosanna" -- "save us!" It is the traditional cry of the Jewish people to their king. This resonates with Matthew to such an extent that he even reads literally the couplet of Hebrew poetry from the Old Testament, giving Jesus two animals to ride, rather than the intended one.(1)
The palm branches and the shouts harked back a century-and-a-half to the triumph of the Maccabees and the overthrow of the brutal Antiochus Epiphanes, the Saddam Hussein of his day. In 167 B.C. Antiochus had precipitated a full-scale revolt when, having already forbidden the practice of Judaism on pain of death, he set up, right smack in the middle of the Jewish temple, an altar to Zeus and sacrificed a pig on it. Hard to imagine a greater slap in the religious face to good Jews. Stinging from this outrage, an old man of priestly stock named Mattathias rounded up his five sons, all the weapons he could find, and a guerrilla war was launched. Old Mattathias soon died, but his son Judas, called Maccabeus (which means "hammer"), kept on and within three years was able to cleanse and to rededicate the desecrated temple.
"Mission Accomplished?" Well, it would be a full 20 years more of fighting, after Judas and a successor brother, Jonathan, had died in battle, that a third brother, Simon, took over, and through his diplomacy achieved Judean independence. That would begin a century of Jewish sovereignty.
Of course, there was great celebration. "On the twenty-third day of the second month, in the one hundred and seventy-first year, the Jews entered Jerusalem with praise and palm branches, and with harps and cymbals and stringed instruments, and with hymns and songs, because a great enemy had been crushed and removed from Israel."(2) So says the account in I Maccabees - a story as well known to the crowd in Jerusalem that day as George Washington and the defeat of the British is known to us.
Then came the Roman legions and freedom was gone again. It was not that Judea was such a prize province. It was rather poor in comparison to many others. It was well-located on the trade routes both north-south and east-west. And it was more than a bit unruly, because the people of Israel were not inclined to suffer in silence. Not too many years before Jesus' arrival there had been the Zealot revolt inspired by Judas of Galilee and Zadok the Pharisee. Some 2,000 were taken captive in that rebellion. Not content to simply win the war, the Romans wanted to insure the peace. In order to send a message to any others who might be tempted to rebel, Rome crucified them all. Imagine Highway 62 from Warren to Jamestown, twenty miles of roadway, and every 35 yards or so, a cross and a corpse. Every 35 yards for twenty bloody miles.(3) Would that be enough to get the message to rebellious Jews about how Rome handles political revolutionaries?
But people have short memories. In the past five years there had been thirty-two political riots - that equates to more than one every two months. Every sixty days for five years.(4) All of which Rome had put down. Now do you see why Matthew would say the city was in turmoil? Talk about an understatement.
Pandemonium. Chaos. We are told that three to five million people were jammed into that town for the Passover observance. "Hosanna to the Son of David!" "Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!" "Hosanna in the highest!"
There is no way to tell why individuals were in attendance at the parade that day. Some probably were drawn because of the appearance of a "celebrity." After all, word had been spreading about miraculous healings - the blind given sight, the lame made to walk, even the dead raised. A Houdini of the Holy Land. Maybe there would be something spectacular to see.
For many, though, I think it was political, and as we have noted, this was a deeply political city. (Still is, come to think of it.) For many in Jerusalem, the hope that a freedom fighter like Judas Maccabeus would arise in their generation was a potent one. If such a hero were to present himself, this is exactly how he would begin his bid for power: with a triumphant procession into the city, palm branches and clothing strewn in his path.
Perhaps that explains the remarkable turn-around in the sentiments of crowd from Palm Sunday to Good Friday. In times of turmoil, people turn to violence.
My friend Carlos Wilton called my attention to a fascinating article by Walter Wink, an author and Professor of Biblical Interpretation at Auburn Seminary in New York. The article is called "The Myth of Redemptive Violence,"(5) and it's contention is that the world truly believes - wrongly - that violence saves, that war brings peace, that might makes right.
Listen to what he says:
"This Myth of Redemptive Violence is the real myth of the modern world. It, and not Judaism or Christianity or Islam, is the dominant religion in our society today. When my children were small, we let them log an unconscionable amount of television, and I became fascinated with the mythic structure of cartoons...I began to examine [their] structure, and found the same pattern repeated endlessly: an indestructible hero is doggedly opposed to an irreformable and equally indestructible villain. Nothing can kill the hero, though for the first three quarters of the comic strip or TV show he (rarely she) suffers grievously and appears hopelessly doomed, until miraculously, the hero breaks free, vanquishes the villain, and restores order until the next episode. Nothing finally destroys the villain or prevents his or her reappearance, whether the villain is soundly trounced, jailed, drowned, or shot into outer space.
"Thankfully, not all children's programmes feature explicit violence. But the vast majority perpetuate the mythic pattern of redemptive violence in all its brutality.
"Few cartoons have run longer or been more influential than Popeye and Bluto. In a typical segment, Bluto abducts a screaming and kicking Olive Oyl, Popeye's girlfriend. When Popeye attempts to rescue her, the massive Bluto beats his diminutive opponent to a pulp, while Olive Oyl helplessly wrings her hands. At the last moment, as our hero oozes to the floor, and Bluto is trying, in effect, to rape Olive Oyl, a can of spinach pops from Popeye's pocket and spills into his mouth. Transformed by this gracious infusion of power, he easily demolishes the villain and rescues his beloved. The format never varies. Neither party ever gains any insight or learns from these encounters. They never sit down and discuss their differences. Repeated defeats do not teach Bluto to honour Olive Oyl's humanity, and repeated pummellings do not teach Popeye to swallow his spinach before the fight."
Dr. Wink goes on to note that this violent underpinning to society has its roots in religious traditions that are thousands of years old, and there is no question that a brief trip through world history can easily demonstrate the phenomenon.
Listen further. "The myth of redemptive violence is the simplest, laziest, most exciting, uncomplicated, irrational, and primitive depiction of evil the world has even known. Furthermore, its orientation toward evil is one into which virtually all modern children (boys especially) are socialised in the process of maturation. Children select this mythic structure because they have already been led, by culturally reinforced cues and role models, to resonate with its simplistic view of reality. Its presence everywhere is not the result of a conspiracy of Babylonian priests secretly buying up the mass media with Iraqi oil money, but a function of values endlessly reinforced...By making violence pleasurable, fascinating, and entertaining, people are deluded into compliance with a system that is cheating them of their very lives..."
"In a period when attendance at Christian Sunday schools is dwindling, the myth of redemptive violence has won children's voluntary acquiescence to a regimen of religious indoctrination more extensive and effective than any in the history of religions. Estimates vary widely, but the average child is reported to log roughly 36,000 hours of television by age 18, viewing some 15,000 murders. What church or synagogue can even remotely keep pace with the myth of redemptive violence in hours spent teaching children or the quality of presentation? (Think of the typical "children's sermon" - how bland by comparison!)"
With that kind of insight as a background, perhaps we should EXPECT what happened to Jesus. If things were not working out as the powers that be might want, STAMP IT OUT. And since people then and now are socialized to find that acceptable (even if ancient Israel never heard of Popeye and Bluto), chants of Crucify, Crucify, Crucify are probably par for the course.
We live in a violent world, a world in turmoil. Everyday the news is filled with the stories of murder and mayhem. This weekend, we have been reminded that exactly two years ago we were told that the only way to peace was war, and now thousands upon thousands are dead, exponentially more have been grievously wounded. The myth of redemptive violence writ large. And we are told there is no way anyone can predict how long it will continue.
And into that world this week again steps someone who would offer another way. He rode into Jerusalem, not on a chariot with arms upward and outward and his fingers spiking a "V" sign for victory. Not waving and grinning at all those people in their second story windows as they showered him with confetti. There was no oratory to get the revolution moving. No. Here in this turmoil, Jesus said nothing. Silence. Not on a war horse, but a donkey. And by the end of the week he quietly gives himself into the hands of vicious men. He allows himself to be bloodied and beaten, then finally crucified to hang helplessly and die. As Paul would write to the Philippian church, "he humbled himself and became obedient to death-- even death on a cross! The myth of redemptive violence in a world of turmoil.
But Paul continued: "Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father."
So I leave you with one question then. Who won?
1. Luke Bouman, http://www.predigten.uni-goettingen.de/archiv-7/050320-4-e.html
2. I Maccabees 13:51
3. Edward F. Marquardt, "Hey Sanna, Ho Sanna," http://www.sermonsfromseattle.com/palm_passion_heysanna.htm