Like so many times when we read the Bible, if we don’t pay attention to the original context of a particular passage, we miss the point or—even worse—read it in a way that is quite different from how it was intended. In the case of Holy Week, it is critical to understand the political, social, and religious context of these remarkable final days of Jesus’ life. To ignore these facts results in a reading of Holy Week that is about abstract themes of suffering or theologically convoluted reflections on what cosmic purpose is accomplished by Jesus’ death. But to ground this story in the realities of first century Jerusalem helps us appreciate the very real and relevant message of Jesus, a gospel that is as good and necessary today as it was nearly two thousand years ago.
First, we must never forget that all of this takes place under the oppressive reign of the Roman Empire. When Jesus enters Jerusalem for this turbulent week, the Jewish people have been controlled by Rome for almost one hundred years. For centuries before that, control of their nation had shifted between powers to their north and to their south. In fact, ever since the cataclysmic conquest of the Jews at the hands of Babylon six hundred years before, there had been precious few years of real independence. For centuries, the Jews were subjected people, and by the third and fourth decades of what we call the Common Era, many of them had grown tired of this status quo. They longed for an anointed king to rise up among them and reestablish the glory days of Israel’s distant past. They longed for Rome to be toppled. Some dreamed of God accomplishing this through an apocalyptic massacre. Others were more pragmatic, if no less idealistic, and plotted a revolution of the people.
Second, and for many Jews of Jesus’ day even more troubling, is the fact that the Jewish leaders of the time were deeply involved in the Roman oppression of their people. In particular, the high priesthood of the temple—once the most sacred institution in all of Israel—had been co-opted as agents of the Roman domination system. They collected the Roman taxes from their people while turning a blind eye to the injustices happening to them. They allowed the people to believe that as long as they followed the prescribed worship inside the temple, what happened outside the temple didn’t really matter. Given even a small share of power and security, the temple leadership was not at all interested in seeing the status quo change. They had a place in the empire and were not about to let anyone—or any revolution—disrupt the delicate balance they had achieved.
This is the context of Jesus’ last week in Jerusalem. This is the setting of the unfolding drama that would end in his death on a cross. This is the Jerusalem into which Jesus rode on the back of a donkey.
On Sunday Jesus challenged empire with a procession that deliberately mocked the pretensions of Rome and the military aspirations of some Jewish rebels. The kingdoms and powers of the world were being contrasted, for all to see, with his radical vision of God’s new kingdom.
On Monday, Jesus made a public spectacle every bit as provocative as his Sunday procession when he disrupted the currency exchange and dove sellers in the temple. He wasn’t criticizing these legitimate and necessary activities; rather, he was calling out the temple leadership for aiding the imperial oppression of the people. Like Hebrew prophets before him, he made it clear that even the most careful and precise worship of God is hypocrisy at best—and blasphemy at worst—when it is done by those who knowingly participate in the perversion of justice and righteousness.
If Jesus’ actions were meant to provoke a reaction, by Tuesday he had what he was looking for. Already we have seen that those in power were plotting to bring him down. Throughout the day on Tuesday they go on the offensive and Jesus openly engages the religious leaders he has indicted. They question his authority and try to trap him. But with masterful acumen and rhetorical skill, Jesus deflects every attempt to entrap him and usually manages to make those who oppose him look like fools in the process. In his famous “render unto Caesar” exchange, Jesus again contrasts the empire with God’s new kingdom. In Jesus’ vision, the two are mutually exclusive. One is beholden to the brute force, economic manipulation, and idolatrous theology of empire; the other is shaped by love for God and love for each other. The image of one is inscribed on the coins of the realm; the other is inscribed in Jesus’ own life and the way he encourages his disciples to follow. And again, his provocative words and actions are not limited to the empire alone. He even goes so far as to imagine the destruction of the temple he has already indicted.
By Wednesday, it is clear where the story is leading: Jesus will be betrayed by one of his own and put to death on a Roman cross.
On Thursday he is betrayed and arrested.
On Friday he is tried and executed.
Given the context, and the way in which Jesus’ last week unfolded, it is not at all surprising that this is how it ends.
Yet so often we approach Holy Week as if this whole thing was some kind of cosmic or theological mystery. Why did Jesus die? What does it all mean? How should I respond to this? Where do I fit in?
Jesus died because he confronted the powers of his day—political and religious—with a radical alternative. From the very beginning of his ministry, he made it crystal clear that he was here to proclaim the emergence of God’s new kingdom and to demonstrate what it looks like in the life of a person fully committed to the love of God and the love of others. In these last days, he made it equally clear that he was willing to take this vision all the way. He was willing to not just talk about it out in the desert or by the peaceful shores of the lake—he was willing to bring this vision of God’s kingdom right into the heart of all that stood in the way of it becoming a reality.
I understand why we want to make this a personal journey. I understand why we gravitate to abstractions about suffering or overlay this very earthy story with theological speculations about what was going on behind the scenes. It’s because we are just as implicated in the things Jesus came to Jerusalem to confront. We too live in a culture that privileges the wealthy at the expense of the poor. We too live in a culture that uses religion to legitimate political ideologies. We too live in a culture that represses the rights of some while heralding the rights of the majority. We too live in a culture that resorts to violence—against others and against our own people—because we think it will solve our problems.
With eyes and ears wide open, first century Jerusalem doesn’t sound all that foreign—which means that Jesus is here to confront us as well.
This post is adapted from the Palm Sunday sermon I preached yesterday. For a great study of Holy Week and its context, from which I drew much material for this sermon, please read The Last Week by Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan. This book has become essential Holy Week reading for me.