So, let’s just get it out there: Jesus doesn’t make much of a Messiah. I mean, this, this is the Savior that the masses have been searching for? The shaggy guy, early thirties, rolling into town on a rent-a-donkey, with ragtag band of bumpkins bringing up the rear? He is supposed to wrest the holy land from the Roman lowlifes who have held it hostage for the better part of two hundred years? He is the man to go marauding against imperial militias? In one corner you have got the country boy from Galilee who teaches ‘Turn the other cheek,’ that is, who teaches, ‘Suffer those nasty uppercuts, and when someone takes a swing at you, say, “Please, Sir, may I have another?”’ You have got this simple peony of a person whose meanest marching orders were, ‘Men! … Look at the lilies of the field.’ And in the other corner, you have got Governor Pilate, a foul, petty cuss with all the real power of a meter maid, and a compensatory sense of self-importance to match. You have got this brutish, small-potatoes political appointee who throws his weight around, who bullies the backwater province to which he has been unhappily exiled.
And about Pilate: Hell hath no fury like a minor-league, ladder-climbing government functionary slighted. Pilate is not pleased to be lording over little Israel; he is insignificant in the scheme of things and peeved about his poor prospects and, in all that, volatile. Pilate dips into the people’s tithes, he takes from the temple treasury, he picks God’s pocket and puts the money toward classing up the city, making it more like Rome, building aqueducts he can name after himself. But why stop there? Then Pilate does something saner bureaucrats never dared – he strings up banners and flags, pro-Caesar propaganda (imagine Yankee fans decking out Fenway Park with Derek Jeter posters); oh, the sacrilege! Now, you know, the Jewish people would put up with a lot, but this Jeter swag was just too much. They started rabblerousing and rioting – at which point Pilate really clamps down and crucifies thousands of them without trials.
So, as pilgrims throng to the city to celebrate the Passover Feast, to celebrate the legendary festival of national liberation, to celebrate God’s freeing Israel from the grips of Pharaoh, God’s spiriting the people out of Egypt, across the Red Sea to live in prosperity and equity – as pilgrims throng to the city, to this occupied city, a city patrolled by armed thugs, a city in which every mother mourned a son, a son lost, lanced down by Roman legions set to squelching even the smallest of uprisings, as pilgrims throng to the city, to the ancient, sacred, contested city – what they are looking for, what they are longing for is a warrior king, someone with swagger, someone with muscle, with a steed, soldiers, with sword-power. What they are looking for, what they are longing for is a Savior who will side with the poor and with the violated and make a spectacular show of it to Caesar’s underlings, who will stick it to the wrongdoers, who will strike for justice’s sake and send Pilate scurrying back to the capital, conquered, if not with his head on a pike…
Here, enter Mighty Jesus! He hobbles in on a hee-hawing sack of bones, surrounded by beggar children and street urchins, with a disorderly string of yokels dallying along; some of his putzy apostles have fishing poles slung over their shoulders. On the whole, the scene is more first-day-at-middle-school-marching-band-camp than invasion-at-Normandy. Jesus’ storming battalions are nothing but a motely bunch of misfit toys. And far from shaking in their boots, the Roman squadrons stationed up on the walls and city gates can only shout down Yo’ Mama jokes and jeer. No warring or epic strife. No setting in of strange plagues, of boils or frogs or locusts, like at Israel’s liberation of yore. Just a weeny circus show with Christ looking rather the part of a laughingstock, clip-clopping clumsily into town. Matthew’s gospel says that great crowds circled, that they got to whooping and wailing and whistling, that they hollered and hailed Jesus as King. I’m not sure how an historically honest reading could see this as anything other than stupendous hyperbole and as horribly ironic.
Matthew’s gospel says that the whole crowd threw down their cloaks – the sort of First Century equivalent of rolling out the red carpet. Are we to imagine that everybody just happened to have a change of clothes handy, on the off chance of an impromptu parade? Or, better, that everybody ended up singing All Glory, Laud, and Honor in their birthday suits? And Matthew pictures the people climbing up trees, sawing off branches right then and there, which, to me, has a sinister air to it and seems more on par with a mob taken to turning over cars than one waving on the Shriners. Most tellingly of all, Matthew’s crowds are not choiring praise with one voice anyway. Matthew has the crowds shouting ‘Hosanna! Jesus! Yay! Jesus!’, then, quote – with the whole city in turmoil – they are shouting ‘Hosanna! Jesus! Yay …. Who? Wait? Who is this?’ Half of them have not the foggiest sense for who this Savior is or whence the hoopla. No small number are probably bawdy, drunken types who see this so-called son of David – David, the war hero! – who see him, who see his pathetic procession hoofing in and call out with the same snarling irony that will follow Jesus all week: ‘Ha! Right! Hail, King of the Jews! Ha!’
Jesus does not make much of a Messiah. This is not the Savior that the masses have been searching for. Whatever God’s grand plan, for all anyone in Jerusalem that day could see – could see without cheating, that is, see without the benefit of two-thousand years’ hindsight – for all anyone in Jerusalem that day could see, Jesus is a joke. Israel would remain putty in the hand of the powers-that-be. And, indeed, within decades, their temple will be but rubble … It is a terrifying truth: God’s way is rarely to swoop to the rescue. The expectations that the people have about how God will bring deliverance and work healing, the assumptions they make about everything turning out alright and rosy in the end, the expectations that we have about how God will bring deliverance and work healing, the assumptions we make about everything turning out alright and rosy in the end, well, it’s going to be that holes are poked in those expectations and in those assumptions. Quite literally. The fantasies that they have of religion and good behavior guarding against real loss and pain and despair, the fantasies that we all have, that I think I have, the fantasy that, with a snap of the fingers, God will bend down and make it better – the fantasy will not save you. Their city is sacked. The Savior is crucified. Lord knows, we all carry crosses and have a life of stripes to show. So if Palm Sunday, if Passion Week mean anything at all, it must only be that the sweep of God’s salvation is maddening and long, must mean that the deliverance Christ brings does not spare us devastation, must mean that, in the end, should we emerge freed and saved, it will only be in ways we never dreamed or knew to desire.