A Sermon for Palm Sunday (05/04/20): A Political Drama – Part 2

The second of my Palm Sunday sermons picks up the theme of the second gospel reading for the day, Matthew 27:11-26. It also makes quite extensive reference to other parts of the Holy Week narrative. So you might also like to look at: Matthew 21:12-17, 26:47-68

A Political Drama – Part 2
Matthew 27:11-26

The events of Good Friday bring to a climax the political drama that began the preceding Sunday, Palm Sunday. What was begun on that day plays out to the drama of the trial that takes place early on Friday morning. What brought things to this point was Jesus’ ministry in the city during the days in between. On Sunday the citizens of Jerusalem had known very little about Jesus. He had arrived with the excitement of the crowds coming for the festival. The crowds announced him as:
“The one who comes in the name of the Lord.”
They were convinced that Jesus is the one who is going to bring about God’s reign on earth. Or at the very least they were convinced that he is a prophet. Since, when the crowd was asked directly:
“Who is this?”
They responded:
“This is  the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.”
The peasants from Galilee were sure this was the one, but peasants are easily fooled. The smart, urbane citizens of Jerusalem were more sceptical, they would need convincing.

In those few days between Sunday and Friday, Jesus spent his time in and around the Temple.  All that the people of Jerusalem would come to know of Jesus, and everything that they might use to assess him, happened here. Very quickly Jesus made it plain what he was about. From beginning to end Jesus’ ministry has proclaimed the imminence, the immediacy, the closeness of God. His preaching could very nearly be summed up in a single sentence: 
“Repent for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”
It all comes down to the nearness of God and how we should respond to that reality. Fundamentally Jesus’ message is one of how close God is to human beings. Therefore he was deeply opposed to everything and everyone who stood in between, who got in the way of people’s access to God. The Temple was the physical embodiment of God’s presence with his people. But it had become an obstruction. Standing in the middle of the Temple, Jesus, blending the words of the prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah had declared:
“My house shall be called a house of prayer but you are making it a den of robbers”
Jesus’ accusation, which is leveled against those in charge of the temple, the Priests, and his actions there, clearing the temple of the commerce which benefited the Priests, are what make this a political drama. If you believe, as the descendants of Abraham do, if you believe that there is one God who rules over everything. And that God is deeply concerned with how people live with one another. God is political. Since politics is merely the science of people living together in large numbers. Then speaking about or for God is always political. And it is always about the nature of power and authority. Jesus challenges the self-appointed and self-perpetuating elite and their claim to stand between the people and God. He challenges the wealth and power they have acquired by placing themselves in that position. Jesus’ offer of unmediated access to God in him, the closeness of the kingdom, will always undermine the authority of any group of people, or any institution that claims a position between the children of God and the Father, which is any group which claims authority over any community of people. 
This is what the citizens of Jerusalem have seen of Jesus. There is an inevitable confrontation coming, between Jesus and the Priests. They are on a collision course. The citizens of Jerusalem know there is going to be a fight. And they probably already know that they will have to choose sides. As always the presence of Jesus creates a crisis where people have to choose. That is judgement.

In contrast to the citizens of Jerusalem, the Priests already know a good deal about Jesus. They cannot resist the authoritarian impulse to know all the goings on in their domain They have been observing Jesus since soon after he had fed 5000 in the middle of nowhere. They had known for some time he had the power to bring people to follow him.
The drama had been brewing for a while even before last Sunday. The collision happened overnight on Thursday.
Jesus was in a garden praying.  When the the Priests exercised their earthly power. They continued their politics by other means, brute force. Which just shows how little they really understood about Jesus. Jesus in the end came quiet as a lamb. He stood before them to answer their charges. But they were having trouble pinning anything on him. After all there really is no law against doing good Eventually they did find two witnesses who provided the necessary testimony that agreed.
“This fellow said I am able to destroy the Temple of God and in three days rebuild it.” 
The priests anger is understandable. The accusation is that Jesus threatened the base of the Priests’ power. The conflict remains an essentially political one. The Temple needs the priests. Though actually, as it so often turns out when it comes to those in power, the reality is the reverse: The priests need the temple. No temple – no institution – no one is needed to maintain that institution – no priests. And it’s not like it hasn’t happened before. This after all is the Second Temple. The first, the original, the slightly less spectacular one that Solomon had built, had been destroyed more than 600 years ago. And the outcome of that was? The emergence of the synagogues, first in Babylon and afterwards everywhere where the Children of Israel were scattered. A different institution, with different politics, and a different leadership, an alternative power base. The Priests were already jealous of the authority of the scribes who ran the synagogues. And many of them were Pharisees whom the Priests loathed. The priests were certainly not prepared to risk leaving all the authority to the scribes in their synagogues.A threat to the Temple was a threat to their power, a political threat.
But Jesus had promised to rebuild it! Even if the priest believed that Jesus could – and they almost certainly didn’t – this if anything would have been worse. That would make the new Temple his, not theirs. Their ministry, even though it would continue, would depend on him. Their power therefore would be subject to his. We may not like it but the gospel comes down to authority. Who speaks for God? Whose voice must but heard and acted upon as people work to live together in a large number? Which voice determines our politics?
Finally the priests get what they are looking for. Jesus incriminates himself.Having remained silent through all the false and distorted testimony, Jesus at last makes his claim to authority:
“From now on you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power and coming on the clouds of heaven.” 
Jesus announces himself as the one who shares God’s authority. And as the one who establishes God’s reign in the world. This has essentially been the whole content of Jesus’ ministry up to this point – for those with the eyes to see it. It is this claim of Jesus to rule which Christians accept, and which make him and his teaching our politics. But it is the claim which gets Jesus killed!

Much as they want rid of Jesus, the Priests are shrewd enough politicians to recognise that it would not be good for them to take the blame for destroying someone so popular. The action of rash, thoughtless leaders would have been to give into their anger, take Jesus out and have him stoned to death there and then. That is after all the penalty for blasphemy.But they know how to spin the story. They can take Jesus to Pilate. They can dress the accusation up in a way that Pilate would understand, and in a way that would leave Pilate with no choice.
Jesus stands before the governor who asks him:
“Are you the king of the Jews”
Pilate’s question reveals the subtle change that the Priests have made in the accusation against Jesus. In the journey between Caiaphas’ house and Pilate’s headquarters the charge has shifted from being apparently theological to something more explicitly political. The change is from claiming to be the Messiah, to claiming to be King. Though of course the two may amount to being pretty much the same thing. The Priests know Pilate would not understand who the Messiah might be. But they also know he cannot ignore anyone who claims to be a king. The charge which is made against Jesus before Pilate is political in the most obvious way. Within the Empire the source of all authority is the Emperor. Only the Emperor can make someone a king. Claiming to be a king is to deny the authority of the Emperor. And truth be told Jesus is guilty of that charge. Jesus’ presence in the world does deny the authority of all earthly rulers. But Pilate can only hear this as an explicitly political accusation. An accusation which he cannot fail to take seriously. Pilate and the Emperor above him are no less jealous of their power than were the Priests or anyone else who ever held power in the world. Jesus is accused of the most political of crimes, treason. Which is a crime which those in authority always treat with more seriousness than even murder.
Pilate though is confused. He sees in Jesus nothing that justifies the charges made against him. He is frustrated by Jesus’ refusal to offer a defence.
“Do you not hear the accusations they make against you?” 
But Jesus does not not speak. He could only speak the truth. But how could the truth be heard in this place of lies. The truth will set you free, but liars could only hear it as self-incrimination. What Pilate and the powers of this world practice as justice is not just at all. It still all comes down to politics. And what is a crime and who is guilty of that crime is always decided by politics. “Justice” is merely the fig leaf that conventional politics places over its naked use of power. And in this courtroom it really is little more than an arbitrary assertion of power.
Now at the festival the governor was accustomed to release a prison for the crowd, anyone who they wanted. 
This is really powerful evidence that justice under this system has nothing to do with fairness, or protecting society, or even punishing wrongdoing. It is about demonstrating who has power. The governor can detain or release whoever he wants. It is quite arbitrary. But what he does do is use his power towards a political objective. He uses it to appease the crowd. And those in power fear the crowd. The Priests were afraid of the crowd who came into Jerusalem with Jesus. Pilate has reason to fear the crowd of Jerusalem’s citizens gathered in front of his headquarters. Pilate offers that crowd the choice between two men called Jesus;  One from Nazareth, who is called the Messiah, The other a notorious criminal, who is called Barabbas. Jesus and Barabbas don’t matter to Pilate. He sees neither of them as a real threat. Pilate is not directly the victim of Barabbas’ crimes, whatever they are. And Barabbas possesses no power to change the established order of the world. Jesus, as far as Pilate is concerned, is even more powerless, he is nothing more than a dreamer and a fantasist. It really makes no difference at all to Pilate which one is released and which one dies. So long as everyone recognises that it was always in Pilates control. Pilate believes in the absolute power of the system he is part of to control the world All he has to do is assert that power. And demonstrate to everyone that there is no alternative. 

Pilate leaves the decision to the crowd. At this point the crowd stands at a crossroads. The choice which they have is a real one; To  acquiesce in the politics of the world as it is, to accept that there really is not alternative to that politics, or to open themselves to the possibility that God’s kingdom might indeed be very close. It is the choice which is created by Jesus’ presence in the world that is faced by every gathering of people who in their very being together find they must practice politics. The politics of the world? Or the reign of God through his Son Jesus the Messiah? A politics of power and the almost arbitrary use of violence? Or the peaceable Kingdom of Christ. That crowd, on that Friday morning, made the wrong choice When Pilate asked:
“Which of the two do you want me to release for you?”
The crowd replied:
The man of violence is released The innocent is condemned to die. Jesus dies because of the politics of the world. His death condemns the way in which human beings have chosen to organise themselves. And particularly the way humans have chosen to organise themselves apart from the loving concern God has for all people. The climax of the political drama that has been playing out between Palm Sunday and Good Friday is Jesus’ condemnation to death.

Jesus’ arrival in Jerusalem had present the city with a set of political questions:
Who will lead this people?
What kind of leadership will they provide?
What kind of people will they be?
What is the destiny of this people?
By Friday the citizens of Jerusalem were ready to give their answer, whether they realised what they were doing or not. They decided that it would be the conventional politics of the priest, the governor and ultimately the Emperor, those who wielded the power of this world, which is in the end always death
They decided that there was no alternative than to accept being ruled over by coercion and violence.
They decided – as their ancestors had decided before them – to be a kingdom like all the other kingdoms of the world
They decided – though they couldn’t know it at the time – to have their city destroyed and to become another footnote in history
This political drama is a tragedy which reveals the failure of the power of this world to speak the truth or do justly But this is not the end of the story. The politics of the world stands condemned. But the world awaits God’s answer.

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A Political Drama – Part 2 by Christopher Wood-Archer is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

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