Jesus acts decisively entering into Jerusalem, but not in the way expected by his followers. In their book, “The Last Week”, Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan describe Palm Sunday procession of Jesus entering from one end of Jerusalem while the Roman Empire’s representative, Pontius Pilate, full of imperial power, entering from the other end during the turbulent time of Passover, when the crowds always get a little unruly. Pilate coming to “keep the peace”, to keep order, to control the appearance of insurrection. He travels with troops and flags and weapons, on a magnificent warhorse, impressive signs of empire. He came to control the situation, to suppress a movement.
Jesus – filled with a different kind of power – makes his entrance riding a humble donkey, a symbol of the poor and powerless He wears no gleaming armor – just traveling robes. He leads no great army, no spoils of war; just a ragged band of followers. He doesn’t keep the same kind of peace Pilate and Rome intend to “impose,” the kind of peace that benefits empire and the folks on top. Jesus brings a peace that surpasses understanding, and he will pay the ultimate price to bring it.
Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem provides an example of who we are called to be as disciples. In three years of ministry, we witness Jesus feeding the hungry, healing the sick, eating with outcasts, standing with the powerless, connecting with the spirit of God. Today we witness his faithfulness & obedience, his wisdom, his love. Jesus didn’t seek to manipulate the situation. He didn’t grasp for control or take control by force. Instead, he listened for the heart of God and followed the Spirit’s lead. Being authentically himself, instead of trying to control it all, Jesus rode a donkey into the city, palm branches waving and cloaks scattered along the road, as the masses shouted: “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.” He accepted what awaited him – even death.
On Monday, Jesus overturned the tables of the moneychangers in the Temple. The actions of both days were forms of protest against the violence and control of the Roman Empire, and against the local religious authorities who collaborated with Rome in oppressing the people. On Wednesday, Judas offered to deliver Jesus into their hands. Jesus celebrates the Last Supper on Thursday, goes out to pray in the Garden of Gethsemane, receives a kiss of betrayal, and is arrested while the disciples running away. A council of the chief priests and scribes interrogate Jesus at night. He is charged with blasphemy, with death as the penalty under Jewish law.
Under Roman law, the priests and scribes had no authority to execute prisoners. So, on Friday Jesus is brought to Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor. The chief priests and scribes, call for Jesus to be executed. Pilate isn’t interest in the charge of blasphemy, but wants to tamp down any rebellion against Roman rule. Jesus is sentenced to death, and handed over to Roman soldiers to be crucified.
Crucifixion was used as punishment of political crimes: treason & sedition. A public warning, a deterrent to others who would plot against the Roman Empire. A way to control the masses.
OT Scholar Walter Brueggemann, in his book “The Prophetic Imagination” and NT Scholar Walter Wink, in “Naming the Powers” names this desire or need for control as a Domination System, the most common form of social organization in the ancient world, including the empires of Egypt, Assyria, Babylonia, and Rome. They talk about 5 main characteristics of Domination Systems:
1st, politically oppressive – ruled by a monarchy or small aristocracy, ordinary people had little to no say about how they were governed.
2nd – economically exploitative. A ruling elite structured the economic system so 1% of the population received ~ 2/3’s of the wealth.
3rd -Patriarchal. A few men ruled over and controlled all other men, women and children.
4th: justified with religious language. The people were told that those in power ruled by divine right, reflecting the will of God.
5th: Domination systems were expanded through war, and enforced by violence and threat of violence.
Rev. Kathlyn James poses the question: Who killed Jesus? The chief priests & scribes, leaders appointed by Rome to serve the domination system of the Roman Empire, assigned the task of administering Roman rule, had a hand in it. Their job was to keep money flowing through the Temple to Roman overlords while “keeping” the peace. The high priest, Caiaphas, says it is better to let one man die than allow the whole nation perish. Jewish leaders may have called for his death, but he was sentenced by a Roman governor, tortured & killed by Roman soldiers, on a Roman cross. Roman authorities legally executed Jesus. The Roman citizens who were involved probably thought that they were just doing their jobs in a time where crucifixion was common. This is how domination systems responded to those who challenged/threatened their power and control. It was how things were done, how things had always been done. One could make a case that domination systems—and the control that keeps them going—are alive and well today. In this sense, no one person was responsible for the execution of Jesus. And in the same sense, almost everyone who participated in the prevailing domination system, or benefitted from it in any way, was responsible.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. asked at Selma. “Who killed Jimmy Lee Johnson?”
A State trooper pointed the gun, but he did not act alone. He was murdered by the brutality of every sheriff who practices lawlessness in the name of law. He was murdered by the irresponsibility of every politician, from governors on down, who has fed his constituents on prejudice and hatred. He was murdered by the timidity of a federal government that can spend millions of dollars a day to keep troops in South Vietnam and cannot protect the rights of its own citizens seeking the right to vote. He was murdered by the indifference of every white minister of the gospel who has remained silent behind the safe security of stained-glass windows. He was murdered by the cowardice of every Negro who passively accepts the evils of segregation and stands on the sidelines in the struggle for justice.
King was making the point that there is a degree to which we all participate in and contribute to domination systems and controlling one another. Especially those with more decision-making power, those who choose to control by suppression and oppression. Domination Systems within Empire are the extreme version of the Need to Control. Yet empire continues to crucify Jesus today.
For centuries, people who called themselves Christian participated in despicable horrors, from the Inquisition to religious wars, from witch-burnings to the repression of women and the selling of slaves, from colonial empires to the killing of Jews and Native peoples…and they used a misreading of the Bible in every case to justify it. All of this time, our God of compassion and love must have wept. Who also must have wept at the death of Jesus, not the ultimate sacrifice required by an angry God. Rather, God who is love, must have grieved the death of Jesus, who desires us to act and follow the way of Jess, through love, not control. Jesus’ followers wanted him to lead an insurrection, overthrow Rome and empire. But he didn’t. The way of Jesus was not about control. Instead, he would follow his heart, the very heart of God, in loving, in peacemaking, in forgiving, in sharing grace to the very end.
The ultimate of the Seven Deadly Needs is the need to control. It’s deadly to relationships – no one wants to be oppressed by a controlling boss or friend or partner or government. Controlling others will eventually push them away. It’s deadly to our own success, because there are few successes that don’t involve risk-taking; And it’s deadly to our spiritual life: if we need to be in control, it doesn’t leave much room for God to act in our lives, for the Spirit to move.
My colleague Rev. Elizabeth Ingram Schindler preached these words:
Control is mostly an illusion based on fear. We think we can create certain outcomes by controlling the components, eliminating the possibility of pain or disappointment. We think we can control what other people think about us. We think if things are done our way, everything will be ok. But we’re afraid of failing, afraid of being hurt, afraid of things not turning out the way we’d planned, so we try to control it all, force the outcomes we think we want.
Jesus chose not the way of control, but the way of obedience to living a fully human life, one with consequences. He was ready to take up his cross. And die. So into Jerusalem, and to the cross he went. We have an icon of Christ moving towards conflict, pain, and the reality that he would end up being a great disappointment to others who had laid so many expectations upon him. He went anyway.
Brené Brown, “Daring Greatly”, talks about how creativity & living fully requires vulnerability and giving up control.
“If we’re going to do great things, then we need to let go and risk doing great things: risk of failure, risk of disappointing others, risk of disappointing ourselves. Again and again. Our worth doesn’t spring out of our attempts to control our accomplishments and successes.”
That requires Acceptance which often feels like resignation, like giving up. The freedom you get with Acceptance, instead of attempting to control, ALWAYS comes after a long, arduous struggle. Jesus struggles on his journey. For a while he says his time has not yet come. Today we read that he comes to a place of acceptance where he knows he embraces his time, placing himself in God’s hands.
We’re not Jesus but we too deal with things that are bigger than us. We fight against illness and then realize we can’t fight any longer. We try to shape our children and then realize it’s up to them. We try to resolve conflicts in relationships and then realize we have no control over how they respond. We try to fix things or keep bad things from happening and recognize the truth – it’s just not possible. We come to a tipping point of control or placing ourselves in God’s hands.
12 Step program slogan, “Let Go and Let God. God did not create us to control: God calls us to love. God didn’t create us to live in fear; God calls us to life abundant. God didn’t create us to control those around us: God calls us to surrender.
This doesn’t mean God wants us to be passive: Jesus was far from passive. He spoke against oppression and violence, taught peacemaking, hospitality, and healing. He called people out of their comfort zones, encouraging them to leave everything behind to follow him. Jesus didn’t struggle with the need to control: he stayed connected to the Spirit through prayer. He didn’t try to force outcomes: he simply let the power of God’s love flow through his humility and his willingness to serve. Because he lived that way, he ushered in a kingdom, where love wins out. Through spiritual practice, our fear can subside and we won’t feel the need to control everything. When we stop trying to force outcomes to avoid disappointment, when we stop trying to control others because they aren’t meeting our expectations, when we open ourselves to risk and follow the vision God has given us, with our hands open, our fists unclenched, possibilities for transformation multiply
The call God has on our lives is not to take control, but to surrender. It’s a call to let God be God and trust that if we are silenced, the rocks themselves will cry out. It’s a call to follow God’s command to work for justice and be peacemakers in the world, to share God’s love even if we don’t know where we’re headed, even if it would be less risky to try to control things. Our call is to be part of the transformation that God is already bringing into the world. What if we were willing to surrender, too? What if we gave up the need to control and let God work through us to transform the world in ways we cannot yet even imagine?
Steve Garnaas-Holmes has written a poem about this:
This is a story of love, not a deal, no scheme to save us with someone else’s blood, no holy slaughter, no means, no demand. It’s not God’s choice that a savior suffer: that’s ours alone.
This is the story of our evil and God’s invasion of love.
The Gentle One comes among us, our certainty, our betrayal, our violence, and offers only love.
He invites to dinner those who will deny him,
offers the place of honor to the one who will betray him, offers us himself.
To our self-absorption he offers his body; Then your attention to our sin he offers forgiveness.
In the anguish and chaos he offers prayer.
To our judgment and violence he offers healing. To our death he offers life.
It is this simple: to our evil he offers love. It is not his suffering that saves, don’t be fooled.
It’s his self-giving, his love, his forgiveness. Even in our worst sin, God will only love.
God’s will is simply to love. There is only love.
This is what saves us. For our perfect rebellion, our total rejection,
our deepest hate and violence, there is only love. There is only love. Amen.