In Spring of 2003, Vintage21 Church in Raleigh, NC had a four week series on Jesus Christ, taking a deeper look at what He said and did. It was difficult at times to get past our preconceived notions that had been developed by staunch, starched Sunday School classes of old.
There are many ways to explore Easter week (known as Holy Week). One thought to consider is the primary actions of Jesus, Pilate, and God.
The week kicks off with the satirical actions of Jesus in his "triumphal entry" known as Palm Sunday.
When it was time for the festival of Passover, there would have been a great pilgrimage to Jerusalem. There you would see Jewish people from all over the Roman empire coming together to remember the story of how they were enslaved by the Egyptians and freed by God through Moses.
With such a great number of people coming to recall how they were once enslaved but became free, you can imagine that someone would have said, “Hey! We are still enslaved by Rome and right now we outnumber them here in the Holy city! Let’s liberate our people like Moses and wipe out Rome!”
These thoughts might have been why every Passover it was the custom for the Roman ruler of the area to create a militaristic triumphal entry to Jerusalem. This huge procession was called a Roman triumph.
There seems to be a standard order to the triumph parade:
- The captive leaders, allies, and soldiers (and sometimes their families) usually walking in chains;
- Captured weapons, armor, gold, silver, and exotic treasures were carted behind them,
- Rome's senators and magistrates walking in
- The general's bodyguards in their red war-robes,
- The general in his four-horse chariot
- The general's unarmed soldiers followed
- Two flawless white oxen were led for the sacrifice to Jupiter, would have been located somewhere in the procession
All of this was to remind everyone that Rome was bringing peace to the world – by killing those who resisted.
So when Jesus comes in donkey, you have Jesus making a highly visible bit of satire. Jesus rides in on a female nursing donkey with her little colt walking alongside her to bring Peace. Jesus is using satire to make a point: peace cannot come by way of Rome - Peace by way of the sword is peace in name only.
This bit of political satire was not lost on the crowd who shouted the very same things the Roman crowds would have shouted when the Roman armies came into the city: "Savior! King! Hosanna!" And rather than using flowers and incense to bring in the leader, the Jewish people there used palms and cloaks to pave the way for this satirical demonstration. Think of it something like the original flash-mob – this was theatrics in order to make a point.
Needless to say, the satirical drama made its way to the powers that be: Pilate. Jesus' actions provoked mocking from Pilate.
Wikimedia Commons Photo
The painting "Ecce Homo" ("Behold the Man" in Latin) by Antonio Ciseri.
After Jesus made his satirical commentary on the Roman Triumph and the "peace of Rome", word got to Pilate. This did not sit well with him. People in power know that satire is a potent weapon that exposes and calls people to action. Satire can raise consciousness to issues that the "powers that be" would otherwise work to keep hidden. (You see this in America anytime President Trump comments about Saturday Night Live. One would think that the president of the U.S.A would have more to do then offer constant comments on a silly late night television show, but satire is powerful).
To stop Jesus' satire from continuing, Pilate hatches a plot. Specifically, he schemes a fake or mock trial for the satirical Jesus. In Matthew 27:15-23 we read:
Now at the festival the governor was accustomed to release a prisoner for the crowd, anyone whom they wanted. At that time they had a notorious prisoner, called Jesus Barabbas. So after they had gathered, Pilate said to them, "Whom do you want me to release for you, Jesus Barabbas or Jesus who is called the Messiah?" For he realized that it was out of jealousy that they had handed him over. While he was sitting on the judgement seat, his wife sent word to him, "Have nothing to do with that innocent man, for today I have suffered a great deal because of a dream about him." Now the chief priests and the elders persuaded the crowds to ask for Barabbas and to have Jesus killed. The governor again said to them, "Which of the two do you want me to release for you?" And they said, "Barabbas." Pilate said to them, "Then what should I do with Jesus who is called the Messiah?" All of them said, "Let him be crucified!" Then he asked, "Why, what evil has he done?" But they shouted all the more, "Let him be crucified!"
First, just two notes here about Pilate:
- Pilate had the reputation of being too cruel (even for Roman standards)
- Pilate was so cruel that he was recalled from his post in 36 A.D.
I remind us of this because the story is often told that Pilate is a helpless victim who is caught up in the master-mind work of the Jewish authorities (note the anti semitism in this interpretation). To be sure, Pilate was a puppet of Rome but not of the Jewish authorities. He was their ruler. Pilate is very much in charge of this situation and wanted to prove to Rome that he can keep this area under control.
Notice the mocking trial that Pilate puts on:
- He gives the crowd the "decision" as to whom to release
- He offers up a known enemy of the state as an alternate (We don't know if this Barrabas was caught again and killed at a later date.)
- He puts a robe on Jesus
- He puts a crown of thorns on his head
- He identifies him as “King of the Jews”
Pilate’s mock trial of Jesus was not so much about how Pilate felt about Jesus but more about how he felt about the crowd who participated in the satirical triumph parade just days before.
In Pilate’s trial, he is saying, “You think your little show here in the streets is going to make a difference? I am still in charge and, by the power of the sword, torture and fear I will have peace in this region!”
The execution of Jesus is not funny. It is not funny at all when someone is tortured or killed. It is not funny at all when innocent people are killed for any reason. Be in in the streets of Syria, the cells of death row, police doing their job, people of color obeying the law, or Jesus on the cross.
When innocent people are killed, it is tragic. And in the tragic we often wonder why God did not act to keep the action from happening. Enter the Ironic God.
The death of Jesus was supposed to be the end of the story. Death is the ultimate "end" we have come to fear. The great irony of God that is revealed on Easter is that death is not the end - but rather the necessary step into a new resurrected beginning. The irony of the end being the beginning still flabbergasts us to this day. How is it possible that the one who was killed still lives today? How can the work of peace come by non-violence? How can forgiveness be for the enemy? How can a dead God give life to the world?
How can all this be?
Christians call it Easter. Perhaps the words of Paul (1 Corinthians 1) are most appropriate here:
"For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written,‘I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.’ Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling-block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength."
The Rev. Jason Valendy, along with his wife the Rev. Estee Valendy, serves as co-pastor of Saginaw United Methodist Church in Saginaw, Texas. He blogs at JasonValendy.net, from which this post is republished with the author's permission.