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Palm Sunday - The Kingdom or the Empire

Two processions made their way into Jerusalem on the day we remember as Palm Sunday. One procession came from the west of the Roman imperial cavalry and soldiers to reinforce the garrison permanently stationed in the Fortress Antonia which overlooked the Temple in readiness for any disturbance that might arise among the Jews as they celebrated the Passover. And from the east Jesus rode into the city on a colt leading a disorganised rabble of peasants. One procession proclaimed the power and might of the Empire and the other proclaimed the Kingdom of God. A choice was and still needs to be made. The Kingdom or the Empire. (Palm Sunday. Mark 11:1-11 and chapters 14 and 15.)

You may like to read a reflection that I wrote three years ago in which I briefly reflect on different parts of the story.

Palm Sunday marks the beginning of Holy Week in which we rightly slow down and focus with breaking open hearts on the last days of Jesus and reflect on the greatness of his love for us. It is also a time in which our own priorities, values and way of living and loving is called into focus as at the foot of the cross we ponder on where we are in this story and how faithful a disciple we are. That is, we too must decide which procession we pay attention to and whether we choose the Kingdom or the Empire. We may wish to pray that the kingdom come on earth but still wish to enjoy the privileges or hope of privilege that the empire promises. But at some point we need to make a choice.


It might help if we explore a little what we mean by the language of empire and kingdom. Empire may be thought of as a shorthand way of describing a socio-political system of domination. The key features of such systems are that: 1) they are politically oppressive in that ordinary people have little or no voice; 2) they are economically exploitative in that  a few wealthy and powerful groups and individuals benefit from the work of the many; and 3) the system is religiously legitimated. In the first century this was of course the Roman Empire but could also describe Egypt or Babylon beforehand. Indeed some of the bad kings of Israel could be understood in these terms. And of course we might recognise those attributes in some contemporary countries and ruling elites.


Maybe more nuanced and important is how do we understand the Kingdom of God as referred to by Jesus and focused on by Mark’s gospel? One umbrella term is the kingdom is the “dream of God for the earth” or what our world would be like if God ruled the world and not the leaders and priorities and values that are currently in authority. Many things seem to be meant by this term the Kingdom of God. It describes a state of mind and an orientation of the heart of the individual believer and follower of the way of Jesus (such as the kingdom of God is within you). It also refers to the community of believers who seek to enact the values of God’s way of living in their relationships with each other. It is also more broadly socio-political in that the notion of how the world would be if God ruled, if the mercy and justice of God guided our way of living and interacting in every aspect of society, which then suggests a critique of how we currently do things.


The prophets of the Hebrew Bible, or Old Testament, often critiqued those in power for not acting out the justice of God’s law – for not caring for the widow, orphan and aliens in the midst of the community, for not treating the workers fairly, for keeping the poor in impossible positions of debt and destitution (think of why all those very particular rules in Leviticus were needed! And just think of all the parables that use metaphors of unjust vineyard owners). Jesus’ harshest criticisms were often of those who best knew the law but used it to sidestep their responsibilities to treat others with generosity and justice.


So we return to the city of Jerusalem and feel the excitement of the increasing tension between the impressive if fearful display of power that the military of the Roman Empire’s might proclaimed and the colourful chaotic counter procession that had this radical Jesus riding the colt of a donkey displaying the symbols that the prophet Zechariah had said a king would enter into Zion who would banish war from the land! Those that rallied around this procession would have thrilled to the signs that this may be the king who would lead them to reclaim their land and banish the occupying Romans. But days later their hopes are dashed and this king is tried for sedition and crucified. All is surely lost. Certainly even the most faithful followers will cower behind closed doors fearing punishment and grieving their teacher and hoped for Messiah’s death.


When we are reminded that there is a choice to be made we might also remember that it is not always an easy or an obvious choice. It is not the choice to be on one winning side or another. These are not evenly matched sides in this world! It is not simply the choice to be left or right, progressive or conservative, wet or dry. It is the choice to join the dream of a world not yet fully here. It is the choice to seek the glimpse of the divine in the everyday and to adore, protect, nurture and share. It is the choice to believe ourselves precious – but no more so than any other creature of our Creator. It is the choice to choose life and the ways that make for life for everyone not simply for the few. It is the choice to be grateful to be last and encourage those who have less to go before us. It is to choose mourning and poorness so that we are emptied out and ready for God’s way.


To choose the Kingdom over the Empire is to choose the Way of the cross and the one who died on a cross. It is a demanding way. It is also the way of enjoying eating, drinking and dancing with those who are on the outskirts of the city. It is also the way of foolish wisdom and deep peace more than security and certainty. It is the way of love over hate, hope over fear, and life over death.


Even so, come Jesus the Christ who comes riding a colt, come beckon my feeble heart to take courage and follow where you go. 

While all of this is my work, including any heresy or error, I am indebted to the work of Marcus J. Borg and John Dominic Crossan.


Marcus J. Borg & John Dominic Crossan.  “The Last Week: What the gospels really teach about Jesus’s final days in Jerusalem” Harper Collins, New York, 2006

Marcus J. Borg. “The Heart of Christianity: Rediscovering a life of faith” Harper Collins, San Francisco, 2003


If you need to read ahead for material on Holy Week please go to the blog page and search for Maundy Thursday, Good Friday etc.



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