Any time a nation experiences harsh oppression that deprives its people of their freedom and dignity, or sees itself as the victim of some grave injustice, it tends to look back nostalgically at glorious periods in its history and prayerfully yearn for a return of those good times.
Religion, which has always been a tremendous source of hope and inspiration during the darkest periods of the human experience, plays a comforting and reassuring role. Such were the circumstances that established the broad political, religious and socioeconomic backdrop against which the Holy Week drama was played out in first century, Roman-controlled Judea.
After suffering centuries of brutal domination and oppression at the hands of various foreign powers, sometimes in collusion with local elites, as was the case under Roman imperial rule, the downtrodden Jewish masses were longing for deliverance. They also yearned for a restoration of the peace and prosperity their ancestors had enjoyed under their nation’s greatest ruler, the legendary King David.
Prophetic Jewish writings, especially Isaiah, promised deliverance would come. And the agency for its accomplishment would be a Messiah sent by Yahweh, the ever-faithful Jewish God, in the same way he had sent Moses to rescue their enslaved ancestors in Egypt and lead them to a better future in the Promised Land.
Around the end of the first quarter of the first century, a charismatic rabbi from the line of David by the name of Yeshua –– Jesus to Christians –– launched a ministry of hope directed at the peasant masses in the Galilean countryside. According to the Gospel accounts, he performed spectacular miracles that, among other things, brought healing to the sick, the dead back to life, and he turned water into fine wine.
Yeshua defended the poor and the outcast. He spoke truth to power which was a highly risky undertaking at a time when rulers had control of life and death and claimed divine approval of their actions, and when basic human rights, as we know them, did not exist. Above all, he spoke about a coming Kingdom of God based on justice, truth and righteousness. Not surprisingly, people soon started wondering if he was the promised Messiah.
Full of symbolism and amounting to an emotional roller coaster with the sharp contrasts of life versus death, hope versus despair, loyalty versus betrayal, triumph versus defeat and good versus evil, the drama of Holy Week revolves around a political confrontation between the heavenly Kingdom of God and the earthly kingdom of Rome, especially the evil it represented.
The logical scene of battle was Jerusalem, the “City of God” and home of the Temple which ancient Jews regarded as the earthly dwelling place of the Most High. Hence,
the strategic decision of Jesus to visit Jerusalem for the Passover festival commemorating the earlier exodus of the Jews from Egypt after their liberation from slavery.
Jerusalem, as Jesus saw it, had become contaminated by Roman influence, aided and abetted by the collusion of the high priest and other ruling religious/political elites who engaged in exploitative practices against the poor that went against fundamental tenets of Judaism. In going to Jerusalem, therefore, Jesus clearly was demonstrating a readiness to take on the status quo, especially the corrupt Temple leadership.
The Gospel Of Mark, which provides a blow-by-blow account of the drama as it unfolded, tells us that Jesus made his triumphant entry on Palm Sunday, riding on a donkey to the cheers of an enthusiastic peasant crowd that spread clothing and palm branches on the ground directly in his path.
“Hosanna!” they joyfully proclaimed. “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David!”
The statement is a recognition and affirmation of Jesus’ messiahship. Jesus’ entry on a donkey was profoundly symbolic. It represented the fulfilment of a prophecy by Zechariah who had proclaimed: “Lo, your king comes to you, triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey.”
Why Jesus chose to stage a procession into Jerusalem also had great symbolic significance. Nowhere in the Gospels, however, is it explained.
As happens sometimes with Scripture, it becomes necessary to look beyond The Bible to find the missing piece of the puzzle. In their well-researched book The Last Week: What The Gospels Really Teach About Jesus’s Final Days In Jerusalem, leading Jesus scholars John Dominic Crossan and the late Marcus Borg explained that Jesus’ entry would have coincided with a grand procession at the other end of the city involving the Roman governor who always came to Jerusalem for major Jewish festivals.
“Though unfamiliar to most people today, the imperial procession was well known in the Jewish homeland in the first century,” Borg and Crossan explained. “Mark [the Gospel writer] and the community for which he wrote would have known about it, for it was standard practice of the Roman governors of Judea to be in Jerusalem for the major festivals. They did so not out of empathetic reverence for the religious devotion of their Jewish subjects, but to be in the city in case there was trouble.
“Jesus’s procession deliberately countered what was happening on the other side of the city. Pilate’s procession embodied the power, glory and violence of the empire that ruled the world. Jesus’s procession embodied an alternative vision, the Kingdom of God. This contrast –– between the Kingdom of God and the kingdom of Caesar –– is central . . . to the story of Jesus and early Christianity,” Borg and Crossan posited.
Thus, the decisive battle between the two contrasting kingdoms was symbolically joined through the rival Palm Sunday processions that set the stage for the subsequent events of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter Sunday. Upping the ante shortly afterwards in the Temple, Jesus would incense the powers that be by driving out money changers and other traders.
“My Father’s house shall be called a house of prayer but you have made it a den of thieves,” he angrily protested.
Jesus’ fate, therefore, was sealed long before he appeared before Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor, who sentenced him to death for the political crime of insurrection. “The high priest and his advisers determined that Jesus was dangerous and had to die,” posited renowned New Testament scholar E.P. Sanders in his book The Historical Figure Of Jesus.
From the perspective of the kingdom of Rome, the clash with the Kingdom of God ended in humiliating defeat for Jesus on the cross on Good Friday. From the perspective of the Kingdom of God, it ended in decisive victory through Jesus’ Resurrection early on Easter Sunday.
Sometimes, leaders are forced by the flow of events and circumstances to accept personal sacrifice as the price to achieve the overriding objective of their mission. Martyrdom, as we saw in the example of United States civil rights campaigner Dr Martin Luther King Jr, can have a powerful way of galvanizing support for a cause that brings about fundamental desired change.
Jesus’ death and the subsequent miraculous events defined by the Gospel writers, as his Resurrection, underscore the supremacy of the Kingdom of God over the kingdom of Rome and other earthly kingdoms. The eventual Christianization of the Roman Empire under the Emperor Constantine, whose predecessors were acknowledged and worshipped as gods, stands as the most powerful confirmation.
May the victory of the risen Christ be yours this Eastertide!
(Reudon Eversley is a political strategist, strategic communication specialist and long-standing journalist.