Kingdom of God vs. Empire

Do you know what Palm Sunday is? I was surprised to find among our meeting people who had not experienced Holy Week. As someone from a high church tradition, I have layers of memory from decades of Palm Sunday services. If you see people in front wearing fancy clothes or smell incense you may be in a high church tradition. Some Christians do not celebrate the whole of Holy Week and only acknowledge Easter. If you are among Quakers who have a strict obedience to a no holidays rule then you may not even celebrate Christmas and Easter. There are plenty of Quakers who may not celebrate the whole of Holy Week, but may still have palms on Palm Sunday and Easter egg hunts on Easter. My memories of Palm Sunday include joyful music and palm fronds. I remember a spirit of celebration. Palm Sunday celebrates what is frequently referred to as Jesus’ Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem. In many ways it may feel like the high point of his ministry before his resurrection. Crowds honored him and praised God for what they witnessed.

Even if you do come from a tradition that regularly celebrates Palm Sunday, you may never have heard of Pilate’s march into Jerusalem. According to The Last Week: What the Gospels Really Teach Us About Jesus’s Final Days in Jerusalem, it was a regular occurrence for the governor to march into Jerusalem for holidays along with additional troops to reinforce the local garrison[1]. Pilate marched in his own procession like governors before and after him. On Passover, it was considered especially important to have reinforcements because it was a holiday that celebrated the overthrow of another oppressor—Egypt.

Somewhat surprisingly, it is Jesus’ procession into Jerusalem that some of us know so well that is actually the unusual one. Even allowing for other Jewish prophets enacting visible signs of prophecies, Jesus may be the only one that ever fulfilled this particular prophecy from the prophet Zechariah, chapter 9. If you haven’t heard of this prophecy then you may find yourself wrestling with why Jesus rode into town like this. Did it have to do with it being a long trip? Did some kind meaning person offer him a ride? No, Zechariah’s prophecy proclaimed that a king would ride into Jerusalem “on a donkey, a colt, the foal of a donkey.[2]” Riding into Jerusalem like this was to claim that the prophecy was being fulfilled. Unlike other kings, this king would be known for bringing peace to the world.

The people saw in Jesus a potential messiah. He would not be the first but, for most, past messiahs would have been seen as failing to achieve their promises. The people would have had certain expectations of a messiah including that he would overthrow their oppressor Rome. One way of talking about the idealized king that they hoped for was to reference the reign of King David. The Last Week explains it this way, “So revered did David become that the hoped-for future deliverer, the messiah was expected to be a ‘son of David,’ a new David, indeed greater than David. And this new David, this son of David, would rule a restored kingdom from Jerusalem.”[3]

Jesus, however, was not going to be the sort of king that many expected. What was the expectation? According to the prophet Samuel, the people begged God for a king at a time when they did not have a king like other nations. In 1 Samuel 8:20  the people of God begged Samuel for a king to “go out before us and fight our battles.” Even after more than a thousand years, when people looked to Jesus as a potential messiah this is still what many were hoping for. Yet, Jesus was not going to lead the people into battle against Rome. The Gospel of John makes this plain with a passage were Jesus says “My kingdom is not of this world” (18:36). Jesus’ kingdom would not come through conquering. So what was Jesus’ procession about? Jesus’ procession was a sort of counter-protest, Jesus and his followers were laying out who he was and what the Kingdom of God was in opposition to the Roman Empire and its emperor.

The Roman Emperor Augustus ruled from 31 BCE to 14 CE. Augustus was said to have had as his father “the god Apollo who conceived him in his mother Atia. Inscriptions refer to him as ‘son of God,’ ‘lord’ and ‘savior,’ one who had brought ‘peace on earth.’ After his death, he was seen as ascending into heaven to take his permanent place among the gods.”

If all of this is starting to sound familiar then it should. Jesus’ followers proclaimed him to be many things previously applied to Augustus. Jesus was the Son of God, but the true God and not Apollo. Jesus was the Lord of his followers, the one to whom they gave their allegiance. Jesus was the Savior, who would heal the world with his gospel and miracles where Augustus was said to have brought peace on earth by winning a Roman civil war decisively. After his resurrection Jesus’ followers would say that he was raised up and seated at the right hand of God. This was even after a public, painful death called crucifixion. This form of execution was used by the Romans to make an example of revolutionaries and traitors. Jesus was triumphant to his followers. The peace of Jesus is available in the Kingdom of God.

According to Jesus, this Kingdom of God was available to anyone with eyes to see and ears to hear. Everyone will have enough in this Kingdom. The peace of this kingdom is due to justice. This was a justice of abundance rather than a justice based in punishment. In the Kingdom of God, hierarchies were toppled and the lowly are raised up.

Today we are still faced by a choice between empire and a world of equals. We must face not merely raising others up to our level, but the possibility of lowering ourselves to theirs. We are told that it would take 5 earths to have everyone on Earth live at the level of Americans.[4]  We must choose between a path of peace the way of violence. To give up on empire is to embrace vulnerability. Weapons will not be the source of our peace. This peace grows from within and flourishes in justice. We still choose which procession is the axis around which our world spins. Which will you choose? I leave you with these queries.

What does it mean to you to claim Jesus as your king?

How can we embrace the peace of Jesus?

How do you live into the Kingdom of God?

[1] pg 131, “Palm Sunday,” by Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan

[2] Zechariah 9:9

[3] pg 176, “Palm Sunday”, by Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan



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