A Progressive Christian reflection on Popularity, Palm Sunday, and Temptation
It’s impossible, two millennia later, to separate the man from the mythos. And that’s okay. As we’ve discussed before, our faith is based on mythos, not on history, no matter what literalists and atheists try to say to the contrary. But there are still times when it would be so much easier if we could just read our sacred texts as if they were a newspaper account of a rally in Times Square.
Never is that truer than at Easter.
For most churches, this will be Palm Sunday. That’s the episode, recounted in all four Gospels, when Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey while adoring followers strewed palm branches and clothes on the road to carpet his path.
So for today, let’s set aside the challenge of understanding the Crucifixion, the Resurrection, and the question of what divinity means. And let’s not worry about the inconvenient reality that none of the accounts we have are “history.” They are true in the context of our faith. That’s enough.
Let’s look instead at the story of a man. This man has spent the last three years or so establishing himself, building up a following. He’s been very successful. In fact, he’s a bit of a rock star. A “Jesus Christ Superstar” if you don’t mind my borrowing from another time.
And like all good rock stars, he’s also a rebel.
He doesn’t follow the status quo. He’s scathing in his criticism of the Establishment. He’s disruptive; a rabble-rouser. He’s Alice Cooper, the Rolling Stones, and Lady Gaga rolled into one.
Or taken in terms of social and economic issues, he represents his generation’s 99%, who see the 1% – the priests, the money-changers, the Romans- as their oppressors.
The people eat it up.
Earlier in his career, we’re told that Satan tempted him. I can almost hear the Marlon Brando “Godfather” accent here. Accept me, says the bad guy – accept that what matters most is money, and power, and material things – and I’ll make you king of the world. Jesus declined.
But the passage says that Satan went away to wait for a better opportunity.
What better time could there be than this?
The man Jesus is at the top of the heap. He’s treated more royally than royalty. He’s idolized. When the priests tell him he should rein in his fans, he tells them that if the people can’t scream and shout, the very stones of the road will. When they’re looking for a suitable ride for him, he tells the disciples to go carjack a donkey. If anyone asks what they’re doing, “just tell ‘em I need it.” Could Mick Jagger be any more arrogant?
Maybe the whole “rule the world” thing isn’t such a bad gig after all. As Mel Brooks says in History of the World “Sometimes it’s good to be the king.”
Jesus only had to give the word and all those followers would take up arms and start a riot. It seems like maybe he almost does. At the end of his procession into town, he goes to the Temple. He upsets the booths of the money-changers whose exchange rates meant that anyone coming to the synagogue got gouged worse than we do paying two dollars to withdraw twenty bucks from an ATM.
The crowds probably cheered. The corporate moguls and the priests who benefitted from their cut of the take didn’t.
But Jesus didn’t follow up. He didn’t start an insurgency. He didn’t denounce Rome. He didn’t call on his entourage to get everyone together and loot the Temple.
In other words, he didn’t act at all like the Messiah that the Israelites were looking for.
Or like the “king of the world” that Satan had hoped for.
He just … taught.
But I bet he was tempted.