LOOKING AROUND AT EVERYTHING
Rev. Dr. Joyce Antila Phipps
Old First Church, Middletown, NJ
April 5, 2020
Texts: Zechariah 9: 9–13; Mark 11:1–11
“Passover is approaching. It’s the worst time of the year,’ Lucius thought. “The commander has just cancelled all nonessential leave and now you’re stuck in this miserable outpost that doesn’t even deserve to be part of the Roman Empire. Combat’s a bit more personal, shall we say. No IEDs, but the Sicari are everywhere with their knives – just waiting for the right time. You wonder: why is it that we are here? Oh yes, the trade routes to the East. And, of course, there’s the glory of Rome.”
Looking around, he continued mumbling to himself. “These people make no sense. We come to bring them – aqueducts, yes, clean water by first century standards. No Poland Spring bottles here. And they are so ungrateful. We only came into this mess for their own good, you know. Oh, who’s that?”
“Marcellus!” he shouted. “You should be more careful. I almost cut you in half! Hey! Marcellus, go and tell the captain that there’s something strange going on here. Some crazy Jew on a colt, but I smell trouble. Look at those people shouting at him. What on earth are they doing? Call the captain!” And Lucius ran off to get reinforcements.
The Roman authorities knew that the approach from the Mount of Olives was the same one that Judas Maccabeus had taken when he entered Jerusalem almost two hundred years before. The religious leadership knew that it was the same way foretold by Zechariah when God would restore Israel to her former glory. The gate by which Jesus entered the city was no accident. Everyone was prepared for the worst.
“By Jupiter! What are we supposed to do now? Look at those kids! We just can’t rush in swinging our swords. Where is the captain, anyhow? Probably talking to some idiot about the strategy we need to have to hold this city. Half the population hates us and the other half hopes we get killed. Can you explain again why we’re actually here?
“No, I’m not being disloyal or anything like that but get real – we’ll never hold this city like it oughta be held. What can we do? We’re just the foot soldiers for this bloody empire. What will my wife and kids do if I’m killed? Or worse, maimed?
“I don’t think Caesar cares, do you? So, who’s going to take care of them? Hey, I’m not disloyal, but I’m really worried about this guy on the donkey – well, it’s not really a donkey. It’s even less than a colt. I mean, look at him, his feet are dragging on the ground.”
They were the dregs of the Empire. Many Roman soldiers weren’t even Roman citizens – their legal status a bit more like the green card holders who sign up for our own armed forces. They were in charge of keeping order in the worst part of Rome’s vast interests. The Emperor had trouble justifying the expense in lives and funds. The Senate was always asking if there wasn’t another route to the silk producing East. Why don’t we just let them kill each other and pass to the north, they would ask.
The Emperor would always justify the occupation as essential to the interests of the Empire, and it was very difficult to be both patriotic and to criticize what the Emperor saw as essential to the maintenance of the Empire. After all, when you compared the expense in treasury and in lives, they seemed inconsequential in relation to the interests of the Empire.
“Why don’t these stupid people speak a language we can understand? How can we question them, know what’s going on if we can’t even understand them? What are they shouting? I can’t quite make it out. “Hey-sanna? Hosanna?” What’s that supposed to mean? Looks harmless enough but with these people you can’t be sure. How do we know there aren’t Sicari in there? I say we go in and take care of them, once and for all. But just think a minute! You want to start a revolution? Going in and killing those kids would be a one way ticket to doing that. Just calm down.”
The soldiers watched uneasily as the children and their parents waved the palm branches. Then the procession stopped and the man got off the animal that was obviously too small for him to really ride. “Now, what’s happening?” they thought. The man began walking toward the temple. “Hey, Marcellus, don’t go near that place. We can’t go in there.”
“Yeah? I gotta see what happens next.” The man was silently looking around. He didn’t hold his hands up to heaven. He didn’t beat his breasts like he had seen many of the Jews do, the ones considered so pious. He was just quietly looking around. What was he thinking, Marcellus wondered. Strange guy. Didn’t look like some of the others he’d seen coming through. What’s going on? The man turned and looked at him and Marcellus felt a cold chill run through his spine. He knew he didn’t belong there and now he had been spotted. He swallowed hard, not knowing what to expect. But the man seemed to almost look right past him. He walked toward him, looked around. What was he looking for?
What runs through our minds when we stand in the center of the illusion of power and authority? The temple leaders acted as if they had authority but they knew in reality that they had none. Having compromised with Rome, they carved out areas of their power, selling their souls in the process. They had told themselves that they had made a deal to protect the integrity of the temple, but they had really made a deal to protect themselves.
This man silently wandering about the temple was a threat to them, a threat to their illusion of power. He wasn’t like the Sicari who hunted and were hunted by the Romans, ending up dead in the process. He wasn’t like the religious fanatics who invariably also ended up dead or in the desert where no one listened to them.
His challenge was a different one and far more threatening to them. He challenged their compromise with Roman power, with corruption. He challenged them to face what they had become. They needed him out of the way. But he just silently walked through the temple, looked around at everything and then left.
No one got the point of the day, not the Roman soldiers who watched uneasily, certainly not the temple leaders. The cleansing promised by Zechariah was not to be accomplished by violence or by compromise, but by the hand of righteous-ness on the day that there would be neither cold or frost, night or dark, the day of living waters when the Lord would become king of the earth and God’s name would be One.
On that day justice and peace will reign. Jesus looked around at everything, knowing that indeed God’s kingdom of peace and justice would triumph – even over death. Then, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve. Amen.