The Political World of Jesus
By Joseph Ellis
The gap between religion and the public sphere is pretty immense. That probably explains why Palm Sunday was difficult to understand growing up. In church we hear how Jesus rides triumphantly into Jerusalem on a young donkey, but then he ends up crucified a couple days later. Try as I might, I could not understand the disparity between arriving with massive celebration to ending with massive condemnation within such a short time span. The only explanation I was ever given was that Jesus went there to die for our sins, so the inference was that the folks in Jerusalem were unwittingly partaking in human sacrifice according to the hidden purposes of God. There was mention of his enemies conspiring against him, but how that all fit together just didn’t make a lot of sense.
While the New Testament writers do say his death was of spiritual and eternal magnitude, it also paints a picture of cut throat politics that we just don’t hear about in church very often. This is really ashame since our current political culture would make understanding the gospels easier, and give us a sense that our world really isn’t that different. That’s not to say anyone is about to be crucified (though by listening to the tv one might think that’s the case), but our culture of power-grabbing, back-stabbing, and vitriol is a good mirror for the days in which Jesus lived.
The gospels paint a different picture of Jesus than the serene paintings we’re use to seeing. Jesus was somebody the crowds saw as a potential military leader and king. The crowds, despite our present day interpretation of his message, thought he was going to lead them into revolution against the Roman government. Like many groups throughout history that longed for revolution and independence, they were, for the most part, young, male, enthusiastic, idealistic, with a lot of bravado. The young men currently fighting in Libya are a good comparison to those who surrounded Jesus, including his disciples. He was in a political environment that was ready to erupt, and he was quickly becoming the centerpiece.