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The Clown King

For Sunday March 29, 2015
Palm Sunday

Lectionary Readings (Revised Common Lectionary, Year B)


Mark 11: 1–11

Psalm 118: 1–2, 19–29

By Debie Thomas

           I've never heard a sermon about Jesus' sense of humor.  If I were to construct a personality profile, based on everything the Church has taught me about Jesus, I'd use words like zealous, compassionate, somber, and gentle.  Given the fact that crowds flocked to him so easily, I'd probably throw in a word like "charismatic."  But comedic?  Ironic?  Sarcastic?  No.  The Jesus I was raised on was far too serious a man to bother with any incarnation of humor.

           This week, we prepare for Palm Sunday — the last Sunday of Lent, and our gateway into the trials and triumphs of Holy Week.  If your religious history looks anything like mine, you know the routine.  You know how to make neat little crosses out of palm branches.  You know how to walk in an orderly procession, the lofty verses of "All Glory, Laud, and Honor," falling from your lips.  You know how to cry, "Hosanna!" to your humble but triumphant king. 

Triumphal Entry: 14th Century Icon.
Triumphal Entry: 14th Century Icon.

           When I was little, Palm Sundays had a cheery warmth about them.  I'd feel quite happy when I waved my palm branches down the center aisle of my church sanctuary.  Happy to know that after years of obscurity, ridicule, and caution, Jesus enjoyed a fleeting but heartfelt outpouring of praise from his followers.  Happy that the Messiah caught a glimpse of the adoration which is his birthright.

           If someone had told me back then that the Triumphal Entry was a joke, and that the comedian was Jesus, I would have been offended.  In fact, I think I'm offended now.

           According to New Testamant scholars Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan, the Triumphal Entry was not a spontaneous event. Jesus was not the passive recipient of impromptu adoration.  Though worship might have happened, it was not the point. 

           Rather, Jesus' parade-by-donkey was a staged joke.  It was an act of political theater, an anti-imperial demonstration designed to mock the obscene pomp and circumstance of Rome.

           In their compelling book, The Last Week: What the Gospels Really Teach About Jesus' Last Days in Jerusalem, Borg and Crossan argue that two processions entered Jerusalem on that first Palm Sunday; Jesus' was not the only Triumphal Entry. 

           Every year, the Roman governor of Judea would ride up to Jerusalem from his coastal residence in the west.  Why?  To be present in the city for Passover — the Jewish festival that swelled Jerusalem's population from its usual 50,000 to at least 200,000.

           The governor would come in all of his imperial majesty to remind the Jewish pilgrims that Rome was in charge.  They could commemorate an ancient victory against Egypt if they wanted to.  But real, present-day resistance (if anyone was daring to consider it) was futile. 

           Here is Borg and Crossan's description of Pontius Pilate's imperial procession:  "A visual panoply of imperial power: cavalry on horses, foot solders, leather armor, helmets, weapons, banners, golden eagles mounted on poles, sun glinting on metal and gold.  Sounds: the marching of feet, the creaking of leather, the clinking of bridles, the beating of drums.  The swirling of dust.  The eyes of the silent onlookers, some curious, some awed, some resentful." 

Entry into Jerusalem: Icon from Afon.
Entry into Jerusalem: Icon from Afon.

           It's important to remember that according to Roman imperial belief, the emperor was not simply the ruler of Rome; he was the Son of God.  For the empire's Jewish subjects, Pilate's procession signalled more than a military threat.  It was the embodiment of a rival theology.  Heresy on horseback.

           This is the background, Borg and Crossan argue, against which we need to frame the Triumphal Entry of Jesus.  That Jesus planned a counter-procession is clear from St. Mark's account of the event.  Jesus knew he was going to enter the city on the back of a donkey;  he had already made arrangements to procure one.    

           As Pilate clanged and crashed his imperial way into Jerusalem from the west, Jesus approached from the east, looking (by contrast) ragtag and absurd.  His was the procession of the ridiculous, the powerless, the explicitly vulnerable.  As Borg and Crossan remark, "What we often call the triumphal entry was actually an anti-imperial, anti-triumphal one, a deliberate lampoon of the conquering emperor entering a city on horseback through gates opened in abject submission."

           Elsewhere, Crossan notes that Jesus rode "the most unthreatening, most un-military mount imaginable: a female nursing donkey with her little colt trotting along beside her."

           In fact, Jesus was drawing on the rich, prophetic symbolism of the Jewish Bible in his choice of mount.  The prophet Zechariah predicted the ride of a king "on a colt, the foal of a donkey."  He would be the nonviolent king who'd "command peace to the nations."

           I have no idea — and the Gospel writers don't tell us — whether anyone in the crowd that day understood what Jesus was doing.  Did they get the joke?  Did they catch the subversive nature of their king's donkey ride?  Jesus chose an animal that had never been ridden before.  Was he telling them that his kingship, his Way, was a new and uncharted one?  A risky one?  Did they hear him?

           I suspect they did not.  After all, they were not interested in theater; they were ripe for revolution.  They wanted — and expected — something world-altering.  An ending-to-the-story worthy of their worship, their fervor, their dusty cloaks-on-the-road.

           What they got instead was a parade of misfits.  A comic donkey-ride.  A dangerous joke.  As New Testament scholar N.T Wright puts it, what they got was a mismatch between their outsized expectations and God's small answer.

           Which raises an interesting question.  What did Jesus accomplish on Palm Sunday?  Did a Roman officer from the "real" procession trot over to check out the disturbance in the east?  If so, what did he make of the Clown King?  Did he turn his stallion around fast to whisper something ominous in Pilate's ear?

Entry into Jerusalem, circa 1400.
Entry into Jerusalem, circa 1400.

           I don't think it would be an exaggeration to say that Jesus' political joke hastened his crucifixion.  He was no fool; he knew exactly what it would cost him to spit in Rome's face.  Like all good comedians, he understood that real humor is in fact a very serious business; at its best, it does more than entertain.  It points unflinchingly at truth — the kinds of truth we'd rather not see.  The kinds of truth we'll kill not to see. 

           For those of us who struggle to reconcile the role of God's will in the death of Jesus, this story offers a helpful but troubling clue: it was the will of God that Jesus declare the coming of God's kingdom.  A kingdom of peace, a kingdom of justice, a kingdom of radical and universal freedom.  A kingdom dramatically unlike the oppressive empire Jesus challenged on Palm Sunday.

           So why did Jesus die?  He died because he unflinchingly fulfilled the will of God.  He died because he exposed the ungracious sham at the heart of all human kingdoms, holding up a mirror that shocked his contemporaries at the deepest levels of their imaginations.  Even when he knew that his vocation would cost him his life, he set his face "like flint" towards Jerusalem.  Even when he knew who'd get the last laugh at Calvary, he mounted a donkey and took Rome for a ride.

           Two processions.  Two kingdoms.  Two parades into Jerusalem.  Stallion or donkey?  Armor or humor?  Emperor or clown?  Which will I choose?

           I think I'm offended because I'd rather make pretty palm crosses and sing "Hosanna."  I'm offended because the real choices are much harder than I thought they'd be.  The joke is over; Jesus' choice cost him everything.  I dare not join his parade too casually.

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