The Triumphal Irony

When you look a little closer, things aren’t always what they seem.

When you look a little closer, things aren’t always what they seem.

This is not how it’s supposed to be.  The crowd cheers his arrival. Just wait a week.  Another crowd cheers his death. He sees a beautiful fig tree in the distance.  But take a closer look. There’s no fruit. Take a look at the Temple bustling with activity.  But take a closer look. There’s no fruit. “The Messiah” literally means “the anointed one,” but it’s a woman, not the high priest, who breaks the jar of costly oil over Jesus’ head.  He is proclaimed as the Son of God, not by the high priest, but by a Gentile, and a Roman centurion at that. And all the while those closest to him, the disciples, are constantly sent on errands, displaying by their words and actions that they have no idea what they are doing.  This is not how it’s supposed to be.

But that’s how it was.  That’s how Mark’s Gospel tells the story of Jesus’ final week, beginning with the Triumphal Entry in chapter 11.  What follows is what we call Holy Week. A story rife with drama and the unexpected. A story of Jesus turning everything upside down.  There’s nothing normal about it. Yet we have grown so used to it that its weight has become lost on us. We miss it because we’re so familiar with it.  Looks like we need a little defamiliarization just to see it again for what it is.

Conquerors entered the city triumphantly, after a big victory.  They had an escort, music, symbolic elements, and the whole thing culminated in sacrifice.  In 332 BC, Alexander the Great, according to Josephus, enters Jerusalem like this: “Then all the Jews together greeted Alexander with one voice and surrounded him . . . [then] he gave his hand to the high priest and with the Jews running beside him, entered the city. Then he went up to the temple where he sacrificed to God under the direction of the high priest.” (Josephus, Ant. 11.332–36 [trans. Ralph Marcus; LCL; Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 1937], 475, 477.)  Likewise, when Mark Antony enters Ephesus in 41 BC, you could see “women arrayed like Baccanals, and men and boys like satyrs and Pans, led the way before him, and the city was full of ivy and thyrsus-wands and harps and pipes and flutes, the people hailing him as Dionysus Giver of Joy and Beneficent. For he was such undoubtedly, to some.” (Plutarch, Antonius, 24.3–4 [trans. Bernadotte Perrin; LCL; Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 1920], 187–89.

Now enters Jesus.   It’s a little different.  He enters now even though his victory hasn’t been won yet.  There’s the colt, the psalms, the branches, the cloaks thrown on the road, all echoes of scripture (Zech 9:9, 2 Kgs 9:13).  He hadn’t won this city. He was judging it. Jesus was not the nationalistic ruler some were looking for, and I pray the irony is not lost on us.  This is the Messiah we get, not the Messiah we expected−one “who triumphed not by killing but by dying” (Culpepper Mark Smyth & Helwys, 2007, 367).  

So who are we in the story?  The religious leaders being judged?  The money-changers making a profit off of ritual religion?  The ones cheering in the street, not quite sure what’s going on but caught up in the excitement nonetheless?  Those going about their business not taking notice of this landmark occasion? I hope we’re the disciples. I hope Jesus has sent us to prepare something, and I hope that we go do it even if we’re not sure why.  

So what are you doing to get ready?