By Sheri Hostetler
This is the last sermon in a Lenten series called “Capitalism: A Bible Study.” Much of this sermon draws heavily from the first chapter of Marcus J. Borg and John Dominic Crossan’s book, The Last Week: What the Gospels Really Teach About Jesus’s Final Days in Jerusalem. I have tried to note when I am quoting directly from this chapter.
In our tradition, this Sunday — called Palm Sunday — is the beginning of the holiest week of the Christian year. All over the world, followers of Jesus re-enact this Bible story we just heard. Like us, they process into sanctuaries and wave something green and shout or sing “Hosanna.” So, let’s just be clear that those processions — as well as ours — bear very little resemblance to what happened that day. I’m not saying we shouldn’t do this, but let’s be clear about what that actual procession would have been like.
First, Jesus’ procession was a procession of poor people. Jesus himself was a poor person from the poor village of Nazareth and his followers were poor people from the peasant class. Jesus directed his message about the kingdom of God mainly to this group of poor people. The peasant class of Jesus’ day was a large group that included not only agricultural laborers but the rural population as a whole. About 90% of the population at that time was rural, living on farms or in villages and small towns. This rural population was the primary producer of the society’s wealth. There was no industry back then; “manufacturing” was done by hand by artisans, who were also a part of the peasant class. So, almost all food and goods — the wealth of society — were produced by the peasant class.
But most of the wealth that came from that production — between about 1/2 to 2/3rds of it — went to the wealthy and powerful, the 10%. And the cities were the places where they 10% lived. So, there is this real class divide in Jesus’ time between the cities and the rural countryside. Except for Jerusalem, Jesus never enters a city during his ministry. Sepphoris is only four miles from Nazareth, where he grew up. And Tiberius is on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, where Jesus hung out a lot. But he’s never recorded as going into those cities. Instead, he speaks in the countryside and in the small towns like Capernaum. And the metaphors and images he uses in his parable and stories are mostly agricultural metaphors, metaphors poor people would have understood. This is because Jesus saw his message as to and for these poor people. As our youth have been telling us over and over again during Lent: Jesus is a poor person leading other poor people in a moment to change the world.
This doesn’t mean that non-poor people can’t be a part of this movement. Last Sunday, we heard the story of the rich tax collector Zaccheus, who became a part of the Jesus movement by repenting of the fraudulent way he had made his money and who made reparations by giving back money to the people whom he had defrauded.
So, first: Jesus’ procession is a procession of poor people and their allies. And, second: Jesus’ procession is heading into Jerusalem. A city! And not only a city, but the city. In fact, the whole Gospel of Mark leads up to this moment where Jesus enters Jerusalem. If this were a movie, this would be the scene where Frodo Baggins, Samwise Gamgee and their pals finally — after eight hours of movie — make it to Mordor. The whole plot of Mark has been building toward this moment when Jesus makes it to Jerusalem.
Why? What is the significance of Jerusalem?
To answer that I want to talk a bit more about the economics of Jesus’ time. Specifically, how did 1/2 to 2/3rds of what the peasant class produced go to the wealthy? At that time, there were laws in the Hebrew Scriptures that said that land could not be sold. This was to ensure that every family had its own plot of land in perpetuity and that they could always meet subsistence needs from this land. It was a way of securing economic stability for all people. But there were two main ways of getting around this Biblical law. First, the king or ruler simply confiscated land and then religiously justified it. King Herod of Jesus’ time had large holdings of royal lands that he basically took, much like the elites of this country took the land from Native Americans. And Herod gave a lot of this land to the new elites that he created by giving it to them — much like the U.S. government gave or sold at very low cost stolen lands to the white settlers.
The second way of acquiring land was sneakier — and it was through foreclosure because of debt. We talked about this. Though land could not be bought or sold, it could be used as collateral for a loan. The lenders for those loans were the large landowners, because banks didn’t exist. And if the loan couldn’t be repaid by the struggling peasant farmer, the land could be confiscated by the landowners, which their own holdings. In fact, that’s how they often got such large landholdings. Once you lost your land, your security, you had few options: you could became a day laborer, working at very low wages because you were so desperate you’d take anything; you could emigrate to a place where there was work; or you begged. Any of this sound familiar? We rub shoulders with people who have had to make that same choice today. This process of peasant displacement — of peasants losing their land to large landowners and the concurrent rise in inequality — was accelerating just before and during the time of Jesus. Though by modern Western standards peasant existence in Israel had alway been meager, it had been adequate. Now, for many it no longer was.
This economic exploitation of the poor was joined by political oppression — the rule of the many by the few — which was undergirded by Roman military power. That’s why you have this other procession coming into Jerusalem at the same time Jesus is processing in with poor people. This was the show of military might that kept the 90% in line.
And undergirding all of this was religious legitimation of this unjust system. For centuries, Israel’s religion had been a powerful source of resistance to the oppression and exploitation of the Babylonian and Assyrian empires. But by Jesus’ time, the temple had been coopted by the Roman Empire. It was now the center of local collaboration with Rome. It became the tax collector for the Empire. There were local taxes — called “tithes’’ — that amounted to over 20% of agricultural production, that were payable directly to the temple and its priesthood. This was why Zaccheus, the tax collector, was so hated by the peasants. There was also an annual “temple tax” paid by Jewish men over a certain age, among other taxes. All of which went to the temple elite.
Mark’s shorthand way of describing the Jewish elite who benefitted from economic injustice and legitimated it through their theology was “the chief priests, the elders and the scribes.” “The chief priest came from high-ranking priestly families and the elders from wealthy lay families.” (16) Many would have been from the new elites recently created by Herod when he gave them confiscated land. Most of them would have been large landowners, often absentee landlords, who ran large estates from the cities where they lived. And, as we discussed, most of these large landowners increasing their landholdings through foreclosures on debt. We know how much the temple was intertwined with this system of debt because about 30 years after Jesus’ ministry, the Jewish revolutionaries known as the Zealots successfully captured Jerusalem at the beginning of a huge uprising. “Their first acts were to replace the high priest with a new high priest chosen by lot from the peasant class and to burn the records of debt housed in the temple.” (21)
This is the Jerusalem that Jesus enters on Palm Sunday. He is a poor person leading a group of poor people, and his message was deeply critical of the temple and its role in the unjust domination system of his day. Jerusalem is the place where this unjust authority needs to be confronted.
The closest approximation in our time to this procession that I could think of was the Poor People’s March on Washington of 1968, organized by MLK and others. This is the anniversary of his march, which was happening right now, 50 years ago. The Poor People’s Campaign was made up of poor African-Americans, Native Americans, Mexican Americans, Puerto Ricans, poor whites and others. They went to Washington DC — to the seat of power — and demanded economic and human rights. After presenting an organized set of demands to Congress and executive agencies, participants set up a 3,000-person protest camp on the Washington Mall, where they stayed for six weeks in the spring of 1968. (From Wikipedia)
Like Jesus and his poor peoples campaign, King wanted to bring poor people to Washington, D.C. to force politicians to see them and think about their needs: “We ought to come in mule carts, in old trucks, any kind of transportation people can get their hands on. People ought to come to Washington, sit down if necessary in the middle of the street and say, ‘We are here; we are poor; we don’t have any money; you have made us this way…and we’ve come to stay until you do something about it.’”
If we want to follow Jesus, we need to follow the lead of poor and vulnerable people today who are demanding economic justice and human rights. And we need to follow them into the places of power, where decisions are made that impact their lives — and we need to ask those in power to do something about this injustice.
And we are doing this. Just one example: Recently, Joanna and Pat attended an action organized by Faith in Action, a local group that organizes people of faith to fight for justice. In this case, clergy were asked to show up at a meeting at San Francisco City Hall where families affected by police violence in SF were going to speak to the Mayor and the Supervisors about their experience with the police. This was part of an effort to ask the Mayor and the Supervisors to not approve the new police offers contact unless significant reforms aimed at stopping police violence were included in it.
This is what Pat said about her experience there: “Joanna and I led one song. We stood witness to the pain of the families. We sang songs with others, and prayed. I learned more about the POA and the stranglehold they seem to have on our city. I was impressed with the (relatively) new police chief. I was impressed with Supervisor Malia Cohen, who represents Bayview Hunters Point and who was running the hearing. I was impressed with Joanna, who spoke in the hearing eloquently and directly – truth to power. As we were leaving I told Joanna that places like City Hall seem designed to make us feel small. Like the power belongs to the ‘big and impressive people’ who work there. For me, among other things, this was an exercise in claiming City Hall as public space, which belongs to those of us who live in this simultaneously beautiful and broken city. Public space where we can ask for what we want – both in the hearings and through prayer and song and storytelling in the halls. I’ll be going back.”
See, I don’t mind our “fake” procession here this morning so long as we are doing the real thing outside of these walls. If we are on the real streets, marching and shouting and singing in movements led by poor and vulnerable people — like the marches across the country yesterday, led by students against gun violence. I don’t mind our “fake” procession so long as we are showing up in the places of power where decisions are being made about the lives of poor and other vulnerable people and demanding that those in power do the right thing.
May we become ever more faithful followers of the poor man Jesus, who was teaching other poor people and who were together creating a movement to change the world called the “kingdom of God.” Amen.