We miss the power of Palm Sunday when we frame it as a dignified welcome for a king; the true power of the scene comes when we frame it as a drag show.
Scripture is full of different genres of literature. There’s poetry in the Psalms, wisdom quotes that could fit on a meme in Proverbs, narrative in the Gospels, history accounts in Acts, operating instructions for purity and for building a temple in Leviticus, and so many more. When we read scripture, it’s important to know what genre we are reading, so we can understand how it was originally received. We get into trouble when we give the wrong frame to a scripture passage.
The Palm Sunday scripture of Jesus entering Jerusalem is often given a typical frame: that it’s honoring Jesus as the Messiah, with everyone excited at this fulfillment of Old Testament Prophecy. In Matthew, Luke, and John, it is that…But in Mark 11, I think we miss the power of the passage when we put it in a typical frame, and the true power of the scene comes forth when we switch it to a better genre.
A few words about the historical context. Roman Governor Pontius Pilate would enter Jerusalem once a year at Passover because Passover–remembering when God delivered the Hebrew people from slavery–is when revolutionary actions happened in Jerusalem. The military needed to be there to make sure nothing got out of hand when the people were reminded anew they were an occupied people. So Pilate would come in with his magnificent army and intimidate the people to be silent.
This is the scene we read in Mark 11.
Palm Sunday: A Siege on Stage
That sounds dramatic, right? Hmm…drama…I wonder if we get closer to the historical context when we give Mark 11 the frame of a play.
- Imagine on the left side of the stage, you see the majesty of the Roman Army entering Jerusalem: Pontius Pilate on a mighty steed, armored soldiers holding weapons. To show their might, they drag an insurrectionist named Barabbas with them as a prisoner to be bartered with later. The trumpets blare, the attendants chant “A message from the king” and Pilate comes out, regal and severe. The rich sycophants in Jerusalem are close to the front, throwing down fine linens for Pilate to walk on and roses for him to crush underfoot. Pilate waits for the crowd’s enthusiastic applause.
- The middle of the stage has the gathered residents of Jerusalem, stone-faced, prodded by spears to stand in recognition, but they refuse to kneel. They see their oppressor, the governing authority who keeps the minimum wage at $7.25 an hour while downtown rent requires $22 an hour to live on. And they do not react, do not give him satisfaction.
So, those two images: the crowd and Pilate. Hold that scene for a moment.
The Show Begins
This is a theatre, remember? There’s another area on the stage. And this is where the action is.
- On the right side of the stage, entering from the East, which is more like the unglamorous loading dock of Jerusalem, you see the Disciples and Jesus. They take in the stage before them. They see the glowing majesty of the army, the sobering stillness of the people, and they start debating what to do.
When we imagine this as theatre, we have to recreate the conversation. I imagine the two Simons (Simon Peter the Rock and Simon the Zealot) arguing, the Zealot wanting to protest with weapons, and the Rock wanting to be passive and write a letter to the editor. But then someone snarks off a compromise “Let’s make our own parade that makes fun of Pilate. I see him coming in on a mighty steed, so let’s put Jesus on a tiny horse. When Pilate goes big, we go tiny!” The Disciples nod their heads and laugh. And another says “Look, they are throwing fine linens and roses in the street, let’s throw our ragged coats and grab some branches” They wanted to poke the bear, and for whatever reason, Jesus said, “OK, let’s go with it.”
Back to the text. The disciples put Jesus on the least likely military animal at all. They take off their coats and grab random branches and toss them on the street. They start to shout “Hosanna! Hosanna!” The crowd in the middle gets it. They start to laugh. They turn from Pilate and laugh at the ridiculous scene before them: the disciples worshipping a “king” on a tiny tiny horse, stepping gingerly over ragged clothes and branches. The disciples get to the next line “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Looooooord.” And the crowd goes wild, recognizing the disciples are lampooning Pilate, casting their own parade that mocks and undermines Pilate’s tightly choreographed entrance.
Satire as Protest
Framing this as a lampoon, as street theatre, is the ultimate form of non-violent protest.
- The Empire was expecting protestors or armed resistance; that’s what their spears and swords were for, not an unarmed sideshow.
- The Empire was there with a show of force to turn away a small group, but Jesus has the crowd on his side. If the whole city gets turned against Pilate, he is gonna be outnumbered quickly.
- When the disciples start chanting their last line with a bit more serious nature. “blessed is the coming dominion of our ancestor David”…Wait, what? They are saying this Jesus guy is going to defeat the empire on that tiny horse?
Putting this scene as theatre turns the meaning for us, doesn’t it? This doesn’t sound like a protest parade or a march in solidarity or a reception of a king that we often think of as Palm Sunday.
Palm Sunday wasn’t a military parade, it was a drag show, it was burlesque street theatre, mimicking and mocking the governing authorities by acting like them in flamboyant ways, like RuPaul acting out, or a jester making fun of the king. It was not a protest parade or a celebratory reception of a winning team, it was Stephen Colbert in 2006 satirizing President George W. Bush in front of the President at the National Correspondent’s Dinner. It was a pressure release valve, an outlet of satire in the midst of the horror that the week would become.
I think we lose sight of the drama of the moment when we read it as a static story instead of seeing it in motion as a drag show parody.
Unlocking the Last Line
When we imagine Palm Sunday as a drag show, we unlock the elusive meaning of the last line in Mark. A theatre framework helps make better sense of the text.
Did you read the last line in Mark? It says there that Jesus came into Jerusalem, got to the temple, and then turned around and left “because it was late.” That doesn’t make sense when you read it. It has never made sense to me!
But when you act it out like an over-the-top drag show we’re doing, we see Jesus get past the gate to the temple, and a hush falls over the crowd. They wait. Will he destroy the temple like Pilate would like to? Will he claim his rightful place as king of the Jews? Will he cleanse the temple as Judas Maccabaeus did 150 years before?
No. Jesus gets to the door, shakes it, and then shrugs his shoulders like Lucille Ball and says “I guess it is closed; we’ll try again next year” and retreats. He was playing a king on a tiny horse defeated by a simple door, and the crowd gets the final dig at Pilate, who with all his armies can’t seem to pacify Jerusalem. So amidst the shaking of the heads of the crowd, the disciples and Jesus slip out the way they had come, staying the night in Bethany outside of Jerusalem.
The whole scene in Mark, the first gospel, is so weird, so much so that other gospels remove the weird parts and make it more like the traditional frame we know. But the original story makes more sense to me if we see the drag show satire in it, a sting to it because there’s truth-telling in it by a people long despised. Understanding who Jesus was in this scene helps us see the satire of the moment that is lost when we look at it from serious, dignified viewpoints.
Good News for the Humiliadors
Marginalized perspectives use satire or humor to tell a truth that is unexpected, revealing the truth behind the empire’s facade.
Dr. William Barber III, one of the conveners of the Poor People’s Campaign for worker’s rights, reminds us that Rome had two classes of people. One group of people were called the humiliadors, the humiliated ones. The others were called the honoristeries, the honored ones. The honored ones had all the wealth and power and dynasties, flaunting and boasting on their entourages, their dress, and their education. They might have been the ones closest to Pilate when he entered Jerusalem so he could see their finery. They lived in excess while the humiliated ones, fishermen, carpenters, stone masons, and farmers and shepherds, not to mention women and children, hung out in Galilee, with very little possessions. The honored ones flaunted their power, and the humiliated ones would never, ever equal them.
So at Palm Sunday, the disciples flipped the script. The disciples put their king on a tiny horse and showed how powerlessness became powerful, how a peasant silenced royalty without firing a shot.
We see this in many cultures where marginalized people use satire, parody, and snark to speak truths that the powers don’t quite know what to do with, but certainly try to tone-police out of existence. Marginalized perspectives of all kinds use satire to speak a truth that is uncomfortable, as it is a way of telling the truth that the powers won’t get, but the powerless will.
Jesus was born a humiliador. A humiliated one. That feeling of being told you are less than is what Jesus’s family and I think even Jesus himself felt that shame growing up. But he did not let that shame possess his heart. He would not become a possession of Rome, manipulated by fear, bread, and circuses. Jesus came and told us, gathered massive crowds of humiliated ones and said your worth comes not from what the powerful think of you.
Jesus became a humiliated one, and he talked with and about the poor, but here’s the key: there are three words for poor in Greek. But the one used to describe this moral movement of Jesus is ptchos, which means “those who have been made poor by exploitive policies.” They were made poor because someone above them made them poor, robbed, stole, manipulated, and made them poor. Jesus reminded them that they can use their powerlessness to effect change.
That’s the gospel power of this story, far more than a mere welcoming of a king, but a real empowerment of the people, even if the crowd would turn against him a few days later. It doesn’t matter. The seeds were planted, and they would bloom in full time.
Jesus would often say “You have heard it said, but I say unto you…” Even today, God is continually opening our minds and hearts to something new, and it takes rethinking longtime frameworks to get to the truth of the story. May we listen to the marginalized and even if the frameworks are hard to understand, the Gospel call is true underneath them. May we continually be creative and imaginative and open-minded in our study and practice of the Christian life to see what Good News is that God is offering.
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Interesting, fascinating, and provocative! Do you have any supporting material for Rev, Dr, Barber’s assertion about the meaning of ptchos?
It’s laid out in Greek Bible commentaries: https://biblehub.com/greek/4434.htm
In the link, Thayer’s Greek Lexicon explicitly describes it as ‘reduced to beggary’ and the various meanings are connected to crouching down in fear, which sounds a lot like being oppressed.
Thank you, but I’m not quite convinced. I’m sympathetic, but I’m looking for more than something that “sounds a lot like” systemic oppression.
Janis Hunt Johnson
Rev. Jeremy Smith: Your interpretation really is provocative. I’ve been wondering about the palm branches of Palm Sunday for a good number of years, ever since I learned from my main rabbi friend and colleague David Zaslow (author of Jesus: First-Century Rabbi) that these folks could have been shaking the lulav (that is, the palm branches ~ part of a Sukkot ritual) (see https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/lulav-and-etrog-the-four-species/). Why would they do that? Since it was just about time for Passover, and Sukkot (the Festival of the Tabernacles) was later in the Jewish calendar, it seems all the more to your point: that this whole deal was a burlesque. Like the protests with the giant baby Trump balloon. Like the Emperor’s New Clothes (https://csrenewal.medium.com/come-stand-up-for-whats-right-the-emperor-has-no-clothes-5b941b888709). This is a fascinating possibility worth considering. Thank you.
Thanks for your reflection. The sermon I heard this morning picked up some (not all, no drag show references) of these themes. Grateful for the good news you share for our time.
This is a highly biased report calculated to cause church members to not vote for disaffiliation.
Why not publish comments that do no support the report of its authors?
This is just weird, so very weird. It is no wonder your church fracturing with crap like this being spewed from the pulpit.