Even the Stones Cry Out by Rev. Lauren Wright Pittman Inspired by Luke 19:28-40| Digital painting with photo collage
Come with me to ancient Jerusalem, the year 33. The city is the center of Jewish culture and religion, but this is not the city of the Temple of Solomon. It hasn’t been independent in close to 600 years, Ruled by Babylonians, Persians, Greeks, and Romans, and wouldn’t be again for another 1900, after rule by the Caliphate, the Crusaders, the Ottomans, and finally, the British.
It’s the Friday before Passover and the city is as busy as it ever is. Then as now one of the major Jewish Holidays, Jews from the surrounding province of Palestine are flooding into the city and space is tight. They need to be there as there is a religious duty to perform certain sacrifices that can only be done at the temple.
The political life of the city is complex. The temple authorities, with a chief priest and a religious court called the Sanhedrin exercise a great deal of moral and religious power, but have no armies. There is a vassal Jewish state, led by King Herod, but it mostly serves as a screen for the true power, the Roman with their famous legions.
Scholars tell us that Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, riding a colt or a donkey depending on the gospel or translation, was one of two major processions in Jerusalem.
The one that would have probably attracted the most attention was at the other end of the city, featuring the Roman governor Pontius Pilate and the famed legions.
In Jerusalem, the legions that marched through the city would have included noble born equites riding warhorses, the giant crossbow ballistae siege engines that could fire a three foot long projectile five football fields away, and of course, the terrifying Roman Legions, well trained and versatile light infantry, armed with javelins and swords.
This is all worth noting not because I find Roman military history exciting- I was a history major, but because their presence there would have been a show of power, much in the same way that authoritarian regimes today show off their tanks, missiles and other military hardware to remind their people and the world exactly how good they are at applying that pressure.
The contrast with Jesus could not have been clearer. There are two choices; the path of power for its own sake, the path of domination, of violence, or the path of cooperation, peace, justice and mercy. Jesus enters the city not on a specially trained warhorse, but a borrowed colt. His disciples proclaim his power not with spears and catapults, but with songs and palms.
Jesus’ way is popular with the masses. There is a reason that the authorities were forced to arrest him in secret under the cover of darkness. Most of the scenes about mob violence are about a mob of religious and political elites, not working people. Most of the violence perpetrated against Jesus is at the hands of Roman soldiers and other agents of the state, not the ordinary Jewish people of Jerusalem. That we have lost sight of this has had disastrous consequences on history.
Unfortunately, we must acknowledge there is a terrible Christian history of anti-semitism that was often sent into overdrive during Holy Week as a result of things like Passion plays, which led directly to persecution of Jewish communities and people. This was and is wrong and unacceptable; not only on its own merits, but also because it diverts us from Jesus’ path of peace.
That path of peace is often a popular one. In my experience, most people actually want to cooperate and work together. Sure, we might like a little bit of competition and fun, but we also like coming together over a project, we like cooperation, we like building thing together.
Thus, Jesus represented a direct and serious threat to the Roman rule and especially the power structure of the Roman Empire. Roman power structures looked like a pyramid, with the emperor on top, patrician families with vast wealth underneath, and then the vast multitude of people, free and slave, who were bound to those elites through bonds of servitude and obligation.
Jesus subverted that pyramid structure. Yes, Jesus was the Lord- is Lord, but that means two things: if Jesus is Lord, than no one else can truly claim to be so unless they also claim to be Jesus, which is a huge red flag, and that the way Jesus applied his power, in humility, and in solidarity, is something to be emulated.
We see a practical application of how this path of peace plays out at the end of our gospel reading; some Pharisees ask Jesus to keep quiet, to not make so much noise, to be respectful, that this was not the time or the place, to not cause a scene, to do things the right way, that they disagree not with his cause but with his tactics. If any of those phrases sound familiar, it’s because they’ve never stopped being used. From the civil rights movements to pride marches, taking a knee to a fist held high on a podium, people on the path of peace have always been told to be silent. Yet Jesus reminds us that the voices of people seeking the path of peace throughout history, from Birmingham to Tiananmen, and from Minneapolis to Moscow, cannot be silenced because even the stones would shout out.
Sometimes I ask us to picture us in the Bible story; where would we be? Would we be members of the crowd, curious as to what was going on, but not quite sure? Would we be part of that fraction of the Pharisees who are trying to silence Jesus and his followers? Or would we be the disciples, getting things ready for Jesus, getting his colt and placing him on it, singing songs of freedom and proving to the world that another way was possible?
Where will you be? Because even when the people are silenced, even the stones will cry out.