Palm Sunday 2021
Pastoral Principle 6 ‘Pay attention to power’.
A little more than a year ago, the great powers of the world were confident. America, the No1 economy in the world, was in the midst of one of the longest rising financial markets in recent history. China, the No2 economic power, was flexing its military and economic muscle. Europe was getting ready for another high tourist season in Spring and Summer.
But then a tiny microbe came along and changed all this. Political leaders, business leaders, scientists, were all caught unprepared and confounded. Many people grew ill and died. Economies went into a tailspin. It was like being out at sea, caught off-guard by a violent storm.
So, what are we to learn from this crisis and how are we to make our way out of it? Perhaps Palm Sunday, the setting for this drama, provides some clues to answering this riddle as well as giving us opportunity to reflect on our final pastoral principle that of paying attention to power.
It is interesting that here we are, on a day that has been long known as Palm Sunday, but John is the only gospel to report that people actually brought palms. Matthew, Mark and Luke report that the crowd laid their cloaks or garments on the ground, with Matthew and Mark also saying that the crowd laid leafy branches on the road. But I guess Cloak Sunday or Garment on the Road Sunday, or Leafy Branch Sunday doesn’t have the same ring of Palm Sunday.
There is a reason that the people brought palm branches. This was not insignificant. A palm was a symbol of victory. To wave a palm was to make a statement. It was kind of like waving a flag. This was the way that one welcomed a king, welcomed a hero, welcomed a conquering general. It was a way to announce Jesus’ coming triumph.
And it was also, in a sense, a form of protest. It was political speech. You might think of it as a parade, but you could just as well think of it as a protest, a demonstration. (We have seen lots of both of these in this past 12 months too.) Instead of signs and banners, the crowd carried palms. The message wasn’t lost on anybody. Jesus had come to town, but others were also coming into town. Roman soldiers entered on horses, armed in a display of power. A conquering ruler would enter on a white stallion. Jesus? He sat on a donkey. This was a different kind of king. But the crowds welcomed him with symbols of triumph and really, a statement of defiance and resistance.
Was it triumph? Was it victory? The crowd thought so. They thought they understood. But they had no idea. The crowd actions said that Jesus was entering the city in triumph, as a king. They were sort of right. But they were also deeply wrong.
In less than a week in one of the most interesting conversations ever about power Pilate asks Jesus, “Why do you refuse to speak to me?” “Don’t you realize I have power either to free you or to crucify you?” But Jesus replied, “You would have no power over me if it were not given to you from above.”
In a sense, the whole of Holy Week and for that matter, the whole of the gospel is about power. For Rome, for Pilate, power really meant the ability to kill people. Get in the way of Rome, violate Roman law, fail to pay your taxes, and the ultimate Roman answer was violence. Throughout its vast empire, from Persia to Spain, Roman law was built on the threat of Roman swords, Roman crucifixion, Roman slavery. Just as Jesus had come into Jerusalem on a donkey, Roman soldiers had entered Jerusalem mounted on horses, Roman standards held high. It was a show of the military power and might of Rome, which was not to be challenged.
Jesus represented an entirely different kind of power, and Pilate doesn’t know what to make of it. It scares him, it threatens him, just as it threatened the Jewish religious leaders.
Pilate represented coercive power – power over. Power to threaten, power to harm, power to abuse. Power used in the service of one’s own self. In the temptation in the desert, Satan had tempted Jesus to use his power for his own purposes. But Jesus rejected that kind of power and that use of power.
Jesus did not use power over, but power alongside others, power for the sake of others. His was a power to heal, a power to build up. He uses the power of story, or parable, to teach and inspire and convict and transform. He uses social power, relational power to welcome outcasts and touch people on the margins. And so, he breaks bread with tax collectors and sinners and people of questionable reputations. He uses the power of forgiveness and the power of acceptance to change lives.
And there was a great power in knowing who he was and what he was about. Pilate, the one who would seem to have all the power, is the one who unsure, the one who is on the defensive. Pilate is backed by the power of Rome, but Jesus embodies the power of God.
Now, we can give power a bad name. Aspiring to power sounds un-Christian. But I think that is because when we think of power, we think of Pilate’s kind of power, coercive kind of power, rather than Jesus’ kind of power, relational power. To make changes in the community, you have to have power. Power is not a bad thing in and of itself. Power is the way we get things done. The fact is, we all have power, maybe more than we realize. There are bumper stickers that say, “I’m a teacher - what’s your superpower?” or “I’m a nurse – what’s your superpower?” Maybe it’s a question worth asking. “What’s your superpower?” We all have power. We all have influence, we all have capability to bring change, to make things happen to accomplish important things.
As parents, spouses, children, grandparents, aunts and uncles, friends, community members, neighbours, employees, voters, church members—every one of us has some measure of power. How do we claim that power, and how do we choose to use that power? Inequalities of power have led to abuses in the past and will continue to do so unless all who exercise pastoral care reflect continuously on the power that they hold. Power must always be acknowledged. It is a sad reflection on our society that it is not an uncommon in workplaces of all sizes that many individuals having witnessed, or experienced maltreatment have had it suggested to them that it would be better not to mention anything ‘if you want to get on.’ Those who do continue to call out inequalities or injustice are then called ‘brave’ or ‘courageous’. We need to tackle the cultural context that means that such bravery and courage is required in the first place. We need to stop trying to ‘fix the silenced’ and rather ‘fix the system’. This requires us to focus more time and resources on enabling those who are in perceived positions of power to skilfully invite those silenced to speak and then in turn to listen up themselves. It requires us to question and disrupt the very way we socially construct power at work.
Palm Sunday is a fantastic day to examine this topic. For this is ultimately what Jesus does he turn upside down perceived social constructs, he undo’s preconceived concepts of power and asks us to re-examine ourselves using God’s values not human ones.
Remember Jesus’ words to Pilate? “You would have no power if it were not given from above.” Because of our understanding that Christ calls us in humility to regard others as better than ourselves we should not exploit any perceived or real power over others. We should aim to be the sort of community where everyone seeks to serve one another in the Spirit of Christ and to respond joyfully to his call to mutual submission.
It is not right that pastoral encounters still take place without awareness of disparities of power. Matters relating to identity, sexuality, gender and relationships are deeply personal. Conversations relating to them must be carried out with utmost sensitivity to the real or perceived power that one may have over another. We need to learn to become more aware both of our own power and of our vulnerability to the perceived power of others, and to notice and call out when power is exercised inappropriately.
The Apostle Paul had a weakness, something he described as a “thorn in the flesh,” and prayed for it to be taken away. But the answer was, “My power is made perfect in weakness.” Power in weakness is a completely different kind of power than the power Pilate understood. But it is real.
In a recent papal address, Pope Francis noted that the COVID-19 crisis, “exposes our vulnerability and uncovers those false and superfluous certainties around which we have constructed our daily schedules, our project, our habits and priorities. It shows us how we have allowed to become dull and feeble the very things that nourish, sustain and strengthen our lives and our communities.”
Of course, we ought to seek prudently to minimize the damage of the coronavirus storm to lives and livelihood. But if we simply try to work our way out of it through our own cleverness, we will have failed to learn the lesson of Palm Sunday. The path to salvation is not one of self-assertion, of relying on our own greatness, but instead, through acknowledging our absolute dependence upon God. Ultimately in just 4 days’ time we will recall how Jesus was turned over to be crucified. It appeared that the powers of this world had won. But there was power found in weakness. There was power in the cross, “and by his stripes we are healed.”
How can we encourage vulnerability in our relationships and look for ways of modelling it appropriately?