Entering the Kingdom of Heaven
Isaiah 43.18-19 (CEB)
Don’t remember the prior things; don’t ponder ancient history.
Look! I’m doing a new thing; now it sprouts up; don’t you recognize it?
I’m making a way in the desert, paths in the wilderness.
Open the gates of righteousness for me so I can come in and give thanks to the Lord!
This is the Lord’s gate; those who are righteous enter through it.
On Palm Sunday most Christian churches tell the story of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem for Passover. Usually, going to Jerusalem for this High Holy Day wouldn’t be significant. Jesus would have gone to Jerusalem for Passover many times, perhaps even every year of his 30 or so spent in this spacetime.
This year, however, Jesus is popular among the masses, and the Romans are already on edge because there have been sporadic Jewish rebellions all over the Judean territory. So, the Romans decide to put on a military parade, no different from those of contemporary despotic regimes but for advances in technology. These parades are designed to intimidate, to remind people of the might of their overlord. Rome wanted to make sure anyone planning a surreptitious revolt in the name of their Lord Jesus—a genuine possibility—understood the consequences of their actions.
The Palm Sunday sequence (Luke 19.28-40) is one of the most blatantly political stories in the Bible. It forces us to focus on the contrast between Jesus’ message of peace through God’s ruling love and the Empire’s Pax Romana,rule by intimidation. It is a contrast Jesus wants us to notice. That’s why he rides a borrowed donkey through the serviceentrance into Jerusalem while the governor rides in on a War Elephant followed by a legion of blaring trumpets, another of drummers, and finally several legions of armed soldiers.
The Empire enters Jerusalem, which Jews like Jesus considered God’s holiest place on Earth, with noise, pomp, and weapons of mass destruction. The Empire wants to show us who’s the boss. Jesus enters through the service entrance. Humble. He also wants to show us who’s the boss, but points beyond himself, to God.
I love the political aspect of the Palm Sunday story, but the politics are only there because of Jesus’ deeply spiritual understanding of both rulers and the rule of law. Jesus is a fanatic about his people’s covenant with God. If we focus on what Jesus is reported to have said, it becomes apparent he has a singular vision for the people of Earth: The Kingdom of Heaven.
Jesus reminds us that our entire existence is to be in service to God, not empire of any sort. This means God is the ruler of everything we see. For example, since the land and everything it produces is God’s, we have no right to hoard any of it. In fact, Jesus says, recalling the prophets that came before him, we have a duty to make sure the entire community is healthy and nourished, physically and spiritually. That’s the different realityJesus sees—one that harkens back to an ancient Jewish value of wealth redistribution—something we call “socialist” today, but an idea that is as Jesus—and as Jewish—as it gets.
The Jerusalem gate through which Jesus enters is ancient, a symbol of Jesus’ call to return to the earlier ideal of God as our one and only sovereign, our king, our President, our Prime Minister, our Comrade Number One. Jesus, the perfect manifestation of Universal Love, calls on his followers to also value communal wellness over individual power. Where Pilate and the Roman contingent demand adoration by creating a ludicrous, earth-shaking spectacle, Jesus instead redirects his adoring throngs to God.
Jesus entering Jerusalem is a powerful metaphor about the instantiation of the Kingdom of Heaven, Jesus’ vision of a world ruled by the power of love instead of the love of power. He invites us to follow him through the service entrance into a world in which every member of the tribe is responsible for the well-being of the others. And we’re all members of God’s tribe, without exception. One God, one world, one people, in all our glorious diversity.
Jesus sees beyond the veil of Pax Romanainto a new world government that can be reached without firing a single gunshot. And he challenges us to follow him, to take the alternate entrance, to proclaim the different worldview, to resist the empire in its barely-veiled modern forms, to humbly serve our fellow human beings.
The great psychologist and philosopher William James once wrote, “The world we see that seems so insane is the result of a belief system that is not working. To perceive the world differently, we must be willing to change our belief system, let the past slip away, expand our sense of now, and dissolve the fear in our minds.”
That’s good advice. For millennia Christians have believed in a perverted form of Jesus’ teachings that exalts the power of Popes and Bishops over the power of the people. Most denominational churches tow the corporate line, just as the Jewish leadership in Jerusalem 2000 years ago towed the Roman line.
Jesus has another idea and urges us to follow him through the unremarkable door that allows us to perceive differently God doing something new—in the world, and in our Christian faith. Even better, Jesus says, our new perception compels us to be God doing something new.
May God make it so.