Who welcomed Jesus? Luke 19:28-40 The same single identical plot in three different stories– Czechoslovakia, Russia, Biblical Jerusalem.
I. You have heard of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse in the Book of Revelation. The four horses represent scourges of the ancient world—famine, disease, war and death. The fifth horseman, not in the Bible and equally terrifying, is fear. Such is the import of a great Czech movie of 1965 entitled, The Fifth Horseman is Fear. It tells the story of a Jewish doctor in Prague during the Nazi occupation. In the Nazi era of surveillance, people were urged to report antigovernment sentiment or activity—to report on each other, that is. The central surveillance phone number was posted ubiquitously on public walls. Unfortunately, Dr. Braun, our doctor, lives in an old apartment building with a central spiral staircase from which people see each other come and go daily. The building has the variety of occupants you would expect and they have little to do with each other except to complain about each other’s noise or pets or the like.
The occupation has made everyone tense, but it doesn’t occur to them that they are being surveilled until one day the intelligence police arrive and inspect every apartment and grill the residents. They leave without any arrests, but that sets up intense mutual suspicions amongst the residents. The doctor has illegally helped a man with a gunshot wound, and he becomes the focus of a subsequent search. In the meantime, the anxieties of the residents set them against each other and even within their separate households. From beginning to end, the movie conveys the universal apprehensiveness of life under these circumstances. The social fabric has broken down, exactly as intended. Without a single overt reference to the Holocaust, except for one industrial smokestack visible through a bedroom window, the movie nevertheless evokes the pervasive infection of an entire society because of the fear of being reported. The government mantra is, “The longer the war lasts the greater is our faith in the final victory." And people are supposed to believe that and have their fears assuaged.
II. Such is precisely the same experience now taking over in Russia. While Russia proceeds to bomb, maim and kill civilians during their criminally berserk invasion of Ukraine, the citizenry back home is becoming restive. Without access to reliable information about the war, yet picking up stray reports through social media, enough people are starting to react that the Kremlin has ordered arrests with punishments in excess even of the Stalin era. The NYTimes reported yesterday about different school teachers, for instance, who had been involved in conversations with their students about the war in Ukraine, then being visited by investigators who questioned their loyalty. A headline yesterday read, “Russians Turn on One Another Over the War. Citizens are denouncing one another, illustrating how the war is feeding paranoia and polarization in Russian society. It’s an eerie echo of Stalin’s terror, spurred on by vicious official rhetoric from the state and enabled by far-reaching new laws that criminalize dissent.” The story goes on to say, “In the Soviet logic, those who choose not to report their fellow citizens could be viewed as being suspect themselves. In these conditions, fear is settling into people again,” said Nikita Petrov, a leading scholar of the Soviet secret police. “And that fear dictates that you report.” Of the four horsemen of the Apocalypse, the fifth one is fear.
An historic example from Russia is Alexander Solzhenitsyn who was actually serving in the army when he was tagged for a stray “unpatriotic” remark and sent to the Gulag in 1945. But surveillance and reporting went on in the Bolshevik era too, as described by Boris Pasternak in his novel Doctor Zhivago. Pasternak himself was investigated and held in suspicion, to the extent that he was not permitted to go to Oslo to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1958. And still earlier, under Czar Nicholas I, Dostoevsky himself was arrested in 1849 when he was not quite 30 years old, imprisoned and brought before a firing squad, although he was reprieved at the very last minute and sent to Siberia for four years followed by six years of obligatory military service in exile.
Totalitarian governments control through surveillance and the fear of being reported. Of the four horsemen of the Apocalypse, the fifth one is fear.
III. In Roman occupied Jerusalem during the reign of Emperor Tiberius, Israelites lived in the equivalent of a police state, with all the threats of violence, imprisonment, and summary execution that we would easily recognize from our own history. There had been popular uprisings before Jesus’ time, to the extent that he was himself suspected as one of the self-described Zealots. Now entering Jerusalem with his reputation going before him, the entry into Jerusalem that we celebrate today is the equivalent of infiltrating enemy lines, only he did so openly. There had already been much open conflict between Jesus and religious authorities. His popularity was seen by them as dissidence. And his forerunner, John the Baptist, had already been imprisoned and executed, making Jesus’ arrival particularly provocative.
When Jesus entered the city, on a donkey as the scriptures report, Who welcomed him? It was his own disciples, according to Luke, and crowds, according to Matthew who says they “went wild with excitement.” At first, they hailed him as the Son of David, a royal designation the Roman royalty would have noticed. But next Jesus is called only “the prophet Jesus from Galilee,” perhaps meaning “of whom you have heard so much.”
You only have to ask yourself, for whom would Jesus’ message correlate with the need? For whom would his answers correlate to their questions? For whom would his presence in the streets, at table with them, in their homes correlate with their hunger? His parables were filled with owners and employers—for whom would those words about fairness and fair play resonate? When Jesus spoke about wealth and wages, who would likely welcome his entrance into Jerusalem? Didn’t he say it was harder for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven than for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle? Were there any of the wealthy class at the gates of Jerusalem to welcome him?
As Jesus passes the gates, whatever festivity and hilarity may have accompanied him, he comes soon to the Temple itself where his contention with all the authorities heats up.
From this point forward, public association with Jesus would have been dangerous.
We hear little more of the disciples until the Upper Room.
Who welcomed Jesus? The disciples, for a while yes, except obviously for Judas. Early on, the investigative agents had their informants out, and it only took some money, not a lot, to buy one man’s soul and cast another man in chains. Judas had complained the night before that the expensive spikenard used by a woman to anoint Jesus’ feet was wasteful.
But the next day he accepts something of significantly less value for his own base purposes—thirty lousy pieces of silver. Money played its traditional role.
Of the four horsemen of the Apocalypse, fear is the fifth. Given the reputation of the Roman forces, Judas was certainly not alone in fearing the outcome of Jesus entering the city. Peter did, too, of course, and he ultimately denies him in the end. But right off the bat, the promise of wealth cracked whatever loyalty Judas had to Jesus. Certainly, you have to assume, the authorities had much more money than that to offer. But Judas lived at a subsistence level, and they knew this fearful man’s information could be bought for peanuts. It seems Jesus was undone not by the wealthy but by someone who wanted to be wealthy, or just to feel wealthy. Or did he just want the money for the poor, taking it from the very people who lorded it over the poor?
IV. There is a fourth story, ours in America today.
Judas woke up to his folly and tried to return the money. But he was scorned. The blood money could never be used again, it was so debased and degraded. The thirty pieces of silver were used to buy a potter’s field in which to bury Judas. So this festive occasion today is an ambiguous one—because of what awaited Jesus as he entered the capitol of a police state. But also because we celebrate this day in a world brimming with totalitarian rulers who rule by fear.
Would we welcome this man into our city? Do we welcome his example? After all, we know how much blood money circulates in our economy. Does it matter to us that corporations barter their souls away for profit? Do we want to be so wealthy ourselves that we let the wealthy make their money behind the scenes without objection, when we know that the profits of the arms industry are equally tainted, profits resulting from the sales to warring countries. How many innocent people die every day from weapons we manufacture?
What choice do we have? I think of the Berrigan brothers who went to the GE nuclear arms facility in King of Prussia, PA, broke in and spilled blood on the files and hammered on the nose cones of the missiles. The comparable movement today is our own Mass Peace Action.
But at the individual and local level, we had best look into the way our pensions and savings are invested and who we bank with, etc. We better look into it, or we’re not worth being buried in a potter’s field ourselves. Is the money worth it—are three pieces of silver worth it?
Theoretically, we can discuss such issues openly here in America. The curious thing about this tattered democracy today, though, is that dissident groups are the ones setting up surveillance, attacking fellow-citizens, and promoting laws muffling free speech and thought. Self-appointed hit-squads set out to capture a state governor! It’s a fantasy totalitarianism which has fear as its principal weapon. You can see why of the four horsemen of the apocalypse, the fifth horseman is fear. And you can also see why Jesus’ constant refrain was, “Do not fear.”
Jesus wept over the city which murdered its prophets. Yet Jesus was undeterred and entered Jerusalem anyway. It was as if the only thing that matters in life was to bring living water to those who thirst and bread that truly nourishes to those who hunger. Our hope is in the giving and offering life of right where there is fear and death. The movie contrasts a man, Dr. Braun, who dies unnecessarily, with a man, with people, who live unnecessarily, without purpose. The same could be said of Jesus. That’s why the Psalm says, which we repeat today and at every Communion service—Blessed is the one who comes in the name of peace and justice and equity, which is the name of God.