Political Street Theater—John 12:9-19

Studies in John’s Gospel — Bible Study Lesson 31

by Reta Halteman Finger

Jerusalem (photo Reta Halteman Finger)
A view of Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives.
The eastern gate to the Temple Mount on the right is now walled shut.
Photo by Reta Finger

“Are we there yet? 

Any family taking a road trip with children is familiar with this question from the back seat. But we have journeyed only halfway through John’s Gospel, so a more appropriate question is, “Are we there already? Have we already reached Palm Sunday and Jesus’s last week of life?”

Yes, we are here already. John’s chronology of seasons and festivals tells us three years have passed since Jesus first encountered John the Baptist in chapter 1. Things are coming to a head. The signs have piled up and pointed in only one direction. Those who believe Jesus is Yahweh’s promised Messiah assume he must finally confront his high-priestly opponents and figure out what to do with the Roman occupation. Those who refute his claim determine it is better for him to die rather “than to have the whole nation destroyed” (John 11:50).

Differing twists in the plot

Every Gospel includes Jesus’s dramatic entrance into Jerusalem riding on a donkey amid cries of “Hosanna!”  But in the Synoptic Gospels, Jesus orchestrates the occasion himself. He arrives at the Mount of Olives, from which the eastern gate into Jerusalem and the Temple Mount are in full view (Matt 21:1; Mk 11:1; Lk 19:29—see photo). He finds a donkey to ride. He knows the words of the ancient prophet Zechariah:  “The Lord will go forth and fight against those nations as when he fights on a day of battle. On that day his feet shall stand on the Mount of Olives, which lies before Jerusalem on the east” (Zech 14:3-4a). Is Jesus a military messiah?

In contrast, John’s Gospel portrays the excited crowd taking the initiative. When they hear Jesus is in nearby Bethany, many rush there to see him, as well as Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead (John 12:9). By the following day, as he walks toward Jerusalem, an ever-growing multitude of enthusiastic festival goers gather up palm branches and walk out to meet him, as he looks for a donkey to ride. Quoting from Psalm 118:25-26, they shout,

Blessed is the one who comes in the name of Yahweh,
the King of Israel!” (John 12:13)

Acting out in public

However it started, it is a brazen act of street theater, and it cannot be ignored. The Roman soldiers, sent to Jerusalem for crowd control during festivals, understand a formal victory reception when they see one. All their generals and emperors who return to Rome after a successful military campaign receive such a welcome. There is no white horse, and the parody may seem comical and impromptu, but they get the point. Their swords are at the ready.

But the Pharisees and temple authorities “get” even the donkey. They also know the prophecies of Zechariah:

“Lo, your king comes to you;
triumphant and victorious is he,
humble and riding on a donkey,
on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” (Zech. 9:9; John 12:15)

They say to each other, “You see, you can do nothing. The whole world has gone after him!”

Nothing now, anyway. Not in this swirling mass of Passover pilgrims at fever-pitch. But their spies are among the crowds, and they will bide their time.

Jerusalem today
Today it’s not the Romans who guard Jerusalem from
outsiders like Jesus, but Israelis themselves who keep
out as many Palestinians as possible.
(Photo by Reta Finger)

Does it matter who came up with the parade idea? Probably not, except that John’s Gospel portrays a logical cause-and-effect. Jesus is already popular among the common people in Jerusalem, and his raising of Lazarus is the final sign of his right to be king in Israel (John 12:18). What better time to show him off than to a city crowded with Passover pilgrims!

Mark, followed by Matthew and Luke, lacks this natural transition, omitting the Lazarus story entirely, perhaps (as noted previously) to protect Lazarus’s anonymity. Instead, all three Synoptic writers abruptly place Jesus on the Mount of Olives, evoking military images from ancient prophecies in their scriptures. Which picture do you prefer?

Was Jesus a Political Revolutionary?

In his recent, widely acclaimed book, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, Reza Aslan argues that Jesus was one of a string of Jewish insurrectionists trying to violently overthrow the yoke of Roman occupation and set himself up as king. Aslan’s primary evidence in the Gospels is Jesus’s triumphal entry and his cleansing of the temple. He discounts contrary evidence in the Gospels, assuming they were written much later to shift Jesus’s image from a passionate zealot into a gentle, cosmic Christ. (See my review on this website.)

John’s Gospel has an answer for Aslan. For both this event and the temple cleansing (John 2:13-22), the author notes that Jesus’s disciples did not know how to interpret what was happening at the time. Only when “Jesus was glorified, then they remembered that these things had been written of him and had been done to him” (12:16). Apparently, neither event made sense to them in light of how they were experiencing him during his day-to-day ministry.

How do you understand Jesus’s dramatic entrance into the capital city of Jerusalem? Is it bottom-up street theater to arouse the crowds and unsettle the Jewish authorities? Does it parody a Roman victory celebration to annoy the occupiers? How does it continue the ironic mode in which this Gospel is written?

Further questions for discussion and reflection:

1) Put yourself in the crowd waving a palm branch. Are you hopeful, hysterical, doubtful, suspicious? What do you expect will happen?

2) If you reject the concept of “king” as male-oriented and undemocratic, what role would you like Jesus to play in this narrative?

Reta Halteman Finger
Reta Halteman Finger is a long-time member of EEWC-CFT and is a past Southeast representative on the EEWC-CFT Council. She holds a Ph.D. in theology and religion from Northwestern University, masters of theological studies from Garrett Evangelical Theological Seminary and Northern Baptist University, and a master of education from Boston University. Reta retired in 2009 from teaching Bible (mostly New Testament) at Messiah College in Grantham, PA. She lives in Harrisonburg, Virginia, and since her retirement from Messiah College has been devoting her time to writing and speaking projects, as well as some part-time teaching at Eastern Mennonite Seminary. For fifteen years, Reta edited the Christian feminist magazine, Daughters of Sarah (no longer published), and is a frequent writer and reviewer for Christian Feminism Today. Using the search box on the homepage of our EEWC-Christian Feminism Today website, you’ll be led to many of her online articles.