DALLAS, March 29, 2012 – This weekend many Christians around the world will celebrate Palm Sunday, a commemoration of Jesus’ “triumphal entry” into the holy city of Jerusalem.
The penchant of religious folk to turn any event into a “day of remembrance” is an astounding phenomenon on which many anthropologists have waxed verbose, if not eloquent, so it needs no further explanation here. A perusal of the 2012 Catholic calendar should be enough to prove the point.
Everything about Palm Sunday seems out of place. For starters, the idea that Jesus would want his followers to commemorate the day on which throngs of his supporters welcomed him into Jerusalem by staging a reenactment with fresh fronds cut from whatever vegetation seems most suitable (the Russian Orthodox use pussy willow) is about as likely as Messiah wanting the church to commemorate the day on which the woman was caught in adultery by writing in the dirt.
What seems particularly incongruent about Palm Sunday is the phrase “triumphal entry”, commonly used to describe Jesus’ arrival in Jerusalem. He came unarmed into a hostile city, riding on an ass, not a war-horse. This was a 1st century Jewish rendition of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.
It is true that he entered the City of David and was hailed as king by a few, but unlike any of the famous conquerors of history, he did not lead an army in grand procession followed by a multitude of slaves laden with the spoils of war. Instead, he was accompanied by a rag-tag group of disciples consisting of common folk – patriots, fishermen, and a renegade IRS agent.
One would betray him and the rest would abandon him.
One must have a vivid imagination indeed to see any “triumph” in this scene, especially since the crowds that welcomed him with such jubilation would be strangely absent just a few days later, when he was given a mock trial and then executed by the occupying Roman forces.
No. There was little that could be described as “triumphant” about Jesus “coming to town” that day, at least not in the normal sense, but then he had a way of presenting the kingdom of God as diametrically opposed to everything his listeners had ever imagined. (The last shall be first, lose your life to find it, the meek will inherit the earth, etc.)
His summation of the moral code cut religion off at the knees and may be the most sublime and succinct expression of moral obligation ever uttered. “Love God and love your neighbor.” Yet, no sooner had he made this pronouncement than a self-righteous religious teacher countered with, “Who is my neighbor?”
For many, the description of a religious teacher as “self-righteous” is redundant. Is there any other kind? After all, “being religious” is a prerequisite for “being a Pharisee.” This odd paradox – that religious people often stand in the way of what God is doing – has proven to be a stumbling block for millennia, which is why Jesus tells the story of the good Muslim to a Christian* minister asking about who qualifies as a his “neighbor.” It goes like this…
“A man was traveling from Washington DC to Manassas in the predawn hours Friday morning. At a stoplight, a gang broke his window and dragged him from his car. They stripped him naked, beat him to a pulp, took his wallet, his laptop, his iPhone and his car, leaving him on the sidewalk half dead.
A Catholic priest drove by minutes later and stopped at the light. He saw the man bleeding on the concrete and trying unsuccessfully to stand, but it was a seedy part of town, so he continued on his way.
Then a Protestant minister drove up and stopped at the light, but he too sped off as soon as the light turned green. But a Muslim, driving that same road, stopped at the light and saw the man. His heart was moved with pity, so he covered the man’s nakedness with a raincoat, helped him get in the car, and drove him to the nearest clinic.
When they arrived, the man had passed out, perhaps from loss of blood. The clinic did not want to take this unconscious naked man with no ID or proof of insurance, but the Muslim insisted, giving them his credit card and promising he would pay whatever it cost.”
When he finishes telling this parable, Jesus asks the Christian* ministers, “Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who was beaten and robbed?”
You see, in order for Christians to truly experience the stinging rebuke in Jesus’ parable, we have to find a group that Christians today view with as much abhorrence as the Jews had for the Samaritans in the 1st century. There might be several candidates, but Muslims probably top the list. Like the Samaritans, Muslims subscribe to a different “Abrahamic faith”.
Like the Samaritans, they claim that Jews and Christians have altered the divine revelation brought by the prophets. They claim that the divine “center of the universe” is Mecca, just as the Samaritans claimed that Mt. Gerazim and not Jerusalem was the location of the true temple.
The Jews despised the Samaritans for rejecting the bulk of revealed Scripture. In their eyes, the Samaritans were nothing more than idol-worshipping apostates, which sounds very much like the claims spread by certain Christians who say that Allah is the name of an Arabic moon god and Islam is a heretical cult. Christians denounce Muslim views of women, their claims to Israel and their intolerance.
And yet, Jesus holds up a Muslim (Samaritan) as a role model, a person who has understood the essence of the moral code which commands us to love our neighbor. Jesus does not exonerate bad theology or claim that all Muslims are a paragon of virtue, but he does slap down a self-righteous Christian* preacher with this example of compassion.
There is a Turkish proverb that says, “Stick yourself with a needle (to see how it hurts) before you stab another with an awl.” In other words, before you go criticizing others, take a look at yourself. I’m not sure but that sounds very much like something Jesus said… If only I could place it…
In Bernard Lewis’ excellent work entitled The Muslim Discovery of Europe, the author touches on how shocked Muslims were by certain aspects of European “Christianity”.
For example, the Genoese and Venetian slave traders had no qualms about selling their Christian brothers, generally Slavs (and yes it is cognate to the word “slave”), to Muslim merchants. This treachery perpetrated by Christians on their brothers was to the Muslim just more proof that the devil was in the Christian religion.
When the “Christians” of Spain expelled all of the Jews in 1492, it was the Ottoman Sultan who provided refuge for them, thus preventing a humanitarian disaster.
In the midst of the War on Terror and the increasing polarization between Islam and the West, it is important to maintain perspective. Although the idea that Muslims can be as kind-hearted and merciful as Christians is not a popular one in some circles, it is true nonetheless. There are “good” Muslims and they’re not all dead.
If you are one of those who celebrate days like Palm Sunday or Easter, remember that the “triumph” of Christ was his humility, that he preferred an ass to an Abrams tank, and that his message of peace and love for our enemies is still the heart of the Gospel since God still sends His rain on the just and the unjust and was reconciled to his enemies (us) through Christ.
* Used as an application of literary license and not an anachronism.
Luke Montgomery, author of A Deceit To Die For, lived in the Middle East for over a decade. He holds an MA in Linguistics, speaks fluent Turkish and writes on foreign policy, religion and culture. You can follow his work at www.lukemontgomery.net, or find him on Twitter at @LookingFor_Luke and on Facebook.
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