Street Theater

Matthew 21:1-11

March 16, 2008, Palm Sunday

            I always loved Palm Sunday when I was a kid. An usher would hand all of the children beautiful green palm branches to wave around as we processed into the sanctuary. The middle and high school youth would be ringing hand-bells, the Adult Choir would be singing “Hosanna, Hosanna!” and people would be smiling and saying “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!”  The festivity filled me with such joy and anticipation that I knew, at just any moment, Jesus would come through the church doors on the back of a donkey, waving and smiling at the folks in the pews.

            The feeling would stick with me all the way through Easter Sunday, which was an even bigger celebration.  As a kid, I didn’t quite understand what was happening to Jesus in between these two Sundays. During my early childhood, it seemed to me that this was one long, happy party for Jesus.  It wasn’t until I was a middle school youth at Shades Valley Presbyterian Church in Birmingham, AL that I discovered my misconceptions about the events during Holy Week.  A deeper understanding of Jesus’ journey into Jerusalem became much clearer while I was playing with my church’s youth hand-bell choir in multiple Palm Sunday worship services at churches in Florida. 

Although I can’t recall the particular songs we played, I do remember that we began each service with a joyful piece and closed each service with a somber one.  And being a youth who was able to pay better attention to the scripture and the sermon, I began to recognize a dramatic change in the story almost immediately after Jesus enters the city. 

            In the NRSV version of Matthew’s Gospel we are told that when Jesus entered Jerusalem, “the whole city was in turmoil asking, ‘Who is this?’   Turmoil is a weak translation of the Greek verb seio which actually refers to the action of an earthquake.  The corresponding noun seismos (which is where we get the word seismic as in the seismic waves that cause earthquakes) is used by Matthew in 8:24 (Jesus’ calming of the sea); 27:54 (Jesus’ crucifixion) and 28:2 (Jesus’ resurrection) to indicate a supernatural event.  “Perhaps,” says New Testament scholar Douglas Hare, “Matthew means to suggest that the holy city is shaken to its foundation by the arrival of the Lord’s Anointed.”

Shane Claiborne and Chris Haw, in their new book Jesus For President, remind us that the time of Passover, in which Jesus rides into Jerusalem on a donkey, was historically troublesome:

It was an anti-imperial Jewish festival “during which the Jews celebrated their ancestors’ coming out of Egyptian slavery. With Roman soldiers lining the street, Jews gathered and waved palm branches, symbols of resistance to the empire. Passover was a volatile time, often marked by riots and bloodshed. (Recall that Herod of Antipas killed thousands of Jews in the streets at the festival.) When Jesus rode a donkey into the festival, it was a lampoon, like street theater at a protest. Scholars call it the anti-triumphal entry into Jerusalem. Imagine the president riding a unicycle in the Fourth of July parade. Kings did not ride donkeys. They rode mighty war horses accompanied by an entourage of soldiers. So here is Jesus making a spectacle of violence and power, riding in on the back of an ass. (And a borrowed one at that!)

Some of you may recall a sermon Pastor Mike preached last year on Palm Sunday about the two drastically different processions that occurred at the beginning of Passover.  According to scholars Marcus J. Borg and John Dominic Crossan:

One was a peasant process, the other an imperial procession. From the east, Jesus rode a donkey down the Mount of Olives cheered by his   followers. Jesus was from the peasant village of Nazareth, his message was about the kingdom of God, and his followers came from the peasant class…On the opposite side of the city, from the west, Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor of Idumea, Judea and Samaria, entered Jerusalem at the head of a column of imperial cavalry and soldiers. Jesus’ procession proclaimed the kingdom of God; Pilate’s proclaimed the power of empire. The two processions embody the central conflict of the week that led to Jesus’ crucifixion.

Jesus knows the procession and way of Pilate and Herod-men who wield power with riches, weapons and violence.  Jesus and the poor people of Israel have been surrounded by these powers of oppression for most of their lives.  Many people in Israel, including some of the disciples, expected Jesus to follow in the footsteps of the great kings and warriors of Israel by violently overthrowing the Roman Empire.  They expected Jesus to take up the sword like the Jewish priests Judah and Jonathan Macabee who using guerilla tactics led the brutal Maccabean revolt against their Syrian oppressors. Upon victory, the Jewish people under the Macabee brothers cleansed the temple, which had been desecrated by the Syrians and “entered it with praise and palm branches and with harps and cymbals and stringed instruments, and with hymns and songs because a great enemy had been crushed and removed from Israel.”

            There is an expectation placed on Jesus by some of the people of Israel and it is reflected in the Call to Worship liturgy that John, Jesse and Lindsay shared at the beginning of the service: “Why did Jesus want a little colt? The Messiah ought to come to the throne on a mighty war horse! Didn’t he know how ridiculous he looked on the back of that donkey?”

            Jesus didn’t care about looking ridiculous on the back of a donkey. His point was to show that the Roman Empire, King Herod and the religious authorities were the ones who looked ridiculous sitting in self-righteous and oppressive seats of power.  In a scene depicting Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem from the 1999 TV film Jesus, two observers remark “This procession with the palms and Jesus dressed in peasant clothes and riding on the back of a donkey is brilliant! It makes Pilate and Herod look like the asses they really are.” Chuck Campbell, a professor of preaching at Columbia Theological Seminary, reminds us:

Jesus is turning the world’s notions of power and rule and authority on their heads. His theater is a wonderful piece of political satire. In his triumphal entry, Jesus lampoons all the powers of the world and their pretensions to glory and dominion, and he enacts an alternative to the way of the Domination System. He comes not as one who lords his authority over others but as one who rejects domination and comes as a servant. He comes not with pomp and wealth but as one identified with the poor. He comes not as a mighty warrior but as one who refuses to rely on violence. Jesus enacts the subversive, nonviolent reign of God in the midst of the city.

Take a closer look at Matthew’s account of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem and we discover that Jesus planned every detail:

When they had come near Jerusalem and had reached Bethpage, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two of his disciples, saying to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to me. If anyone says anything to you, just say this, “The Lord needs them.” And he will send them immediately. This took place to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet…The disciples went and did as Jesus directed them; they brought the donkey and the colt, and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them. A very large crowd (which some scholars believe are the peasant farmers and poor who live outside the city) spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them across the road (as opposed to soldiers who would raise swords when a king or ruler would ride into city on a war horse).

Laurel Dykstra, a columnist for Sojourners magazine and a veteran street theater protest performer, reflecting on Matthew’s account, explains:

The movement described is complex; there is collaboration between the out-of-towners and the local resistance community. The political action is planned to coincide with a time when imperial power is blatant and feelings of resistance are high. The protest tools are low-tech and readily available, and the demonstration design is inclusive and participatory-there is no “audience.” Large numbers serve as security and protection for those who are identified and targeted as leaders.


            When Jesus rides into the city on a donkey, he turns the world’s notions of power and rule and authority on their heads. Jesus shakes the powers, the Domination System to its very core like an earthquake-shakes away the pretensions and reveals nothing but deceit, malice, and ugliness. And Jesus exposes the powers today just as he did in Israel.  Riding into the city on a donkey, he lampoons the powers of the current Domination System in this world. Powers like:

The large gas-guzzling vehicles that roll into downtown cities with music blasting and bumper stickers that read-“You can pry this gun… from my cold bear hands.”

The shoppers who push and punch at one another in a shopping mall to get the latest $1,000 fad.

Governments who severely beat Tibetan monks with clubs and rifles

The media (both liberal and conservative) that utter sharp words of hate and prejudice toward those who are black, immigrant, gay, lesbian and poor.

Agencies who still haven’t provided  the lower class and pour with resources to return to a city once devastated by flood.

The Christian men in high-powered business suits on Capitol Hill who support the torture of other men and women.

            Riding in on a donkey, Jesus reveals the ugly deceit and treachery of the powers.   And this idea of street theater, of lampooning the powers, the Domination System has been passed down from every generation since.  The tradition is very much alive today.  Consider the 1970s Jesus musicals Jesus Christ Superstar and Godspell which truly embody the type of lampoon Jesus enacted in his entry into Jerusalem.  In Superstar, Herod is depicted as this sleazy king of porn films who wears tight leather pants, and big yellow tinted sunglasses.  And in Godspell, Jesus has a painted clown face and the disciples where these colorful clown-like clothes to show what a bunch of clowns Pilate, Herod and the powers are.

            In recent years street theater has been performed by the rock band U2 who in their 1997 Popmart Tour, recently released on DVD,  design the concert stage to look like a shopping mall with one-half of a very familiar golden arch and other thinly disguised commercial logos. As a U2 biographer notes:

U2’s latest mission…was to erect the cathedrals of today’s religion, expose its emptiness, and then try to dig deep down somewhere for Jesus in the midst of it all…Christianity had become commercialized on many levels, and Bono may have been turning over the tales of various modern Christian temple courts.

Street theater is all around. Anytime you pick up a newspaper or surf the Internet or turn on the TV and see a protest, there is usually a colorful act of street theater occurring in the midst-a lampoon of the powers, the Domination System.   A friend of mine recently shared a poem he wrote about members of the Ku Klux Klan who gathered last May in front of the courthouse in downtown Knoxville, Tennessee to spew their hatred.  It seemed that once again racism would fill the air of that spring day until another costumed group known as the Coup Clutz Clowns appeared:


The day was bright and sunny as most May days tend to be
In the hills of Appalachia down in Knoxville, Tennessee
The men put on their uniforms and quickly took their places
In white robes and those tall and pointed hoods that hid their faces

Their feet all fell in rhythm as they started their parade
They raised their fists into the air, they bellowed and they brayed
They loved to stir the people up, they loved when they were taunted
They didn’t mind the anger, that’s precisely what they wanted

As they came around the corner, sure enough, the people roared
They couldn’t quite believe their ears, it seemed to be – support?
Had Knoxville finally seen the light, were people coming ‘round?
The men thought for a moment that they’d found their kind of town

But then they turned their eyes to where the cheering had its source
As one their faces soured as they saw the mighty force
The crowd had painted faces, and some had tacky clothes
Their hair and hats outrageous, each had a red foam nose

The clowns had come in numbers to enjoy the grand parade
They danced and laughed that other clowns had come to town that day
And then the marchers shouted, and the clowns all strained to hear
Each one tuned in intently with a gloved hand to an ear

“White power!” screamed the marchers, and they raised their fisted hands
The clowns leaned in and listened like they couldn’t understand
Then one held up his finger and helped all the others see
The point of all this yelling, and they joined right in with glee

“White flour!” they all shouted and they felt inside their clothes
They pulled out bags and tore them and huge clouds of powder rose
They poured it on each other and they threw it in the air
It got all over baggy clothes and multi-colored hair

All but just a few of them were joining in the jokes
You could almost see the marchers turning red beneath white cloaks
They wanted to look scary, they wanted to look tough
One rushed right at the clowns in rage, and was hauled away in cuffs

But the others chanted louder marching on around the bend
The clowns all marched along with them supporting their new friends
“White power!” came the marchers’ cry – they were not amused
The clowns grew still and thoughtful; perhaps they’d been confused?

They huddled and consulted, this bright and silly crowd
They listened quite intently, then one said “I’ve got it now!”
“White flowers!” screamed the happy clown and all the rest joined in
The air was filled with flowers, and they laughed and danced again

“Everyone loves flowers! And white’s a pretty sort!
I can’t think of a better cause for marchers to support!”

“White Power!” came their marchers’ cry, quite carefully pronounced
The clowns consulted once again, then a woman clown announced
“I’ve got it! I’m embarrassed that it took so long to see
But what these marchers march for is a cause quite dear to me!”

“Wife power!” she exclaimed and all the other clowns joined in
They shook their heads and laughed at how mistaken they had been
The women clowns were hoisted up on shoulders of the others
Some pulled on wedding dresses, “Here’s to wives and mothers!”

The men in robes were angry and they knew they’d been defeated
They yelled a few more times and then they finally retreated

And what would be the lesson of that shiny southern day?
Can we understand the message that the clowns sought to convey?
Seems that when you’re fighting hatred, hatred’s not the thing to use
So here’s to those who march on in their massive, silly shoes

            Blessed is Jesus, who marches into Jerusalem not with pomp and wealth but as one identified with the poor. Blessed is Jesus who comes not as a mighty warrior but as one who refuses to rely on violence. Blessed is Jesus who enacts the subversive, nonviolent reign of God in the midst of the city. Blessed are we who are invited to foolishly follow him!



Jesus For President by Shane Claiborne and Chris Haw, 2008

The Last Week: What the Gospels Really Teach About Jesus’ Final Days in Jerusalem by Marcus J. Borg and John Dominic Crossan, 2006

1 Maccabees 4:36-40 and 2 Maccabees 10:1-9

Sojourners: Faith, Politics and Culture, “Word on the Street: Street Theater” by Laurel A. Dykstra, March 2008

The Word Before the Powers: An Ethic of Preaching by Charles L. Campbell, 2002

Walk On: The Spiritual Journey of U2 by Steve Stockman, 2005

Excerpts from “White Flour” a poem by folk musician David LaMotte ( May 26, 2007


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