This is the sixth in a series of weekly reflections through the season of Lent, written by Bobby Gross, who contributed the reflections for this past Advent Season.Â TheÂ firstÂ appeared on Ash Wednesday. You can browse theÂ second,Â third,Â fourth, and fifth reflections by following the links.
Palm Sunday ushered us into this Holy Week. The account of Jesusâ€™ entry into Jerusalem, as told in Luke 19 (this yearâ€™s lectionary gospel reading), thrums with political dynamics.
With some combination of canny anticipation and purposeful enactment, Jesus orchestrates his procession into the crowded city during the week of the great pilgrimage festival. He knowingly arranges for a colt to ride on, thereby alluding to the messianic prophecy in Zechariah 9:9. He makes his way through the precincts like arriving royalty, accepting the loud, exultant recitations of the people: Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! He refuses to quell the crowd at the behest of the politically anxious Pharisees, who may well have been present when Pontius PilateÂ made a similar entry as the Roman governor came into town to ensure civil order during the festival period.
As the beloved city comes into view, site of the Temple, the center of worship, Jesus weeps, lamenting its rejection of Godâ€™s Shalom, now at hand, and foreseeing its eventual downfall at the hands of Rome.
The Jewish religious leaders were always negotiating how their local power was circumscribed and constrained by the Roman authorities. At one point during the week, in a thinly veiled attempt to entrap Jesus in political controversy, they posed an either-or question about paying the poll tax to the emperor, to which Jesus gave a shrewd both-and answer: Give to the emperor the things that are the emperorâ€™s (coins stamped with Caesarâ€™sÂ image), and to God the things that are Godâ€™s (persons bearing Godâ€™s image).
By the end of this week, we will have rehearsed how Jesus was put to death under the authority of the Roman state and Pilateâ€™s decree, as dramatized in this sonnet:
At dawn they haul him, bound, already bleeding, to procure the necessary sentence for death. Pilate calmly stalls his verdict, reading their petty motives. He questions the very truth of their accusation: Are you the king of the Jews? As you say is all he says. Pilate has him flayedâ€” then offers Jesus for release. They refuse, their loud no-friend-of-Caesarâ€™s shrewdly played. Wary, Pilate presses: Where are you from? No answer. And as to power, the merest shrug. An odd fear gnaws now like some troubling dreamâ€” this man does not belong with thief and thugâ€” but he knows he cannot but do the expedient thing; he washes his hands and sighs: Here is your king. 1
Implicit in these gospel accounts for Jesus and his disciplesâ€”and for us who have committed ourselves to follow Jesus twenty centuries laterâ€”is the question of allegiance: what do we owe to God and his â€œkingdomâ€ and what do we owe to human authorities and their institutions?
Of course we are clear where our ultimate allegiance belongs, but working it out in thought and practice in the messiness and brokenness of our contemporary world remains complicated. After all, Jesus by choice included in his inner circle a Zealot (intending to overthrow Rome) and a tax collector (willing to compromise with Rome) but not, understandably, and Essene (preferring to withdraw from Rome). You can easily imagine the ongoing arguments but also the wrestling with Jesusâ€™ confounding and exhilarating pronouncements about the kingdom of God. Even after Jesusâ€™ shocking death and astounding resurrection, the disciples keep thinking in political terms (see Acts 1).
I donâ€™t need to spell out the intense turmoil of our current historical moment. Society is polarized, political discourse is toxic, culture is bitterly contested, democracy is under duress, and the church is decidedly enmeshed in all of this. We sit dangerously exposed to temptation. What calls for our allegiance? Which right ends seem to justify unrighteous means. Where does power hold allure for us? In whom will we trust? Like Jesus in the desert, we must attend to Godâ€™s voice, examine ourselves, and discern these temptations.
In my own consternations around electoral politics these recent years, the Spirit has pointedly surfaced this question for me: Why are you putting your trust in which party sits in the White House? The kingdom we pray to come on earth as it is in Godâ€™s realm, will not emanate from Washington. Nor will this hope of salvation and justice be delivered to the rest of the world by the United States. Our hope cannot rest on partisan politics or government programs or foreign policy. To give unqualified allegiance to country or party is to slide toward idolatry. To allow ourselves to be caught in the vortex of polarization is to risk demonizing our opponents such that we can no longer love them. Recalling the last two blog posts in this series, we must beware a diabolical admixture of arrogant pride, racial prejudice, and blind patriotism.
As we come to the end of this season of Lent and contemplate the cruciform shape of Jesusâ€™ kingship and the power-redefining meaning of his resurrection, perhaps it is fitting that we examine our allegiances. We must not love our perceived status and security to the point of fearful defensiveness. We must not love our cultural affinities to the point of warring tribalism. We must not love our country to the point of idolatrous nationalism. In short, as Christians it cannot be me above you or us against them or my country right or wrong.2
If we would join those who spread their garments on the road and acclaim King Jesus as he enters the city, we must reaffirm that our allegiance to him exceeds every other loyalty, even at the potential cost of livelihood or social standing or even our very lives. Like our Leader and with his help, we choose to deny ourselves and carry a cross in the hope of Resurrection and the New Jerusalem.
1Â©Bobby Gross, used with permission.
2 Two books help us think about nationalism as idolatry, one academic, the other theological: Andrew L. Whitehead and Samuel L. Perry. Taking America Back for God: Christian Nationalism in the United States (Oxford University Press, 2020); Christopher J. H. Wright. â€œHere Are Your Godsâ€: Faithful Discipleship in Idolatrous Times (IVP, 2020). See also David French, â€œDiscerning the Difference Between Christian Nationalism and Christian Patriotismâ€
About the author:
Bobby Gross has spent his career in campus ministry with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. He currently serves as Senior Field Director for the Graduate & Faculty Ministries division. Originally from Columbus, GA, Bobby and his wife Charlene have lived in Gainesville (FL), Miami (FL), New York City, and now Atlanta. He graduated from UNC Chapel Hill with a B.A. in American Studies and English Literature and did additional studies in theology at Regent College in Vancouver. Bobby served on the national board of Christians in the Visual Arts (CIVA) for six years. Bobby is the author of Living the Christian Year: Time to Inhabit the Story of God. He has also contributed chapters to three other books, including Faith on the Edge (InterVarsity Press) and Signs of Hope in the City (Judson). Bobby has experience in preaching, teaching, and training on a range of subjects including leadership development, vocational stewardship, and spiritual formation. An admitted bibliophile, Bobby also writes poetry and collects contemporary art on religious themes.