Jephthah’s story

Sermon for Passion/Palm Sunday (5 April 2009)

Mark 11.1-11

Good morning! I’m Jephthah, a businessman here in Jerusalem. I import spices and perfumes like frankincense and nard from the east, and ceramics and jewellery from the west. Business is very good—and it’s largely because of the Romans. They’ve built straight roads, good roads, easy to travel roads, roads that make it quick and safe to transport my goods.

The other day my cousin Reuben suggested we take the morning off to see the procession, and I thought, Why not? Reuben lives out in Bethany; I don’t see him that often, and I’d just taken a shipment of spices. Nothing was coming in for a few days.

I wasn’t sure why Reuben wanted to see the procession though; he’s not like me, he doesn’t see why we need the Romans here. He actually wants to get rid of them! How can he and his friends do that, I wonder—a few ruffians with daggers, the odd soldier bumped off, and what happens then? Even more people die on crosses! And sometimes the wrong ones are crucified. My old friend Caleb was arrested and crucified last year for insurrection. But the poor man was innocent! I do what I can for his widow and kids. They won’t starve. The Romans call it ‘collateral damage’.

Anyway, as I was saying, I wasn’t sure why Reuben wanted to go. I asked him if he was going to make any trouble, and he looked at me as though I was mad. That’s not like Reuben, I thought. Maybe he’s got some sense at last.

So I went to the western gate of the city and waited. At first I thought Reuben was just late, but he never showed.

The procession was really impressive! Pilate looked splendid, so splendid he could have been Caesar himself! And the soldiers in their leather armour and the clatter of their swords and the stamp! stamp! stamp! of their feet! And the horses, and the battle standards, and…

What’s that? You thought I was going to be at Jesus’ procession? Well isn’t that a funny thing, because that’s just where Reuben was. It was that procession he was inviting me to!

What did you say? You’ve never heard of Pilate’s procession? You’re not from around here, are you? I mean, everyone knows that the procession is the Roman procession! Every major feast, Pilate comes in from Caesarea Maritima, where he lives, and stays in Jerusalem. Just in case of trouble. I mean, the population of Jerusalem is normally around 40 000. But we can have another 200 000 in pilgrims and visitors at Passover. Normally, I like that—they buy gifts to take home, and I make money. But this time, it looks like there may be some trouble. And that’s bad for business.

They say this Jesus rode in on a young donkey as a sign of bringing peace—it was Reuben’s donkey, as it turns out—but to me he sounds like a right trouble maker. Imagine staging his poxy little procession for the ragamuffins and the ne’er-do-wells on the same day as Pilate’s procession! That was just calculated to provoke Rome. It really is hard to avoid the conclusion that Jesus was taking the mickey out of the Romans in a kind of counter-procession.

We were talking, and Reuben said he’s given up thoughts of overthrowing the Romans violently. But he’s decided to follow this Jesus. I said it was madness, the Romans will crush him and his followers. If they don’t, our priests will—according to Reuben, he has his eyes set on disrupting the Temple’s work, he doesn’t like the money-changers in the outer court. Like I say—the man’s bad for business.

There’s no telling Reuben, though. He just quotes the Bible at me. Psalm 118 is a favourite: ‘Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord’, that’s what they were saying when Jesus came into the city. They should say it quietly then!

I reminded Reuben that the priests wouldn’t like it, that they might make sure Jesus was done away with. Reuben came back again with another bit of Psalm 118: ‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone.’

This Jesus is talking about the kingdom of God coming, when we will all be at peace. I’d like that, for one thing peace is good for my business, but I’m a realist. The Romans aren’t going. I reckon they’ll still be in charge in 2 000 years time! No one will know anything about Jesus then. He’ll end up on a cross, maybe even before Passover. You mark my words! Everyone will forget Jesus, it’ll be as if he were never born.

When I said that to Reuben, he quoted other bits of the Bible too. Like the part in Isaiah where it says,

I gave my back to those who struck me,
and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard;
I did not hide my face
from insult and spitting.

It all points to Jesus, according to Reuben. He is the promised one, God’s anointed, the Messiah. ‘Well,’ I said, ‘If he is the anointed one, God won’t let him suffer, let alone die.’ Reuben was very patient with me; he says if Jesus is rejected, God will bring good out of it. He doesn’t know how, but he reminded me that there is more in Psalm 118 about the stone being rejected:

The stone that the builders rejected
has become the chief cornerstone.
This is the Lord’s doing;
it is marvellous in our eyes.
This is the day that the Lord has made;
let us rejoice and be glad in it.

I’m still worried. I’m sure Jesus will come to a sad end, and then the Romans will crack down on us. How can the Kingdom of God come if that happens?

Reuben’s convinced. I still think this Jesus is a trouble maker, but Reuben has a real centre to his life now. He’s a new man, and it does seem to be because of Jesus. I’ll try to keep an open mind, and see what the rest of the week brings. But if that Jesus doesn’t perform, I’ll put him on the cross myself!

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