Palm Sunday is only one week away. Have you ever stopped to think about what Jesus did the week before the original Palm Sunday? There were two ruling authorities in Palestine at that time: the political government that was definitely the ultimate authority, and the religious leaders, whose religious practices could be different from region to region. Let's take a detailed look at how things were in Palestine at that time and how Jesus responded to them the week prior to Palm Sunday.
The Roman emperors had done a superb job of taking control of the more distant and border areas of the Empire, like Palestine, and of keeping peace in these more remote areas after taking them over -- all without the use of force or weapons. How did they do it?
Both communication and travel were slow, and the expense of transporting armies to all regions of the Empire was prohibitive. So the leaders of Rome instituted what could be called "indirect rule"; they recruited local leaders who were loyal to Rome but were respected by and acceptable to the native populations.
There was no problem in recruiting such leaders. It was easy to find people who wanted positions of importance and the prestige that accompanied them and were willing to pay for the appointments. One of the requirements of being selected was paying Rome for the honor of being a local governor or whatever name was used in the various districts. In most instances Rome limited the term of office to twelve to eighteen months in order to hinder the local leaders from becoming too powerful. After sitting out a term or two, they were normally allowed to buy back the position for another term. (We can see that the modern practices of patronage and payback have a long history).
This system also helped provide badly needed financial and human resources for overseeing outlying areas. Leaders in the larger and easier-to-reach countries were given the responsibility of keeping an eye on the more remote provinces and making certain that they were loyal to the Roman Empire. If a country got out of line, the nearby larger country would send one of its leaders to the wayward area, and the situation was usually settled by appointing a new local leader. In more severe cases, armed forces from the nearby country were called in to settle the situation, but such measures were seldom necessary. Syria was the watchdog country over Palestine. (Today's mid-eastern tensions have an ancient history and are not likely to be solved easily.)
The Roman policy for religion was also a well-devised combination of Roman ways and local customs. Rome definitely favored maintaining the ancestral worship of Roman gods, but also showed a reasonable degree of tolerance for the religious practices of the various countries of the Empire as long as the local practices were not threatening to Roman rule. New faiths were frowned upon, and cults that endangered local stability were immediately suppressed.
In Palestine, the Jewish leaders and the political leaders had a history of working well with each other. Judaism was a stable and well-established religion with definite "laws" governing the religious practices of the Jewish people. The priests and the Sanhedrin (the Jewish supreme court) were careful not to over-step what was acceptable to Rome, and Rome knew what to expect of Judaism. Misunderstandings were few.
Jesus was well aware of the delicate balance between the Roman and the Jewish leaders, and he was careful to say what played well with both groups: "Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's." (Mark 12:17, Matthew 22:21, Luke 20:25)
After teaching or preaching to large numbers of people during his ministry, Jesus was known for dismissing the crowds, making it clear that he was not undermining Roman or Jewish authority. We read that after feeding "about five thousand men, besides women and children," Jesus dismissed the crowd, and he and his disciples withdrew to remote areas. (Matthew 14:22-23, Mark 6:45-46.) In John 6:15 we read a slightly different conclusion to the story: "Perceiving then that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, Jesus withdrew again to the hills by himself."
The majority of Jesus's ministry was in Galilee, a large rural province in the northwestern part of Palestine, one of the countries of the Roman Empire. Jesus avoided large cities and frequently withdrew with his disciples into rural areas not far from Nazareth, the small Galilean town on the slopes of the Lebanon Mountains where Jesus spent much of his childhood and early teenage years. Jerusalem, the principal city of Palestine and where the Jewish temple was located, was eighty-five miles south in Judea, the southern-most province of Palestine.
In the week prior to Palm Sunday, Jesus's ministry changed dramatically. As he left Galilee and headed south to Jerusalem, Jesus intentionally tried to attract crowds. He stopped in all the small towns and cities along the way to preach, teach, and heal the sick. But he did not dismiss the crowds as he had done before; instead, he encouraged the people to come along with him to Jerusalem. Biblical scholars estimate that three to five thousand people joined him on his way to Jerusalem. We also know from later developments in the story that trusted believers made secret arrangements for people in Jerusalem to come to the outskirts of the city and join them in parading into Jerusalem.
Why did Jesus change his strategy in dealing with the political and religious authorities of Palestine during this final week before the first Palm Sunday? We will examine this question next week.
(Biblical quotes from Revised Standard Version)
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