Does anyone else like to play pretend? Maybe you like pretending to be a superhero, or sometimes a super villain. I have a niece that sometimes like to pretend to be a certain chilly Disney princess, and she is pretty convincing when she belts out her power ballad. Even us grown-ups might do it. Maybe we don’t “play pretend” so much anymore, but I know I sometimes pretend in my mind, imagining myself as president maybe, and what I might do, though admittedly I am probably more a benign dictator, or even as a wizard in the Harry Potter world, fixing my problems with a magic spell, or a professional tennis player—which requires a lot of pretending.
In a way we might think of that procession we just took part in as a kind of pretending: We imagine that we are there when Jesus entered Jerusalem; our pretending is a way of telling the story, of making it real.
Maybe Jesus and his followers, too, were pretending that day. They were enacting God’s promise from a prophet named Zephaniah, about the day when God’s chosen one would enter Jerusalem as its peaceful king, complete with a donkey—what princes rode when they came in peace, as opposed to a warlike horse. Jesus and his friends were pretending that God’s reign had actually come to Jerusalem, that God was the real king of the city.
And how do we know they were pretending? We know because it was obvious to everyone that the God of Israel was not king in Jerusalem: Everyone knew that Caesar, the emperor of Rome, was king in Jerusalem, and Caesar had just sent his henchman Pontius Pilate with his Roman soldiers into the city to remind the people who was boss during Passover, or Jewish “independence day.” The biggest bullies were in charge. Pretend all you want, they might have said, we know who is the real boss. But don’t pretend too much or too long, or you’ll pay for it.
The thing is, though, Jesus wasn’t pretending. And he wasn’t kidding either. The gospel story tells us he had lined everything up: He had his donkey staged and ready, told his disciples the code words to get it, and he timed his piece of street theater for maximum effect, for maximum insult to the Roman occupiers and their lackeys among the Jewish aristocrats: He was telling Pontius Pilate and the Temple priests that God was the real king in Jerusalem, and Jesus was God’s hand-picked agent, his general. And if you’ll notice, Jesus goes “straight to the Temple and looks around”: Jesus is casing the joint for his next move, which will involve a whip of cords and big mess in the Temple.
Things just got tense, and the tension is about to get worse. Jesus is provoking a crisis, turning up the heat, and he’s asking everyone to choose sides. Is the God of Israel your king, he is asking, or is it Caesar? And in Jesus, God is provoking a crisis: Do you want to live in kingdom of heaven or in the empire of Rome? And they aren’t pretending, not at all.
And neither are we. We weren’t pretending we were there in that procession: That procession is the sign that we are there, we are part of Jesus’ parade now. And Holy Week just keeps turning up the heat.
Today as we march with our palms, Jesus is asking if we wish to live in his rule of peace, or if we will live according to the rules of Caesar and his bullies. Maundy Thursday as we wash each other’s feet Jesus asks if we will show greatness by our service to others, or if we will choose to lord it over each other and boss each other around, “as the Gentiles do.”
Friday as we encounter the mystery of the cross and the way Jesus dies, Jesus asks if we will fight violence with violence, and become bullies ourselves, or if will we follow Jesus all the way to the cross, resisting the bullies of this world with our lives, even with our deaths. And we won’t be pretending, because God is not pretending. God is finally going to show Caesar just who is king in Jerusalem, just what is pretend and what is real.
And how do we know that? Well, that we will find out on Holy Saturday night and Easter Sunday morning. But between now and then, Jesus is asking: Which side are we on?