Palm Sunday and the Roman Empire

Sermon and moment for all ages copyright (c) 2024 Dan Harper. As delivered to First Parish in Cohasset. As usual, the sermon as delivered contained substantial improvisation.

Moment for All Ages: “The Story of Palm Sunday”

(with Kate Sullivan and Dan Harper)

Dan: Today is the Christian holiday of Palm Sunday. Kate and I are going to tell you the story of Palm Sunday as I learned it as a Unitarian Universalist child.

Kate: We’re going to ask the children and teens to come forward, because we’d like your help as we tell the story.

Dan: 2,000 years ago there was a Jewish rabbi named Jesus who went from town to town in a land called Judea teaching about religion. Jesus wasn’t an official Jewish leader, as the Pharisees were. But many people listened to his teachings anyway, probably because he treated everyone with respect, even people who were poor or homeless or sick. And because what he preached made so much sense. He said religion was simple: love your God with all your heart and all your mind, and treat other people the way you would like to be treated.

Kate: Jesus did most of his teaching in the countryside, but at last he and his followers decided to to Jerusalem for Passover. Just as it is now, Jerusalem was the most important city for Jews, and Passover was one of the most important holidays. Since Jesus and his followers were Jewish, celebrating Passover in Jerusalem was especially meaningful. They left the town they were in, a town called Jericho, and began to walk to Jerusalem. They didn’t have much money, so they had to walk the whole way. Jesus had been teaching and traveling for a long time, and he was tired. As they got close to Jerusalem, he asked his followers to see if they could find an animal for him to ride. The followers went to a farm nearby, and borrowed a foal, or a young horse, for Jesus.

Dan: There were crowds of people on the road in to Jerusalem for Passover. Many them had seen Jesus before, and had heard his teachings about religion. They began to point at Jesus, and call out to him. Someone began to sing a hymn that seemed to fit what they were doing, and others joined in. They sang:

Enter into his gates with thanksgiving
And into his courts with praise.

Kate: People were in a happy, festive mood. They picked leaves from palm trees, and carried them along. That’s why this is called Palm Sunday, by the way. We’d like to ask the children and teens to hand out these palms leaves to anyone who would like one, so we can all better imagine what it was like when Jesus and his followers entered Jerusalem for Passover. [Kate hands palm leaves to kid.]

Dan: (When I was a Unitarian Universalist child, our UU church gave us palm leaves so we could understand what they were; growing up in New England, we had never seen palm leaves. But to return to the story….) Someone started singing again:

Serve our God Yahweh with gladness,
Come before God’s presence with singing.
Blessed are they that come in the name of God!

People gave flowers to Jesus, and waved palm leaves over him. Everyone was in a cheerful mood. There was just one big problem. The singing, the people giving Jesus flowers and waving palm leaves over him — those were the kinds of things that people did for new kings of Jerusalem, back in the olden times, hundreds of years before Jesus lived.

Kate: But in the time of Jesus, the Romans ruled over Jerusalem. The Romans didn’t want anyone to question their authority. Treating Jesus like one of the kings of olden times was a way to question authority. Could some of the people hope that Jesus would lead a rebellion against the Romans? It was dangerous for them to even think about such things. So there’s Jesus riding into Jerusalem, with the people waving palm leaves over him. What will Jesus do in Jerusalem? And what will the Romans do?

Dan: If you want to know what Jesus did once he got into Jerusalem, if you want to know what the Romans did, you’ll have to wait until next week when we tell the rest of the story.


The first reading was from the Minor Dialogues of Lucius Annaeus Seneca, or Seneca the Elder, as translated by Aubrey Stewart. Seneca the Elder was born in about the same year as Jesus of Nazareth. We’ll hear two excerpts of the first dialogue, called “Of Providence,” from chapters 2 and 3.

“Why do many things turn out badly for good men? Why, no evil can befall a good man: contraries cannot combine. Just as so many rivers, so many showers of rain from the clouds, such a number of medicinal springs, do not alter the taste of the sea, indeed, do not so much as soften it, so the pressure of adversity does not affect the mind of a brave man; for the mind of a brave man maintains its balance and throws its own complexion over all that takes place, because it is more powerful than any external circumstances. I do not say that he does not feel them, but he conquers them, and on occasion calmly and tranquilly rises superior to their attacks, holding all misfortunes to be trials of his own firmness….

“Do you consider Socrates to have been badly used, because he took that draught which the state assigned to him as though it were a charm to make him immortal, and argued about death until death itself? Was he ill treated, because his blood froze and the current of his veins gradually stopped as the chill of death crept over them? How much more is this man to be envied than he who is served on precious stones, whose drink a creature trained to every vice, a eunuch or much the same, cools with snow in a golden cup? Such men as these bring up again all that they drink, in misery and disgust at the taste of their own bile, while Socrates cheerfully and willingly drains his poison….”

The second reading was a short poem by Everett Hoagland titled “Spirit.” It is not included here due to copyright.

Sermon: “Palm Sunday and the Roman Empire”

In the moment for all ages today, Kate and I imagined what it was like for Jesus and his followers when they entered Jerusalem to celebrate Passover. If you’ve heard this story before, there are probably many things about it that you take for granted. But for anyone hearing this story for the first time, it is a deeply strange story. And I think it is far stranger than most of us in the twenty-first century usually assume.

First of all, we always say that Jesus was a rabbi and his followers were Jewish, and we like to think we know exactly what we mean when we say this. But Judaism in Jesus’s time was very different from Judaism today. Today, we know that Jews belong to a synagogue, and each synagogue has a rabbi, and weekly sabbath services involve reading from the Torah and so on. Back then, however, Judaism was not centered around local synagogues, Judaism was centered around the great Temple of Jerusalem. The worship at the great Temple involved the sacrifice of animals, which included very different rituals from modern-day Jewish sabbath services.

Secondly, we like to imagine that ancient Rome had religions in the same way we have religions today, but that turns out not to be true. There’s an emerging consensus among scholars that the Latin words usually translated as “religion” do not mean the same thing as our modern English word “religion.” The great Temple of Jerusalem was partly a political power, partly a cult that focused on practices (not on beliefs), and partly a symbol of tribal or national identity. Politics, cultic practices, and national or tribal identity all blended together in ways we can barely imagine today.

Thirdly, ancient Roman society was utterly completely different from our society today. Most people in the ancient Roman empire were slaves; or if they weren’t slaves, they were freed slaves, who didn’t have much greater status than slaves. Among the people who were not slaves, only a very few were actual Roman citizens. Among the minority of people who were actual Roman citizens, only men were allowed to vote. Even among male Roman citizens, only wealthy males of high birth had any real political power. The one man at the top, the Roman emperor, had pretty much absolute authority over everyone else (at least until someone assassinated him). Ancient Rome was the exact opposite of an egalitarian society. No one in the Roman Empire had much freedom except for the Roman emperor.

In short, the ancient Roman Empire was nothing like American society today.

I want to emphasize this last point by referring back to this morning’s second reading, the one by Seneca the Elder. Seneca was an elite male Roman citizen, a person of power and influence, but even so he knew that the Roman emperor could tell him to commit suicide, and he would have to go and kill himself. (Indeed, his son Seneca the Younger suffered that exact fate.) Seneca the Elder’s life depended on the whim of one man.

You need to know all this in order to understand just how revolutionary Jesus was. Jesus said his teachings were quite simple: love God with all your heart and mind, and love your neighbor as yourself. (This is a very Jewish teaching by the way, since the first part of this is a paraphrase of the Shema Israel, and the second part is from the Torah, a paraphrase of Leviticus 19:18.) When asked who we should consider to be our neighbor, Jesus told the story of the Good Samaritan which showed that everyone is our neighbor, even despised minority groups.

This is a radically egalitarian teaching that upended the assumptions of ancient Rome. Jesus taught his followers that everyone was worthy of God’s love. Not only did that mean that everyone single person in the world had inherent worthiness, it also meant that we should emulate God and treat everyone with love and kindness. Not only did Jesus teach this, he lived this in his life. He spent time with homeless people, he talked seriously to women and treated them as equals, he answered the questions of both rich people and poor people without regard to their wealth or poverty.

You can see, then, how the elite people who were the representatives of the Roman Empire in Judea might see Jesus as a bit of a threat. If both rich people and poor people are equally worthy of love, that might imply that someone should do something about poverty and homelessness, to say nothing of ending slavery. And if Jesus treated rich people the same way he treated homeless people, you can understand how the elite people who were in power might feel that he was undermining their social and political position. This is why the story of Palm Sunday, the story of Jesus’s first day in Jerusalem, concludes with this ominous statement: “And when the chief priests and the scribes heard it, they kept looking for a way to kill him; for they were afraid of him, because the whole crowd was spellbound by his teaching.”

Recently, I have come to believe this conflict between Jesus and the ancient Roman Empire was a philosophical conflict over how to value individual people. The ancient Roman Empire as a whole didn’t place a high value on anyone except maybe the emperor. Slaves were disposable property. Free people who were not Roman citizens had little value. Women were little better than property. Even elite Roman males could be forced to die by suicide at the whim of the emperor.

By contrast, Jesus said every person has value. Women, slaves, widows, orphans, immigrants, homeless people, people with incurable diseases, poor people — Jesus treated every individual as important and worthy of love. Or, in his succinct and memorable summation of this philosophical principle, you should love your neighbor as you love yourself.

Today, we live in a much more egalitarian society than ancient Rome. We have extended legal rights (in theory, at least) to all persons more or less equally. We have mostly gotten rid of slavery, and certainly slavery is no longer legal in this country. We have developed an egalitarian form of government that makes it possible to offer any needed support to widows, orphans, homeless people, people with incurable diseases, and so on (in theory, if not quite yet in practice).

Our society has come a bit closer to the ideal outlined by Jesus two thousand years ago — the ideal that Jesus got from Judaism, and an ideal which is present in most of the great world’s religions. Our society values each individual in a way that was pretty much foreign to the ancient Roman Empire.

At the same time, we have not fully realized a truly egalitarian world. A new philosophy has gotten in the way. Instead of repeating the words of the Torah (Lev. 19:18) and saying, “you shall love your neighbor as yourself,” we tend to leave out the phrase “your neighbor as,” leaving us with the selfish injunction “you shall love yourself.” That is, instead of valuing each individual person as being worthy of universal love, our society is slowly moving towards a philosophy of selfish individualism.

Communities like First Parish exist in part to counter this creeping philosophy of selfish individualism. We can serve as a living example of a philosophy based on loving our neighbors as we love ourselves. Maybe we don’t always live up to our philosophical ideals, but we keep the ideal alive through our efforts. And, because of our non-creedal nature, Unitarian Universalist congregations can also show how this ideal exists in most of the great religions of the world. Gotama Buddha, Confucius, Laozi, and many other great religious leaders passed on similar teachings. This is an important message in an increasingly multicultural society.

Our second reading, the short poem by Everett Hoagland, is one effort by a Unitarian Universalist to universalize this philosophical ideal. Everett begins the poem by naming “The ethereal entity / that sings itself in music” — this poetic formulation could point towards the Jewish or Christian God, it could point towards the goddess of Neo-Paganism, it could point towards the Buddhist Dharma, it could point to natural law or human ethics — you can read into it a hundred different spiritual interpretations. But all these spiritual approaches teach there is something larger than our individual selves.

Everett continues his poem by telling us this mysterious entity “can be seen in a kindness.” And this poetic formulation hints at a the common ethical standards that can be found nearly all of the world’s religions: to treat each other with kindness, to see ourselves as connected to all person and all beings. (The Vietnamese Buddhist philospher Thich Nhat Hanh calls this concept “interbeing.”) Everett goes on to tell us that our inherent kindness and our sense of connectedness to all persons and all beings is going to prompt us to work for justice; and when we resist injustice, we will be supported by that “ethereal entity” that is something larger than ourselves.

The poem ends by saying that that “ethereal entity” is a physically manifested in something as simple and commonplace as a hug: it “embodies itself / in the felt way / of a hug.” The point here is not that you should walk down the street hugging everyone you meet — that would be kind of creepy. The point is that something as simple as a parent hugging a child embodies everything named in the poem — something which is larger than ourselves; kindness; fighting for justice in the world. The poem also shows us how all these things exist in the power of human connection. Where do we find God, goddess, the highest and best in humanity, or whatever you call it? — we find it in human connection, we find it in the interconnected web of all existence. Where do we find justice? — in the interconnectedness of all life. Where do we find kindness and compassion and universal love? — in human connection, in the interconnected web of all being.

Now let us return to the story of Jesus entering Jerusalem. There he was, part of the crowd of people flooding into Jerusalem to celebrate Passover. Based on what we know about the philosophy of Jesus, it’s clear he doesn’t see the crowd as a faceless entity of mass humanity. Nor does he see the crowd as a collection of isolated individuals. He sees the crowd as individuals who are all connected through what he called God, or what some of us today might call universal love.

Contrast this with the way the Romans who ruled Jerusalem perceived the crowd coming in to the city. For those in power, the ordinary people were merely a faceless mass to be manipulated and controlled. This is why they would have seen Jesus as a threat: he taught people how to see themselves as being both individually worthy and as being connected to others. Seeing themselves in this way gave them the collective power to resist the injustices inherent in the Roman Empire, while maintaining the dignity of their individuality.

It is tempting to us today to draw an analogy between our current political situation, and the political situation in the Roman Empire in the first century. It’s tempting to believe that Jesus entering Jerusalem has something to teach us about our relationship with Washington, D.C. Maybe there is analogy to be made, but I think you’d have to be a fairly knowledgeable historian to sort through the huge differences between the Roman Empire and the United States. Since I’m not especially knowledgeable about ancient Rome, I’m not going to turn this into a political sermon.

But I do believe something in the story of Jesus entering Jerusalem can influence the way we lead our personal lives. It is all too easy to reduce humanity to conveniently inaccurate labels. We do this very often in the United States today. In one obvious example, American society tends to reduce people to convenient racial categories: you’re Black or you’re White, or what-have-you; our society still has difficulty knowing what to do with biracial or multiracial people. In another obvious example, American society tends to reduce people to Democrat or Republican, to liberal or conservative; and we are likely to make judgements of other Americans based on political caricatures.

Instead of passing judgement on people based on convenient categories, what Jesus and other great religious and philosophical leaders are trying to tell us is that we should see people as both individuals, and as an integral part of an interconnected web of humanity.

This is a unique contribution that we Unitarian Universalists can bring to the wider conversation conversation about the upcoming Christian celebration of Holy Week and Easter. Jesus is often reduced to s religious figure who performed miracles. But we Unitarian Universalists also see him as a philosopher in the Jewish tradition of Rabbi Hillel who was his older contemporary. As a philosopher, Jesus emphasized both the radical importance of each individual, and the radical importance of the connection between individuals. This was a philosophy quite different form that which underlay the ancient Roman Empire. While it was not an entirely new philosophy, Jesus managed to state this philosophy in a particularly memorable way.

Today, this ancient philosophy sometimes gets obscured by the religious aspects of Jesus; but we Unitarian Universalists continue to highlight his philosophical ideals. Jesus took the ancient teaching from the Torah, to love your neighbor as you love yourself, and made it memorable both through his words and his actions. And we carry on this philosophical tradition. We continue to highlight the importance of the individual. We continue to highlight the importance of connection between individuals. And we do this both through our words and through our actions.