Is the old saw “religion and politics don’t mix” either emphatically denied or profoundly affirmed by the events of Holy Week? Or is it perhaps some tertium quid? While we cannot deny the confluence (or clash) of political identification and religious meaning in the events of Holy Week, neither can we definitively arrive at one conclusion or another. It may be that the actions and words of Jesus in Holy Week in fact tell us something about the necessary—and salutary—tension between political life and religious identity.
As Passover approached—a feast commemorating Jewish deliverance from bondage in Egypt—Pontius Pilate felt compelled to make a show of imperial strength and resolve. Lest the religious ceremonies at Jerusalem stir up any thoughts of a new political liberation, Pilate came to flex imperial muscle. With a little shock and awe, he came to Jerusalem to remind the Jews that their primary identification was as Roman subjects. They could celebrate their religious ceremonies just so long as they did not derive any political implications from them.
Their religious fervor must not translate into political fever.
On the other side of town, a political rival unknown to Pilate made his dramatic and (as told by the evangelists), highly symbolic entrance. Indeed, according to the Gospel of St. Matthew, Jesus came as Zion’s King, fulfilling the political prophecy of Zechariah. As he entered Jerusalem, his followers overwhelmingly hailed him as a rival King—a reminder to the Roman authorities that their subjects in this imperial backwater were not to be a docile lot, throwing down a warning of insurrection and renewed liberation. As the Feast of Passover neared, according to St. John’s account, senior leaders in Jerusalem’s politico-religious establishment were telling Pilate that their religious feast was in support of political action.