Wednesday of Holy Week 2020

A Reflection on the Fickleness of the Crowd

This week, I’ve taken some time to look more closely at some of the details in the Holy Week narrative and thought I would share one particular area with you – the fickleness of the crowd in Jerusalem. I’ve mentioned this in passing already this year, and I know plenty of others have touched on it too in their own Holy Week offerings. The issue is beautifully articulated in that most well-known of Easter Hymns, “My song is love unknown.”

“Sometimes they strew his way,
and his sweet praises sing,
resounding all the day
Hosannas to their King,
then “Crucify!”
is all their breath,
and for his death
they thirst and cry.

From “My Song is Love Unknown” by Samuel Crossman (1624-83)

The text of the song follows the Biblical narrative. In his Gospel, Matthew records the crowd celebrating Jesus’ arrival in Jerusalem with cries of “Hosanna” and by laying their cloaks upon the road before him (Matt 21:8-9). Then, later (Matt 27:20-25), we read how the crowd requests that the notorious insurrectionist, Barabbas, be released and Jesus’ be crucified. (The hymn continues, “A murderer they save, the Prince of life they slay”.) It seems that the crowd is extremely fickle.

This fickleness is the preacher’s friend. It fits snugly alongside other betrayals – the “we-will-follow-you-everywhere” disciples’ flight for their lives, “I-will-die-for-you” Peter’s three-fold denial of even knowing Jesus, and, of course, Judas’ poisonous kiss – an intimate greeting with a deadly secret. It’s very neat, but is there actually more going on here?

I think there is. Much as it undermines the convenience of the crowd being just one of several instances of fickle changes of heart; though it takes away some of the power in the poetry of this popular hymn; and even though I risk shattering some long-held beliefs among the people of God, I believe we are dealing with different crowds here. The crowd on the road to Jerusalem is not made up of the same people as the crowd gathered before Pontius Pilate in the Praetorium.

This makes more sense of the situation to me. The crowd on the road with Jesus are Galilean pilgrims who have spent time with him and are familiar with his works. When he takes to riding the donkey, they are quick to recognise the message he is sending and happy to approve of it. But we read in 21:10, “When Jesus entered Jerusalem, the whole city was stirred and asked, ‘Who is this?'” The city-dwellers don’t know Jesus. They can hear the noise and see the adulation, but Jesus is unknown to them.

To be sure, some of them come to know him: “The blind and the lame came to him at the temple, and he healed them” (21:14); “When the crowds heard [Jesus defeat the Sadducees in debate], they were astonished at his teaching” (22:33); and Luke even mentions that as Jesus journeyed with his cross to the place of execution, “A large number of people followed him including women who mourned and wailed for him” – women Jesus calls “Daughters of Jerusalem” (Luke 23:27-8). But it is reasonable to think that in only a couple of days, Jesus did not meet everyone in the city. We should also note that the crowds being “astonished” at his teaching does not necessarily equate to their being in wholehearted agreement with it.

Matthew tells us (27:20) that the crowd baying for Barabbas’ freedom and Jesus’ death have been persuaded to do so by the chief priests and elders (who have been upset and embarrassed by Jesus ever since his arrival in the city and have been plotting to get rid of him since the following day). We should not underestimate the power of status and reputation here: on what grounds would any ordinary Jew wish to disagree with their known and respected leaders? If the educated thinkers had found Jesus guilty of blasphemy, surely that settled the matter! Even some of those who had previously been inclined to think Jesus was a good man would have been swayed by this.

Notwithstanding this, since this audience with Pilate took place early in the morning, it is hard to imagine the gathered crowd being a truly representative cross-section of the people in any case: it is far more likely that this crowd was mainly, if not exclusively, constituted of those who had been drummed up from amongst the friends of the religious leaders, including those who had already brought false charges against Jesus in the unconventional court hearing the night before. It would not have been hard for the religious leaders to pack the Praetorium with people who trusted them and knew nothing of this upstart from the country who threatened the security of the city at the very moment of their most significant feast.

We can’t be sure, but on balance, I believe “the crowd” that sang “Hosanna” on Sunday did not then cry, “Crucify him” on Friday. It was different people.

And the difference between them? The Hosanna Choir were quite well acquainted with Jesus and had learned to trust him; the Crucify Chanters were drawn from those who had to ask, “Who is this?” and who placed their trust in other powers.

Perhaps there’s a challenge here for us: it appears that spending time with Jesus enabled the Galilean crowd to see he was the king and to long for him to take his throne, whilst those who knew nothing or little of him were easily persuaded to call for his execution. There is a vast gulf between the two. When we think about how we should respond to Jesus – whether to enthrone him as king of our lives or completely to reject him and any influence he might seek to have over us – on what grounds will we make our decision? On hearsay and under the influence of those who are hostile to him, or as a result of our own investigation into what he did and who he himself says he is?

Neither of these positions are neutral. And each one will take our lives in a particular direction.

Jesus says, “Follow me.”

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