This is a sermon for Palm Sunday. It reflects on the events narrated in Mark’s gospel from the beginning of chapter 11 to the end of chapter 15.
I was speaking to someone this week who told me that Palm Sunday was always her favourite service of the year, even as a very young child. She pointed out that it was the one day when the people around Jesus really responded to him as they should, as we all should; that the procession with palms and the praising crowds are an image of what we should be, what will be at the end of time, and an encouragement to persevere and to hope.
I must admit I’ve never been able to feel quite the same way; I always remember, with a slightly sick feeling in my stomach, how so soon after, the crowds in the same streets were calling for Jesus to be crucified. The praise on Palm Sunday rings pretty hollow, and reminds me of human fickleness, weakness, and selfishness; how quickly we’ll turn on someone when it suits us.
What gets someone from “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!” to “Crucify him!”? We know a lot about what Jesus said and did in that week in Jerusalem, but what was going on in the hearts and minds of “the crowds” who gathered around him at either end of it? Or were they even the same people at all?
Here’s what I can make out about “the crowd” during that week, as recorded in Mark’s gospel.
The day after the triumphal entry, Jesus upset the marketplace in the temple, driving out those who were selling and buying, and overturning the tables of the money changers. And – according to St. Mark – “the crowd was spellbound by his teaching.”
The day after that, Jesus was challenged by the chief priests about what authority he had to do these things; and when Jesus turned their question back on them, Mark says that “they were afraid of the crowd.” Why were the chief priests afraid of the crowd? (We’ll come back to that).
Jesus taught in the temple, answering questions from Pharisees about taxes, from Sadducees about resurrection, and from scribes about legal matters; and the “large crowd was listening to him with delight.”
And then there’s a break, for the crowds, at least. The chief priests plot, Jesus celebrates Passover with the disciples, and goes to the garden at Gethsemane… and the crowds don’t come back until it’s time to arrest him. And this time it’s a crowd specifically “from the chief priests” – not so much a spontaneous gathering as one with organisers, and presumably paymasters, behind it. And even when the crowds gather before Pilate to shout for Barabbas and for Jesus’ crucifixion, Mark says that “the chief priests stirred up the crowd.”
So we see “the crowd” go from palm branches and praise, to being spellbound by Jesus’ teaching, to listening to Jesus with delight. But the chief priests were afraid of the crowd, and organised them and stirred them up, manipulating them to turn on Jesus.
Fear. Fear of Jesus, and the challenge he represented to the status quo. Fear of the crowd, of their emotional needs, of their willingness to be led, of what they might do if it was anything other than what the chief priests told them to do. Gosh, politics hasn’t changed much in two millennia.
So, what happened to the crowd? They were, I think, caught between two competing visions of what it would take to “make Israel great again.” Jesus’ take on the reign of God, with its radical realignment of priorities and community; or the chief priests’ vision of a society profoundly shaped by Torah, centreing on the temple, where the very living God dwelt in the midst of his people. These two visions had a lot in common, but in the end, they were incompatible; if you wanted to respond to either of them wholeheartedly, that implied rejecting the other, at least to some degree.
And I think it was that rejection that the chief priests feared. That the people would abandon the temple, with its worship services and economic significance, would abandon the priests and their sacrificial system, would abandon some of what made the Jews distinctively Jewish and helped them survive under successive brutal foreign regimes.
All to follow a wandering rabbi who’d be here today, and gone tomorrow, and whose dreams of a kingdom transcending this world would turn out to lead nowhere at all; at least, that’s how the chief priests saw it.
Better for the crowds to see that sooner rather than later; better for them to realise where their hopes truly lay. Better for them to stick close to where we know God has been, as the most likely indicator of where God will be with us in the future.
They couldn’t know, of course, what would happen. We can’t really blame them for their ignorance, for not foreseeing the resurrection. Perhaps we can’t even blame them for their fear.
But there are two things we can – if not blame them for – certainly take as object lessons for ourselves.
One is that they missed the point. Their vision of what God meant to them, what God meant their people to be, how they should respond, was so off true it led them to incite murder.
And the other is about control. They thought they could bring their vision about, if only they could control events tightly enough. Control the loose cannon of a rabbi called Jesus. Control the Roman response. Control the crowds who surged through the streets. Somehow, if they could make all these people do what they wanted… the story might have a happy ending.
It doesn’t work like that, though. Their manipulations didn’t end the way they wanted, for anybody; not for Jesus, not for the crowds – who saw their temple destroyed and their people expelled from the city only a generation later – and not even for Judas, who got his thirty pieces of silver, but couldn’t live with them.
The object lessons for us is that we have to be so careful what visions we daydream up for ourselves, for our families and churches. We have to keep coming back again and again to the most basic things we know about God, and making sure that whatever we imagine we might be, become or do, is completely in keeping with those things. In keeping with perfect love; in keeping with profound peace; in keeping with the patience and gentleness Jesus so perfectly modelled for us.
Because if we don’t – if we let ourselves run away with fantasies fuelled by fear, by the desire for power or dominance, if we give in to the impulse to control and to force and to manipulate – this morning’s gospel shows us just how ugly the end of that path is.
It’s going to be a long week. We will have many opportunities to reflect together on these events and what they mean for us, (and I encourage you to take full advantage of them). But if we start the week here – knowing our own human tendency to buy into misguided visions of what God is up to, and knowing our human tendency to grasp for control, and from that recognition, deciding to be open to whatever vision God might give us, and whatever God might do in and for and through us, when we let God be in control – we might well find the week surprises us with what it brings.
At least, I pray that it might be so.