Jesus works the crowd (a Palm Sunday sermon)

(apologies for the bad quality in the early part of this video. It gets better)

“A crowd – not this crowd or that crowd, the crowd now living or the crowd long dead, a crowd of lowly or of nobles, or rich or of poor, etc., but simply a crowd, in its very concept, is the untruth” Kierkegaard (The Crowd)

It’s one of my favourite quotes from Kierkegaard – a man who left us with so many memorable snippets of wisdom. It’s one that came to mind though as I read through the Palm Sunday story again this week, and it then struck me with even more force when I reflected on it in the light of the events of the last couple of days!

“World War III may have just started. Damn you, Donald Trump.”

That was my Tweet of Friday morning, as I tried to deal with the horror of what had just happened – the American missile strike on the Syrian airbase at Shayrat.

Plenty of people suggested, in response, that I was over-dramatizing the situation and that the US had not even declared war on Syria, and perhaps that’s correct. They have troops in Syria, and they are destroying Syrian airbases, and targeting and killing Syrian soldiers, so I’m not sure what more you need to do to declare war on a country but perhaps that’s correct nonetheless.

I don’t doubt that if it were the other way around – that were the Syrian army in America, blowing up airfields and killing Americans – that it would be taken as an act of war, but perhaps when America does it to other countries it’s just a matter of good housekeeping or something like that. The point, at any rate, is that people like the US President can only do this sort of thing with the support of the crowd, and in this case, he certainly got it!

At home the American President’s popularity shot up, and around the world scores of sycophantic political lackeys (including our own PM) hooted and applauded the fact that the big man had finally done what needed to be done, and this despite the fact that his action was unambiguously illegal under international law, and that he didn’t even have the approval of his own Congress, let alone that of the United Nations.

After all, he was acting in support of the ‘beautiful babies’ of Syria, even if this meant killing the fathers of other beautiful Syrian babies – men who themselves are fighting to protect their families from Islamic State and other Jihadist groups – groups who, of course, have joined the crowd hooting support for this benign military initiative.

Now you might be forgiven for wondering what the connection is between this contemporary pack of wolves, baying for blood (as I depict them), and the group of apparently pious supporters who come out to sing psalms of praise to Jesus and to wave palms and to celebrate as He enters Jerusalem as the city’s saviour Messiah. You might wonder what the connection is, at least, until you realise that it’s the largely same group who laud him as king on the Sunday who call for his crucifixion five days later.

This sounds ridiculous, and yet this is exactly how crowds work!

‘Deindividuation’ is what psychologists call it. I still remember being fascinated when I studied this at university many years ago as part of a social psychology course.

It’s group behaviour, and, in truth, people do things in groups that they would never think of doing as individuals! The lynch mob is an archetypal example of the way this works. Normally gentle people will commit the most ghastly atrocities when they are a part of a mob, just as persons who never act outrageously will do the most extraordinary things when they feel they have the crowd behind them!

Kierkegaard believed that the reason for this extraordinary group behaviour is because responsibility is divided between the group. That is, when we act in a group, we sense that we only bear a fraction of the responsibility for the group’s actions. If I kill someone and act alone, I am solely responsible for that person’s death, but when I lynch someone with the help of a hundred other people, I only bear a tiny bit of responsibility (a one in one hundred share), barely worth considering!

“There is a view of life”, says Kierkegaard, “which holds that where the crowd is, the truth is also, that it is a need in truth itself, that it must have the crowd on its side. There is another view of life which holds that wherever the crowd is, there is untruth, so that, for a moment to carry the matter out to its farthest conclusion, even if every individual possessed the truth in private, yet if they came together into a crowd (so that ‘the crowd’ received any decisive, voting, noisy, audible importance), untruth would at once be let in!”

You can’t trust the crowd – that’s the bottom line – as it is, by its very nature, irresponsible! Why then, we have to ask, does Jesus not only work with the crowd on that great day we refer to as Palm Sunday, but actually works the crowd?

That Jesus does so, according to the Gospels, is undeniable. In each of the accounts we have it is clear that Jesus Himself makes preparations for his entry into Jerusalem, and that He deliberately stages the event in such as way as to have maximum effect on the masses!

When they had come near Jerusalem and had reached Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, 2saying to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to me. 3If anyone says anything to you, just say this, ‘The Lord needs them.’ And he will send them immediately.” (Matthew 21:1-3)

Jesus seems to have made these arrangements Himself, and the choice of the animals was very deliberate as the symbolism would have been clear to ever good Jew who witnessed the event.

“This took place to fulfil what had been spoken through the prophet, saying, 5“Tell the daughter of Zion, Look, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”” (Matthew 21:4-5)

There is no ambiguity about Jesus’ actions. He wants the crowds to recognise Him as Israel’s Messiah-king when He makes his entry. He wants the crowds to get behind Him and support Him and join His procession as they head towards the temple. All this is unambiguous. They only bit that is hard to work out is WHY?

Did Jesus actually need the crowd behind Him?

If you know the story, you know that the triumphal entry climaxes with Jesus taking over the temple, turning over the tables of the money-changers, and chasing out all the merchants there along with their animals (Matthew 21:12-13). We might well ask, from a purely human point of view, would Jesus have been able to get away with that if He hadn’t had a thousand or so people behind Him when He did it?

If Jesus had been a politician or ambitious military general, we might indeed interpret all this along the lines of Jesus making his move.

You may remember last year me sharing with you something of what I learnt from reading Mein Kampf. That was indeed the way Hitler managed his rise to power. The Fuhrer was a great believer in the efficacy of the spoken word, and would use his speeches to whip up enthusiasm amongst the crowds and would then use those crowds to silence his opponents as he strong-armed his way into positions of increasing influence. The problem, of course, is that I just can’t see the career of Jesus and that of the Fuhrer as intersecting at any point!

Perhaps if we didn’t know where the Gospel story was heading, it might be tempting to see the Palm Sunday procession as being a part of Jesus’ strategic move towards power – getting the crowd behind Him, taking over the temple, and from there, the palace, with the crowd growing in size and in passion with every step of the way – and yet that’s not where the story goes. According to the Gospel accounts, Jesus makes His point in the temple and then quietly retires for the night!

Moreover, the idea that Jesus might deliberately create a mob in order to help Him act with force runs contrary to everything He teaches.

“You know that the rulers in this world lord it over their people, and officials flaunt their authority over those under them. But among you it will be different. Whoever wants to be a leader among you must be your servant,” (Matthew 20:25-26)

Where is that from? It’s from the previous chapter in the Gospel of Matthew! Jesus was totally opposed to power-play! Instead, He taught that true greatness was to be found in meekness, and that real leadership was defined by servanthood!

I don’t believe Jesus needed the crowd behind Him on Palm Sunday, though it is clear He wanted them there. As I say, the question is why?

I know that my pattern with a lot of my sermons is to pose a question like this in the first part of the sermon and then (after having played with that question for a while) to offer what I consider to be a definitive answer. This is not one of those sermons. Indeed, the best answer I can come up with to “Why did Jesus want a crowd behind Him on Palm Sunday?” is “Why not?” After all, I don’t think there’s really anything wrong with having a crowd behind you.

Yes, every political power-player from Julius Caesar to Adolf Hitler to Donald Trump has had a crowd behind them, but so did Mahatma Gandhi and Martin-Luther King!  And in the end, the important question is not what you can do when you have a crowd behind you, but what you do do!

Oh! But the crowd cannot be trusted, says Kierkegaard, and that is true!  On the other hand, who can be trusted? Should we trust our political leaders instead? Should we trust the media, or surely the clergy? If we follow the Palm Sunday story on for a few more days, we get the New Testament’s answer to those questions very clearly! Jesus couldn’t even trust His best friends!

Part of the horror of Good Friday is that Jesus was betrayed and abandoned, not only by the crowd but by all those whom we might have thought would stand by Him! Kierkegaard too, for those who don’t know his history, lived and died alone, refusing the sacraments, even on his deathbed, as he considered the church corrupt!

Even so, I don’t think this necessarily means that we all have to resign ourselves to fighting the good fight totally on our own because we are the only ones we can trust! On the contrary, I think the challenge for most of us is that we do have to engage with that volatile and untrustworthy beast – the crowd – if we are going to accomplish something for the Kingdom!

I think it was Elizabeth Achtemeier (or one of the other great feminist theologians) who, when asked why she continued to work within the church said, “there’s only so much you can accomplish without access to a photocopier.” That’s always been a sobering reminder to me that it’s hard to get much done if you’re on your own.

Last night I was a part of a group of sixteen who came together in Canterbury to discuss what to do in response to the US attack on Syria. Most of those there were Syrian, and Arabic was certainly the dominant language, so I didn’t pick up everything. Even so, I understood the primary options being considered – namely, whether we should be writing letters to the government to express our concerns or whether we should go one step further and organise a demonstration. Perhaps it might seem odd that I was the most vocal proponent for getting a crowd together and holding a demonstration! In truth though, I don’t know of any way of fighting back against the crowd that is the untruth except with a crowd of a different sort!

As I say, Julius Caesar and Adolf Hitler and Donald Trump all had crowds behind them, but so did Mahatma Gandhi and Martin-Luther King, and so did Jesus! And it is true that the same crowd that sings praises to God one day can be the lynch mob that crucifies you five days later. Nobody knew that better than Jesus. And yet Jesus wooed the crowed, He worked the crowd, and He celebrated with the crowd:

“The whole multitude of the disciples began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the deeds of power that they had seen, saying, “Blessed is the king     who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!” Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, order your disciples to stop.” He answered, “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.” (Luke 19:37-40)

first preached at Holy Trinity, Dulwich Hill, on April 9th, 2017

About Father Dave

Preacher, Pugilist, Activist, Father of four
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