Saturday, April 4, 2020

If the Crowd Turns

Matthew 27:15-25
Lent 6 / Palm Sunday
April 5, 2020
William G. Carter

Now at the festival the governor was accustomed to release a prisoner for the crowd, anyone whom they wanted. At that time they had a notorious prisoner, called Jesus Barabbas. So after they had gathered, Pilate said to them, “Whom do you want me to release for you, Jesus Barabbas or Jesus who is called the Messiah?” For he realized that it was out of jealousy that they had handed him over. While he was sitting on the judgment seat, his wife sent word to him, “Have nothing to do with that innocent man, for today I have suffered a great deal because of a dream about him.” Now the chief priests and the elders persuaded the crowds to ask for Barabbas and to have Jesus killed. The governor again said to them, “Which of the two do you want me to release for you?” And they said, “Barabbas.” Pilate said to them, “Then what should I do with Jesus who is called the Messiah?” All of them said, “Let him be crucified!” Then he asked, “Why, what evil has he done?” But they shouted even more, “Let him be crucified!” So when Pilate saw that he could do nothing, but rather that a riot was beginning, he took some water and washed his hands before the crowd, saying, “I am innocent of this man’s blood; see to it yourselves.” Then the people as a whole answered, “His blood be on us and on our children!”

It is an unusual Palm Sunday when children are not present. Palm Sunday is made for them. This is the day the church hands out props. Sometimes it’s the spiky palm branches imported from Florida, just ready for imaginary light saber fights with your friends or poking your sister from behind. Children inhabit one of our favorite Palm Sunday songs: “All glory laud and honor, to thee, Redeemer King, from whom the lips of children the sweet hosannas ring.”

In one of the accounts of the story, it is the children who squeal with delight when they see Jesus riding into the city on a donkey. The grownups say to Jesus, “Get those children to be quiet,” but he retorts, “If the children were quiet, the stones would cry out.”

Children recognize Jesus as one of their own. They see what’s going on. They have deep insight. In fact, it is a child who will often ask, “Why does the crowd that loves Jesus on Sunday hate him by the end of the week?” That’s a good question. It’s the question for today.

Some would say, “It’s not the same crowd.” I wonder how they know that. Did they take attendance?

I suppose they have a good point. Multitudes are multitudes. Passover was – and still is – the largest festival of the Jewish year. In the days of Jesus, the scholars tell us the population of Jerusalem multiplied. One preacher from Georgia says we can estimate between 200,000 and a million people were in the city that week. That’s quite an estimate, give or take 800,000.

Suffice it to say, there were a lot of people in the Holy City of Jerusalem. Every inn was full. Every bed was taken. Every lamb was purchased. Every piece of unleavened bread was consumed. Passover is that important! And if you have that many people swelling into the city, it’s logistically doubtful that the same people at the front end of the week would stick around to the very end of the week.

Except that Matthew doesn’t make a distinction. The Friday crowd has gathered for the Roman governor to release his customary Jewish prisoner as a Passover public relations ploy. The previous Sunday crowd welcomed Jesus as they sang from Psalm 118, “Hosanna! Blessed is the One who comes in the name of the Lord.” That’s a Passover psalm. Say what we want: Matthew sees it as the same crowd, a Passover crowd. There is no segmenting “this crowd” from “that crowd.”

In fact, in the Gospel of Matthew, the crowd is important. The word “crowd” comes up forty-eight times. Everywhere Jesus goes, there’s a crowd. According to Matthew, Jesus doesn’t slip off by himself very much. Rather, he welcomes whoever is drawn to him. He gives himself to the whole assembly of the human family. In one poignant moment of ministry, he has compassion on a large gathering of people because “they were like sheep without a shepherd.” (9:36). Even in a season of social distancing, we are part of the crowd. That crowd is us.

And yet, in this Gospel writer’s view, the very same people who welcome Jesus will turn on him five days later. Why do you suppose that is?

Some would point out that crowds are fickle. They change their minds. In the bottom of the fourth inning in a ballgame, they boo the pitcher who can’t get it over the plate. But if that same player hits a home run in the bottom of the ninth with the bases loaded, they jump to their feet and cheer with a single voice. Were you ever part of a crowd like that? Of course you were.

Crowds can take on a mind of their own. Each crowd has a persona shaped by the setting and the circumstances. If you are enjoying a concert in a crowded auditorium, and everybody is having a good time, the trajectory may build toward the finish, and then the crowd leaps up as one for a standing ovation.

Or recall the public rallies, all too familiar these days, where someone up front loudly picks a fight against opponents who aren’t even in the room. In such moments, facts don’t matter. The only thing that matters is ramping up the rhetoric, cranking up the energy, and energizing the audience. Woe to the singular protestor who dares to speak up and heckle! A person like that will get hurt and the crowd will laugh.

Anybody wonder how a crowd could turn on Jesus?

The psychologists tell us something more. They call it the phenomenon of a “mob mentality,” noting that “simply being part of a group changes how people think and behave.” A few years ago, after a riot in Cologne, Germany, two social psychologists wrote:

A group of people may behave in ways that violate the moral standards of each individual in that group, often leading to destructive behavior and brutality... Acting as part of a group can make individuals feel more anonymous and less responsibility for their actions, both of which promote aggression. Crowds may also change what constitutes seemingly appropriate behavior: if everybody else is doing something, it seems justified or correct. Alternatively, perpetrators may knowingly commit wrongdoing to seek the approval of those around them.[1]

This sheds light on how the Palm Sunday hosannas can unravel into a unison cry on Friday to “crucify.” The crowd speaks as one. Together they shouted, “Hosanna!” Together they shouted, “Crucify!” Nobody dared to say otherwise. In fact, by Friday, Matthew says the religious leaders were actively agitating the crowds, and nobody, not Pontius Pilate nor Pilate’s wife with her nightmare, could talk them out of it.

And there’s one more factor that needs to be noted. When people are systematically mistreated, when they are demeaned, deprived, and put down in every way, should anybody be surprised if they rise up and push back? If the daily agitation that they feel is not released or processed in a constructive way, it will create more destruction.

That was the situation in the times of Jesus. Jerusalem was occupied by solders from the Roman Empire. The Empire rolled in with brute force. The people pushed back, an insurrection here, a demonstration there, and the Empire clamped down even harder. The city was a keg of dynamite, ready to explode. That’s why Pontius Pilate was there, to keep a lid on the Jewish Passover. Should we be surprised that Jesus became a scapegoat?

I remember the first church I served as a student pastor. It was in Plainfield, New Jersey. One of the old-timers was showing me around and said, “Do you know where we are?” Without waiting for an answer, he said, “We are standing on the front line of the Plainfield race riots.” I looked around nervously and said, “I don’t see anybody.” He said, “No, that was in 1967.” I was curious to discover more.

In 1967, a third of the population in Plainfield was African American. Most of those folks wanted to raise their families, get along peaceably with their neighbors, and commute to the good jobs in Manhattan. But many of their neighbors weren’t so sure about having them around. Very few of those good paying jobs found their way to the African American third of the city. So the short version of the story is that tensions ran high. Anger simmered. Fear and innuendo were stoking the fire.

One Friday night, a fight broke out at the White Star Diner. Words flew. Fists flew. Store windows were smashed. Police cars were pelted by rocks. The situation caught fire. A white police officer took a shot at a young African American. The mob turned on him and killed the officer with his own gun. It happened just like that…because it had been happening for a long time.

There were three days of riots in Plainfield. It was only one of 167 riots that broke out during the Long Hot Summer of 1967. Over fifty years later, that city is still broken and struggling to recover, all because some people had been oppressed so hard they could not stand, and they wouldn’t take it anymore. Just like Jerusalem.

And into this whole mess of humanity comes Jesus of Nazareth, Son of God and human Messiah. He chooses to ride the young donkey. Those who remembered the words of scripture picture him as “the humble king.” He is powerful and authoritative, yet he chooses to serve as one who is poor in spirit. The crowd cheers, cries out “hosanna,” because they expect him to use his power to lift them up and free them from years of degradation. Instead he just gives himself away.

On the day of his sentencing, Pontius Pilate puts it to the crowd. “As a Passover gift,” he announces, “let me release one of my prisoners and give him back to you. There are two to choose from. There is Jesus of Nazareth, and there is Jesus Barabbas.”

Now, wait, you say. We have heard about Barabbas before. He was a violent man, a revolutionary who killed somebody during an insurrection. And his first name was Jesus? That’s what Matthew’s Gospel says. And not only that: the name Barabbas means “son of the father” – “bar” is “son,” and “abbas” or Abba is “Father.”

So Pilate’s offer to the crowd is this: do you want Jesus Barabbas, son of the father, or do you want Jesus the Christ, son of the Father? Do you want the violent Jesus who considers killing somebody if it would change the world? Or do you want Jesus the humble king who comes to heal, restore, and teach us to forgive and love our enemies? This is the choice they are given. This is the choice that is still before us.

We are in the midst of an unexpected pandemic. The invisible threat of illness reveals who we are. On the one hand, gun sales are setting records, and some would deem the self-defense industry as “essential.” On the other hand, we have people in our own church who are stitching up face masks to protect caregivers from getting infections. There it is, the same choice: do we give in to the seduction of violence or do we engage of the hard work of healing?  Jesus Barabbas or Jesus the Messiah?  

The tragedy of Holy Week is that, for whatever reason, the crowd who acclaimed Jesus on Sunday made the wrong decision on Friday. They let their anxiety get the best of them. But the good news is that God anticipated this from the beginning. The crowd who has no shepherd does, in fact, have a Good Shepherd who will lay down his life for them. And in the grand sweep from Palm Sunday, to Good Friday, to Easter, God raises Jesus to come back with mercy and compassion and grace, and say once again to the crowd, “Can we try this again?”

There is another way to live. We have heard Jesus teach it. Blessed are the poor in spirit. Blessed are the meek. Blessed are those hungry and thirsty for righteousness, even if they are persecuted for doing the right thing. Blessed are the merciful and the pure in heart. Blessed are the peacemakers.

And blessed is the One who comes in the name of the Lord.

(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.

[1] Mina Cikara and Adrianna Jenkins, “The Role of Mob Mentality in the Cologne Attacks,” Time magazine, 20 January 2016. Accessed online at

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