The Passion Of The Crowd

Palm Sunday –  9th April 2017, Steve WIlliams

Philippians 2.5-11

Psalm 118.1-2, 19-end

Matthew 21.1-11

 May I introduce you to Alex.  He’s in his late eighties. He saw military action in Italy during the Second World War.  After it was over, he devoted his life to teaching people with special educational needs.  He played the trumpet, he enjoyed a bit of cricket, he was the gentlest and most faithful of people – and our Churchwarden for more than forty years.

Ten years ago, I found him sitting alone in church after our Palm Sunday service.  Everyone else had left the building.  For the first time that year, we had done what many churches do today.  As well as remembering Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem on a donkey, we read through the whole story of Jesus’ Passion – each person taking a role within it.  We’d all chant the crowd scenes together.  Alex had taken no particular character.  He’d just joined in with the crowd.

It was strange – seeing him so thoughtful and so alone after the service.

I asked him if something had disturbed him.

And he said quietly:  “I was one of the crowd.  That was my voice among them.”

Of course, the crowd in Jesus’ Passion story chanted very different things from the crowd that greeted Jesus’ arrival into the city.

Were some the same people?

We’ll never know.

“Sometimes they strew his way,
and his strong praises sing,
resounding all the day
hosannas to their King.
Then “Crucify!”
is all their breath,
and for his death
they thirst and cry.”[1]


“And mine was one of those voices”, said Alex, staring into middle distance…  “One of the voices that shouted, ‘Crucify him’.”

The crowd become an agent in the Holy Week narrative from today.  And the story is told as though they have a scruffy, unpredictable but collective identity  –

Just a selection of cameos from this most arresting of narratives:[2]

“But when the chief priests and Pharisees tried to arrest Jesus, they were afraid of the crowds, who regarded him as a prophet.”  (Matthew 21.46)

“We’d better not try anything at the feast”, they said.  “We don’t want the people to riot.” (Matthew 26.5)

Jesus said to the crowds, “Have you really come out with swords and sticks to arrest me?”  (Matthew 26.55)

The high priests and the elders persuaded the crowds to ask for Barabbas and have Jesus killed.

“Let him be crucified”, they said.  (Matthew 27.20)

The people who were going by shouted blasphemies at Jesus.”  (Matthew 27.39)

I’ve made the deliberate choice not to read the whole Passion narrative today.  That’s for us to do, individually and together, in the week ahead.

The drama of Holy Week makes greatest sense as an embodied story – a story to be acted out, touched, lived, felt in an enacted version of real time:  embodied because it’s a sustained reflection upon, and participation in,  the life, death and resurrection of one who is the embodiment of God, the Word made flesh, the God who empties God-self, receives the form of a slave, a servant and, humbled, becomes obedient to death on a cross. If I want to get to grips with the heart of this message, this is the week to do it.  In ancient tradition, next weekend was the only time of the year in which baptisms took place.

So that crowd….  The problem with a crowd is that it’s given its identity, its name, its sense of personality by those outside it and not within it.

It’s the narrator who presents the huge crowd who welcome Jesus as the ones who recognise the arrival of the King they’ve been waiting for.

It’s the chief priests and Pharisees who warn each other about the people.

It’s Matthew who leaves the reader to identify the crowd who demand Jesus’ execution as the ones who bear responsibility for his blood – an innuendo that has resonated through history with tragic and devastating consequences. [Matthew 27.25]

The crowd is always someone else – not us.  It’s “them”, not “me”.  It’s the collective identity I define myself against, usually with a hint of self-righteousness.

It’s a phenomenon alive today.

And our words for the “crowd” are normally negative.

I think that this crowd has a collective personality that I wouldn’t like to meet alone in the street on a dark night.  But then I think of crowds of people faced with sudden and unexpected challenges – the individual acts of heroism, of first aid, of CPR, of resuscitation, for example, after an event as shocking as the recent attack on Westminster Bridge;  the many unreported acts of heroism and sacrifice among a population weathering a violent attack in a time of war.  Simon of Cyrene was taken from the crowd to help Jesus carry his cross.

So what if both we and the Passion Story-teller are being a little too hasty to ascribe a collective personality to that group of people we define ourselves against?

What if that crowd is actually made up of individuals who are capable of being both heroic and small-minded?  generous and mean?  confident and a bit lost?  A group of people who make their own decisions individually and in good faith – but who, when they step back and see the outcome of what they have decided together, are a bit horrified by the result.

“When Jesus saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, distressed and dejected[3], like sheep without a shepherd.”  (Matthew 9.36).       The passion of the crowd.

I said earlier that the drama of Holy Week makes greatest sense as an embodied story – a sustained reflection on the one who is the embodiment of the life of God, the Word made flesh.

The striking thing is just how solitary is the figure of Jesus of Nazareth moving through all this.

And yet here he is building relationships, creating communities of people who were once estranged from one another, who identified the other as a crowd or a mob.

I wonder who was in the huge crowd that welcomed Jesus into Jerusalem.

I’ve read this passage with Christian friends recently alongside Jewish friends and neighbours who were reading the prophecy from Zechariah that Matthew quotes here. [Zechariah 9.9]  One way of building relationships with people from different faith-communities is to read together one another’s scriptures.  St Andrew’s has its own scriptural reasoning group, which has met quite frequently this academic year.

One of my Christian friends said she liked to imagine that, within this crowd that met Jesus in the city, you could see the faces of the many who’d met Jesus  as he travelled with his followers around the North, and whilst heading for Jerusalem – people who’d travelled with them for the great feast they were about to celebrate… and what a tableau of humanity:  tax collectors, prostitutes, some Pharisees, fishermen, Roman soldiers, synagogue leaders, farmers, trades-people, home-makers… some people who’d never sit at the same table.

But they were united in the appreciation they were seeking to show… and its political significance would not have been lost to the observer.

My Jewish friend, reading Zechariah, pointed out to me that this prophecy was a clear expression of hope in the arrival of a king who will restore his people, who will banish the instruments of war, riding on a donkey because he has removed the need for war-horses and chariots:  he frees the prisoners of hope.

And so, when Matthew quotes Zechariah, what am I to make of the humility of this approaching king, this anointed one, this Messiah?

My Christian friend says that it means he arrives in peace, but in anticipation of the suffering that lies ahead – he is the gentle ruler who will walk the way of sacrifice.

My Jewish friend says that something more is happening.  This is a claim to authority here and now.   To enter Jerusalem on a donkey is to reverse King David’s flight from Jerusalem with many donkeys during the rebellion of Absalom. [2 Samuel 15.30]   To be greeted with palm branches and garments across the road is to be greeted like King Jehu as he rides to claim the throne. [2 Kings 9.13]  To arrive in such apparent humility is to claim that power and accountability reside here.

There’s an oral tradition around this verse that was committed to writing within Judaism after the time of Jesus – in the Talmud.

How could the Messiah be like the Son of Man who arrives on the clouds of heaven, and yet also be the King who enters his city poor and humble, riding on a donkey?  The Rabbi [Yehoshua ben Levi] said it depended upon the capacity of the people to receive and recognise him.  If they are worthy, he’ll come with the clouds of heaven.  If they are unworthy, he’ll come poor and riding upon a donkey. [Sanhedrin 98a] [4]  For the rabbis, the donkey represented the material world.  This was the promised king showing his authority over it.[5]

Humble?  That Hebrew word, עָנִי֙ (pronounced  ‘ānî), could also mean afflicted, suffering.

It occurs 38 times in the Hebrew scriptures… once in Psalm 22, so significant for the Passion narrative – “For the Lord has not despised nor abhorred the suffering of the poor, the afflicted, neither has he hidden his face from them.” (Psalm 22.24).

The good king argued the case for the poor, the afflicted, and the needy, so all went well.  Is that not what it means to know me?  says the Lord.  (Jeremiah 22.16)

The humility of this king is more than the humility of the meek and the gentle.  It’s an identification with the poor and the afflicted:  it’s the servant of the Lord turning his face towards what is broken and hurt in the world that he has made.

He bears the passion of the crowd.  He bears their suffering.

And so the stage is set.  The overture of the drama has played.

Of course, it is at this point that my Jewish and Christian friend part company in their interpretation of what happens next.

But we have arrived at this point by refusing to consign to the other the status of being a member of a distant crowd with whom we have nothing to do… we have refused to define ourselves against the other, whilst retaining our distinctive identities.  Instead, we have begun to show hospitality to one another over reading our scriptures in one another’s company  – and we overcome the passion of the crowd by showing hospitality to one another at one another’s festivals.

Christians in Manchester yesterday invited members of other faith-communities to join with them for an open air demonstration of the Passion on the Cathedral grounds.

My Jewish friends celebrate Passover, Pesach, with their seder meals tomorrow evening.

I have received hospitality from my Muslim friends as together they celebrate Eid-ul-Fitr  that marks the end of the Ramadan fast.

In Manchester, we have developed a discipline of taking photographs of events where people from different cultural, ethnic or faith background meet together – and then tweeting them relentlessly, using the #WeStandTogether tag – to portray positive images of people from different communities embracing one another – to respond to the rise in race-hate incidents that has taken place in the last 9 months (following the EU Referendum).   This is a grass-roots movement, backed by the faith-communities.

And, in a curious way, we are illustrating the quality that the solitary figure of Jesus of Nazareth displays when he enters Jerusalem at the beginning of this week to embody the life of God.

He is very simply giving his people his attention.  He has turned his face towards them.  He is present.  He is listening.  He is a guest at the feast, and will soon be the host of a feast that we will re-member today.  He receives and bears the passion of the crowd.  He takes it into his own passion.

But he will not define himself against them.  He will identify with what is hurt and broken within them.

He will serve his friends at the point of their embodied  need – simply by washing their feet before their main meal.[John 13-1-20]

And when a crowd shouts, “Crucify him”, he will say from the Cross, “Father, forgive them.” [Luke 23.21 and 23.34]

And when one person like my friend Alex realises that they, too, were part of a crowd, and shouted because everyone else was shouting, tweeted because everyone else was rushing to an opinion, gossiped because the details were too compelling to keep to themselves, then, in the silence, they find a Saviour who, when the crowd disappears, remains present and attentive;  who, when the crowd delivers rejection, shows mercy and acceptance; and who, when the crowd hollers for death, judgement and condemnation,  embodies new life, forgiveness and fresh hope.

There are two words that Matthew leaves out of Zechariah’s prophecy in describing Jesus’ arrival.  They are “triumphant and victorious”…

Zechariah writes, “Lo, your king comes to you:  triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey.”  [Zechariah 9.9]

Matthew quotes:  “Lo your king comes to you, humble and riding on a donkey.”  [Matthew 21.5]

The victory had not yet been won.  The way of suffering lay ahead.

In our last day at school before A Levels, I went round the teaching staff with a tape recorder, trying to get succinct 30-second pearls of wisdom from them to inspire us on our way ahead.  This was not entirely serious.  We kidnapped one teacher.  We sent a ransom-note to the Staff Room.. But this was met with an offer of money to keep him!  I wonder what you would say if you had 30 seconds to share with someone the most important thing to remember and sustain you in the life that you are heading into.

I can still see my old school chaplain, hunched over the microphone and saying this from memory:

“Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

In the world, you will have trouble, but courage, the victory is mine:
I have overcome the world.”[6]

[This is where I originally ended the sermon.  I realise, on reflection, that it perhaps needed a gentler conclusion, and so I offer you an added few words:

To find out the nature and meaning of this victory, may I invite you to take part in the drama of Holy Week.  Remember that the story begins with Jesus giving attention to the Passion of the Crowd.  And, whichever crowd he meets, he sees the suffering, the confusion, the indecision, of each individual beneath the apparently collective identity they bear, and, walking in the way of the cross, he addresses it.  As we have just sung:

“So did the Word of Grace
proclaim in time and space
and with a human face, ‘I am for you.’ ” [7]  ]

[1] My Song Is Love Unknown – words by Samuel Crossman

[2] Citations from trans. Tom Wright, The New Testament for Everyone, London: SPCK, 2011

[3]ἐσκυλμένοι καὶ ἐρριμμένοι – eskylmenoi kai errimmenoi – “harassed and helpless” (New RSV], “distressed and dejected” [New Testament for Everyone, op.cit.]

[4] Many references – see, e.g., Rav Kook Torah:  Bo:  Donkey Holiness –, accessed 10.04.17

[5] ibid.

[6] A blend of lines from W.B. Yeats The Second Coming  and John 16.33

[7] John L. Bell, Before the World Began