I was ten years old when my parents shuffled me and my brother into one of the front rows of the main, outdoor theatre in the small, Bavarian town. The crowd pushed and shoved for privileged seating to watch the story of Jesus’s last days acted out daily by the town’s folk every ten years.
In fact, the crowd on the large stage did not appear any different than the tourists who got up very early in the morning for tickets to the Oberammergau Passion play.
This coming Holy Week is rich with story. And when we read the stories about the last days of Jesus — full of drama, plot, and character — we will naturally identify with elements of the story-telling. Our worship is designed to help us identify, for example, with the crowds.
This morning, we sing “Hosanna” and wave our palm branches identifying with the enthusiastic crowd that first day when Jesus entered the city. “A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees …” (Matthew 21:8). Some years in Holy Week we dramatized and therefore simplify the trial scenes. We have individuals and groups speaking the various parts of the story. So, for example, ‘the crowd’ is played by the whole congregation who chants those lines together, such as “Crucify Him! Crucify Him!” (Matthew 27:23) and “He deserves death!” (Matthew 26:66).
Undergoing some mysterious metamorphosis sometime between Palm Sunday and Maundy Thursday, the crowd turns to the dark side. In a tradition that goes back centuries, Christians have most often portrayed the Jewish crowd around Jesus during his last days as rabidly and violently against him. We see it in Passion plays, the most famous of which is at Oberammergau in Bavaria. The evil crowd is also central to Mel Gibson’s film, “The Passion of the Christ.”
This over-interpretation has unfortunately led to harmful, anti-semitic justification against the Jewish people throughout the dark side of Christian history.
It may be easy to identify with these ‘bad’ crowds more than anyone else in the stories. Through the journey of Lent, we have struggled with the shadow self of our own lives, carrying our own cross so to speak, alongside Jesus. We have confessed our sin. Indeed, at the climax of Christ’s Passion, we pound nails into the cross on Good Friday. We so readily identify with the crowds, even saying that ‘we’ have crucified Jesus by our sin. It is little wonder why we come to these rather negative views, from Scripture.
What these portrayals fail to address, however, is this: Why, if the Jewish crowd was so against Jesus, was it necessary to arrest him in the darkness of night with the help of a traitor from among Jesus’s followers? Why not arrest him in broad daylight? And why do they need Judas?
What we discover is a positive, more balanced approach to the identity of the crowd. First we need to understand why the high-priestly authorities wanted to do away with Jesus.
“[The chief priests and Pharisees] wanted to arrest him …” (Matthew 21:46).
If the chief priests and Pharisees let him go on like this, everyone would believe in him, and the Romans would then intervene and execute them (John 11:48). Moreover, the authorities were not just afraid of the Roman Emperor, who was the recipient of Judean tax money and demanded political allegiance from those put in a position of power by the Emperor to keep the Pax Romana in the region. Insurrection in Judea would not be tolerated by Rome.
“… but they feared the crowds …”
Pilate and the high-priests also felt threatened by the whole crowd of people who, if they didn’t do something about Jesus, would eventually turn on them, which in 70AD (around the time most of the Gospels were written), did in fact happen. (1)
The Gospels reveal a clear disconnect between the high-priestly authorities who wish to execute Jesus, and the “whole crowd” who are “spellbound by his teachings” (Mark 11:18) and who “regarded him as a prophet” (Matthew 21:46).
This favourable support of Jesus by the predominantly Jewish crowd does not stop after the “Hosannas” of Palm Sunday. It continues throughout the days leading to the Passover Festival in Jerusalem.
The crowds aren’t perfect, to be sure. Their motivations for supporting Jesus may very well have missed the mark, especially those who still sought in Jesus a violent solution to the end of Roman rule in Judea.
Yet, they are captivated by his teachings. There is some good, therein. The ‘whole crowd’ can be personified by each of us. Which part of ourselves identifies with the crowd that is for the most part good and supportive of Jesus, even during his last days on earth?
I ask this question, especially in the midst of the most penitential season of the church year. I ask this question, and make this point as a spiritual antidote to what can easily, and so often does, slide into self-hatred on account of all our sinfulness.
We must remember we live in Christ Jesus, and the living Christ lives in us through the Holy Spirit. There is some good therein. We don’t need to be so hard on ourselves.
“The secret of life,” say the American Indigenous people, “is in the shadows and not in the open sun; to see anything at all, you must look deeply into the shadow of a living thing.” (2)
We may begin Lent and Holy Week — indeed our Christian pilgrimage on earth — by confronting our shadow self. It’s important to do so. But by the end of Holy Week we cannot avoid the open sun and see the empty tomb. The ending is always as it was in the beginning when God created everything and everyone, and said that it was good. “It was very good” (Genesis 1:31).
1 — Marcus J. Borg & John Dominic Crossan, “The Last Week: What the Gospels Really Teach About Jesus’s Final Days in Jerusalem” (New York: HarperCollins, 2006), esp. p.87-91
2 — cited in Joyce Rupp, “Walk In A Relaxed Manner: Life Lessons from the Camino” (New York: Orbis Books, 2005), p.161