The good crowd

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

Frozen yet melting in Good

The Gospel text for Thanksgiving Day (Luke 17:11-19) is the familiar one about only one healed leper out of ten that went back to give thanks to Jesus. And so, we may be challenged to think about all the things that may keep us from giving thanks, or being thankful.

But this story from the Gospel of Luke implies being thankful WHEN SOMETHING GOOD HAPPENS. As if that’s more of a challenge. Which kind of turns the tables on us, does it not? We normally think that ungratefulness is a symptom of an unlucky life, a life that suffers, a life that is disadvantaged in whatever way. How can I be thankful, after all, when bad things happen? Or conversely, believing that it is only easy to be thankful when good things happen.

But reality is: it is just as hard, if not more, to be truly thankful when good things happen, as this text suggests. It is directed to those of us who are advantaged in so many ways, but still find it difficult to be thankful.

So what are some Thanksgiving ‘misfires’? What are some of the ways we mis the mark in being truly thankful especially when things go well for us?

It was the Fall time of the year, and a farmer was on the land finishing up a poor harvest. The season had been tough, with all the rain and very few heat days.

And he wondered, “What crop should I plant in this field next year?” The question was a sort of prayer, because he was a bit discouraged and down on his profession. He looked up into the sky …

Suddenly the farmer sees “PC” written as clear as day in the clouds. Certain this was an answer to his prayer, he believed God was calling him to “preach Christ”. So he did, and gave it all he had.

But it didn’t work out for him. Some time later, the farmer went back to the field and asked God, why being a preacher didn’t work out for him so well. He waited a few minutes in the silence with only the wind whistling through the tall pine trees lining his land. And then he heard God’s voice: “I did give you an answer to your prayer …. PC meant ‘plant corn’.”

One Thanksgiving ‘misfire’ is rushing to conclusions based on our exclusive perspective. As if it were the only way. As if there were no other options. We put ourselves in the driver’s seat of this faith journey we are on, as if we are in control of our destiny, as if we have all the answers, as if we are right, and everyone else is wrong. Lack of humility is one consequence of this arrogance with which we live our lives.

I like the story of the woman who was looking forward to the snack of cookies she had in her purse when she sat down on a park bench beside a man dressed in a business suit, clean shaven.

She had always enjoyed the view into the parkland from this bench. Her eyes lingered on the fog resting on the colours on the trees in the valley below. She and the well-dressed stranger sat in silent awe beholding the beauty before them.

When she finally looked down to retrieve the cookies in her purse, she noticed the bag of cookies already opened on the bench between them, and the stranger sitting beside her was helping himself!

“Who does he think he is?” she thought to herself. “The impertinence of some people!”

She was trying to calm herself down and enjoy the beautiful Fall day when she noticed out of the corner of her eye, the man pushed the now half-emptied bad of cookies towards her.

“What nerve!” she thought to herself. She quickly retrieved the last three cookies from the bag before getting up and stomping away. She hadn’t even said, “Have a good day!” or “Goodbye” to the man; she had just shoved the emptied bag back towards him. Jerk!

When she arrived home later that day and emptied her purse, wasn’t she surprised, and humbled, to find her bag of cookies unopened!

Are we quick to judge because we are not open to receiving anything good from someone else? Do we believe, when we are honest, that only we can give anything good to others? Do we presume that it’s up to us alone to make things better, and therefore we block any expectation of a solution coming from outside our preconceived and prejudiced notions?

Only one healed leper came back to give thanks. He understood that engaging a life of Thanksgiving first meant opening his heart to receiving grace from an unexpected source. His thanksgiving to Jesus began when he remembered who had healed him — not from the established norms, and religious leaders of the day. He had curtailed his impulse to get busy with his life, and simply recalled and acknowledged this undeserved, gracious gift.

In light of all our misfires — arrogance, condescension, judgement, prejudice — it’s a wonder there still is any good in the world. We are, after all, broken people caught up in our own compulsive behaviour.

In some churches, this Gospel for Thanksgiving is from Matthew 7:7-12 is read:

Jesus said, “Ask, and it will be given to you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for bread, will give a stone? Or if the child asks for a fish, will give a snake? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him! In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.”

How can we receive the good from God? This may be a very difficult challenge for us. To receive what is placed before us. That’s all. Especially for those of us who tend to understand Thanksgiving only as something we do for others. That’s certainly part of it.

But Thanksgiving starts by acknowledging that we are already recipients of a great grace, love and abundance. And so is everyone else.

When you think about it, it’s not the problem of evil that should have us shaking our heads, it’s the problem of good! There is much good in the world DESPITE all the ways we human beings manage to mess it up. That’s the miracle!

We are the richest Christians in the history of Christianity. And I mean, materially. There has never been a time in our history when Christians were so wealthy — had as much money, security, property, resources and material blessing — as we do today in North America.

With all the problems facing the church today, and all the challenges set before people of faith, perhaps the first thing to do and be intentional about, is NOT to jump into any presumption or initial impulse.

But simply to stop, and remember. What is God already up to in the world around you? What are the good things in the world, happening among people? Are you listening for this, watching for the presence of the living God in unexpected places?

I think Thanksgiving begins with a monumental shift in attitude.
It’s about changing our perspective — or be willing to see things differently. With a view to abundance, not scarcity — we can be thankful. With a view to see the good and not only the bad — we can be thankful. With a view to receiving the grace that is there for us already in the people we meet and the work before us — we can be thankful.

Thanks be to God!