‘The whole city was in turmoil, asking ‘Who is this?’ The crowds were saying, ‘This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee’.
Crowds are unpredictable….just ask Benjamin Netanyahu in Israel at the moment…or Emmanuel Macron in France….or the NYPD preparing for The Donald’s indictment. Crowds quite often turn into marches: they tend to need somewhere to go. There are lots of reasons why people join crowds. A crowd ‘attracts a crowd’ we say. Some people joining the crowd may have no idea what the crowd is ‘for’. It used to be a saying in Soviet Russia that if you saw a crowd forming it would be a good idea to join it. Why? Because it probably meant that the nearby shop had something worth buying and you wouldn’t want to miss out.
Crowds can be cheerful…and funny. They can be menacing and dangerous. Sometimes there’s music and sunshine. Sometimes there’s violence. Crowds can appear…and disappear, or they can take root until they are physically dispersed…by tear gas, baton charges, shots fired and tanks on the street (think Belarus or Tiananmen). There can be singing and dancing and colour and hope…and there can be nightfall and burning tyres, smashed windows and looting. And sometimes…sometimes, people die.
No wonder then that the city was in turmoil. The stakes have been raised considerably as Jesus arrives at the Mount of Olives. Possibly you can’t picture this but Jerusalem at Passover time in the 1st Century saw its population (at least) quadruple in size. A city of about 25,000 people saw an influx of another 100,000 people for the Feast – all of whom needed food, water, somewhere to stay, somewhere to buy a sacrificial lamb and so on. A city already at fever pitch with religious excitement as the celebration of Israel’s freedom from Egypt comes round again, now has this ‘prophet from Nazareth’ arriving at its gates.
There is no Twitter, no Insta, no Facebook…but the news travels. Is this the time, is this the moment when Israel finally rises from its servitude to Rome, the Priestly caste gain some backbone and throw off their self-serving subservience to the hated Emperor?
Maybe that’s putting it too strongly! But there will certainly be revolutionaries in the crowd. Over recent weeks France has seen ordinary folk on the streets during the day time protesting about pension reform and a different sort of protester at night: folk from both the far right and the far left who seek the downfall of the 5th Republic and a new political system.
So what do you do? What do you do with a crowd that holds happy smiling children waving palm branches…and possibly people who wouldn’t stop at sticking a knife into the back of a soldier isolated from his platoon?
No wonder they asked, ‘Who is this?’ ‘What do we do with him?’ The authorities need information: they get it, but it just throws up more and more questions.
‘What are they saying? ‘ …what is ‘The Street’ saying about this man? Modern day government has ways of doing things. There are processes to follow. Elections to be held, forms to fill in and (sometimes) customs to obey. ‘Order’ is important to all of us. ‘Control’ – no one wants to lose control. But once the ‘Street’ takes control who knows where the journey will end? Who knows what will happen? And in this particular mix we have serious questions about ‘who Jesus is’.
‘Son of David? ’ – well, anyone of us can trace our ancestry back to Royalty. ‘Six degrees of separation’ and all that and it may well be true that Jesus is a descendant of the great King – him and thousand of others. But this ‘Son of David’ is entering Jerusalem just as David himself had returned after the civil war against his son Absalom. This is so clearly a Royal procession that Matthew connects it to verses in the prophet Zechariah – ‘your king is coming to you’. To quote Tolkien, this really is being interpreted by the crowd as ‘the return of the King’ and that begs so many questions. The authorities know that the crowd have tried to make him King before. Herod (lest we forget) is currently wearing the crown and calling the shots – you can’t have two kings can you? So is this a coup? And if this title takes root then Pontius Pilate, just arrived in the city from his coastal resort, will certainly have something to say.
And ‘the prophet from Nazareth’? From what the leaders of the people have heard (they have, you’ll remember, been sending their people to listen to him for months now)…from what they have heard he teaches and acts ‘like a prophet’. …and they hesitate to challenge him because he is so popular with the crowd!
Could he be ‘the king’…the Messiah? Could he be the prophet the people were waiting for? ‘Some said he was Elijah or one of the prophets’, you’ll remember. The Holy Books foretold a ‘prophet like Moses’ appearing -it had been written, it might just happen.
And so we are left on this Palm Sunday with more questions than answers. But right at the top of the list is the central question we must all answer about Jesus: Who is He? Who do you say that I am?
Down the years He has collected so many titles: The resurrection and the Life, the Alpha and Omega, the Rock, Son of God, Light of the world, Good shepherd, Lord, Redeemer, Lamb of God, Prince of Life, King, Saviour, Christ. Who is this man? What would you say? Can you answer the question?
By the end of the day the whole edifice of the temple complex has been shaken. Its building stands, of course, but the tables of the money changers have been overturned, the sacrifice of animals interrupted, the authority of the High Priest challenged, the attention of the state (and behind it the Roman state) drawn to this one man. Who do you say that I am?
The city has now gone to sleep but his name is on everyone’s lips. And we all have a decisions to make: Who is this? and ‘What will you do with him?’
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