Holy Week crowds planned or spontaneous?


Scripture: Palm Sunday Mark 11: 1-11 Nigel Bunce

Image from Church of England website

Holy Week crowds: planned or spontaneous?

Holy Week features two types of crowds.  Both seem planned not spontaneous.  Good Friday looks like a crowd for hire.  But was Palm Sunday a deliberate parody?  

The Gospel stories of Holy Week are archetypical

This phrase means that we can see in them many of the motifs in both classical and contemporary stories. One motif is an odyssey, where the hero has to surmount many obstacles before regaining safety or getting home.  Jesus’ final triumph, at the Resurrection, is that kind of story.

But I want to imagine Holy Week as a different kind of story. It’s the story that starts off well, but you just know, deep down, that there’s no happy ending.

For a moment, let’s imagine that we are reading or hearing it for the first time.  Today, Palm Sunday, we hear the enthusiasm of the crowds who shout “Hosanna!”. But as we read through Chapters 11 to15 of Mark’s Gospel, the scene darkens progressively. There’s increasing conflict with the religious authorities. Temple elders, Pharisees, Sadducees.

Then, as we heard last week, a trusted disciple, Judas, plots to betray Jesus. There’s his arrest and a show trial, reminding me of the likely fate of the “two Michaels” in China. Meanwhile, his most trusted aide, Peter, denies that he knows Jesus. By the time of his crucifixion, all his male disciples have deserted him completely.

Did the same people make up the Palm Sunday and Good Friday crowds?

Many writers say so.   They interpret Holy Week as the fickleness and faithlessness of the crowd. Not just them. By extension, all humanity, including ourselves. But I doubt that they were the same crowd.

The Good Friday crowd looks to me like a “mob for hire”. I figure that the Chief Priests had a big hand in assembling them. It’s the sort of crowd that Iranian leaders might assemble to chant, “Death to America”. They know very well why they are there and what they are supposed to chant.

But yet, it’s too facile to think that there was no planning ahead for the Palm Sunday demonstration. Was that crowd completely spontaneous in cutting branches and throwing their coats in the dirt? Or did Jesus’ disciples egg them on in the background? After all, Jesus didn’t just show up barefoot.  Thus, we can ask,: Were the Holy Week crowds planned or spontaneous?

A closer look at Palm Sunday

The disciples went through the whole rigamarole of fetching a donkey. Then Jesus rode into town looking faintly ridiculous on a little donkey. It was a parody of the arrival of a conquering hero. He rides into town after winning a battle, on a perfect (and huge) white stallion.

The idea of parody puts a very different perspective on the way that we usually read the Palm Sunday story. The people shout “Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David.” Parody says, the kingdoms of Herod, the chief priests, and Pilate aren’t coming, they’re going away.

The Hebrew prophet Zechariah had prophesied the colt (or donkey) that had never been ridden. “See, your king comes to you: triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey; on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” It would be familiar to 1st century Jews, and to Mark’s Jewish readers.

A big disconnect

So, the big disconnect between, “Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David” and showing up looking ridiculous on a little donkey was the whole point. Because Jesus did not claim to be a king of this world. He made that clear in his exchanges with Pilate on Good Friday.

Because, none of the stories about Jesus suggest that he planned to be an earthly ruler.  Not even the Jewish concept of Messiah, ruling the world as God’s proxy.

Kingship is really the wrong word. Jesus spoke about a spiritual realm. It is worldly only in the tradition of the Old Testament prophets who railed against injustice, corruption, and oppression of the poor.

Pilate’s reaction

However, the idea of Jesus as any sort of king would have been very disturbing to the Roman authorities. Full of crowds for the Passover celebrations, Jerusalem would have looked to Pilate like a tinder box just waiting for someone to strike a match.

Time for a chat with the Temple authorities, to get rid of this potential trouble-maker. Gandhi in British India or Mandela in apartheid South Africa were modern parallels of trouble-makers who opposed oppressive rule. Both men spent years in prison to get them out of the way.

Jesus’ kingship in modern Canada

Modern Canadians can also find the notion of Jesus as a king problematic. Traditionally, we’ve seen Jesus’ kingship as a natural expression of a Christian society, with Christianity having automatic primacy. In modern, secular Canada, where many follow other faiths, it mean a loss of prestige/

Our Scripture text says that Jesus rode into Jerusalem with humility, on a common donkey. Not like the Roman Governor Pilate in his chariot. Thus, the loss of status for Christianity in modern Canada invites us to ride, spiritually, on a humble donkey, not in a mighty chariot.

More like Jesus, the “king who wasn’t a king.” We have more in common with Jesus’ early followers than with Anglican churchgoers a century ago. They sent missionaries to tell the benighted peoples of distant lands that their beliefs were primitive and wrong.

Fame or shame: Were the Holy Week crowds planned or spontaneous

There’s a saying that the 24-hour news cycle gives people get fifteen minutes of fame. These days, it’s more often fifteen minutes of shame for an ill-judged Twitter post. Pilate and the Temple elders tried to give Jesus “fifteen minutes of shame”.

They executed him shamefully on Good Friday, hoping that people would soon forget him. But, as we shall recount next Sunday, Easter Day, Jesus’ odyssey turned out quite differently. His shame, and also his fame, have persisted for two thousand years!

To sum up

I want to end with two thoughts.  To repeat what I said at first.  Holy Week poses an important question for us.  Were the Holy Week crowds planned or spontaneous?  Our answer determines how we understand our own role in the drama.

But Holy Week is also a kind of parable for our own lives. We can’t spend every day in the sunshine of Palm Sunday, when everything goes right and everyone loves us. We all have dark times grief, sorrow, and loneliness. But the Gospel story reminds us to be patient. One day, the clouds will break; the sun will shine again.