Palm Sunday is a strange day, as I note almost every year. We have two Gospel readings, and they differ dramatically in tone.
First, we hear about the crowd joyfully welcoming Jesus into Jerusalem on the original Palm Sunday. Then, just minutes later, we hear the brutal story of Jesus’ crucifixion, including the part where the crowd cries, “Crucify, crucify him!” It was probably some of the same people.
I have tended to judge that crowd pretty harshly. I have seen them as fickle, easily manipulated, and ultimately murderous.
But I recently learned that the early Church fathers, the Christian teachers and saints of the first centuries, are more charitable to the crowd. Without exception, as far as I know, the early Church fathers saw the crowd on that first Palm Sunday as sincere and devoted when they welcomed Jesus into Jerusalem.
So, what happened? Why did the crowd change their tune so dramatically?
According to the Church fathers, the religious leadership in Jerusalem is what happened.
As we heard, some of the Pharisees tried to quiet the crowds on that first Palm Sunday. Over the next few days, so say the Church fathers, the Pharisees managed to intimidate and bully the ordinary people of the city into silence or even into complicity with Jesus’ death.
If that’s right, it may well be that few in the crowd wanted Jesus to die. But a few frightened people cried out, “Crucify, crucify him!” And once the cry got started, it kept building.
Think how hard it would be, being in the crowd, with everyone around you calling for Jesus’ death, and knowing that the people who were orchestrating Jesus’ death were mingled with the rest of the crowd and willing to kill to get their way. It would have been scary. I might have cried out too.
But the people in the crowd were not the only ones frightened that week.
The religious leadership, the ones who intimidated people into calling for Jesus’ execution, they, too, were afraid.
One of their ringleaders, Caiaphas, worried that the enthusiasm of the people for Christ might lead them to act irresponsibly and effectively force the hand of the Romans, leading to bloodshed, and discrediting people like Caiaphas himself, who were charged with keeping the peace (John 11:49-50). It was a reasonable fear.
The religious leaders were also frightened of Jesus’ supporters. Even after they decided to have Jesus killed, they couldn’t touch him during the day, when he was surrounded by sympathetic crowds. As Luke tells us, “They feared the people” (20:19).
Among the Pharisees, at least one, Nicodemus, knew that what they were plotting was wrong. To his credit, Nicodemus protested when his colleagues condemned Jesus. But Nicodemus was silenced by their scorn (John 7:50-52).
So, frightened Pharisees frightened ordinary people into calling for Jesus’ death.
There’s still more. The Romans were afraid, too. At least Pilate was, as John tells us (19:8). Pilate had Roman troops at his command. But Pilate was still frightened enough that he let himself be bullied by the crowd into condemning a man he knew didn’t deserve to die.
Here’s the point. That week, everybody was afraid. The crowds feared their own leaders. Their leaders feared the crowds and the Romans. Roman Pilate feared the crowds.
And in that atmosphere of mutual suspicion and fear, gross injustice was done.
So, whose fault was it?
There were real villains, people like Judas and Caiaphas, who made Jesus’ crucifixion happen.
But the real villains were the minority. The overwhelming majority of people there the day Jesus was condemned wanted Jesus released, including some people with real power.
But it didn’t happen, and virtually no one was truly innocent.
Think about this. If enough people in the crowd had been willing to stand up to their religious leaders, or if the honest leaders had stood up to the rest, or if Pilate had stood up to the crowd, Jesus might not have been crucified. It just took courage on somebody’s part. But they were all afraid, and Jesus got crucified, a victim of their mutual fear.
Now, next Sunday we’ll celebrate God’s answer to the fear and injustice of that day. But we’re not to Easter yet. First, we have to sit with our readings for today.
So, what does today’s reading have to teach us?
Start with the parallel between then and now. Like them, we live in a fearful time. We have plenty of legitimate reasons to worry, and also plenty of voices that play on our anxieties and exaggerate them.
Our readings warn us about the tragic injustices that can happen in fearful times. When people act and react primarily out of suspicion and fear, bad things result. Injustice on the global stage. Meanness in our personal lives. It was true then, and it is true now.
And, our readings suggest, if we get caught up in the fear, if we let fear drive us, we may well share in the responsibility when bad things happen, even if we are not directly involved. That’s a sobering thought.
But there is one important exception to the story of fear and sin that we just heard: Jesus. Even when everyone around him was driven by fear, Jesus was not.
Like everybody else, Jesus was scared. At least, that’s what it sounds like when Jesus asked that the Father “remove this cup” from him, when Jesus prayed with such anguish that his sweat became like great drops of blood.
But Jesus was different, too, because Jesus didn’t let his fear drive him. Jesus didn’t plot, or go along with the crowd, or get intimidated into doing something he knew was wrong.
Instead of acting out when he was frightened, Jesus prayed. That’s a good lesson.
Jesus prayed, and Jesus submitted to the will of his heavenly Father, no matter what it might be. “Not my will,” Jesus prayed, “but yours be done.”
Nothing exactly miraculous in that. And yet, Jesus’ prayer is one of the most impressive moments in his ministry. When everyone else was controlled by fear, Jesus was not.
This is the big lesson in our story.
We live in scary times. We will often be afraid. But as Christian people, we don’t have to give in to fear. Bad things may happen. But no matter how bad things get, no matter how awful our fears may be, we can always pray.
In prayer, when we are struggling, we ask for God to make things better, and we certainly hope that God will. But at our best, we follow Jesus’ example. We submit to God’s will, whatever it may be. And God gives us the courage to face our trials, just like God did for Jesus.
And so, on this Palm Sunday, I thank God for the example of Jesus Christ. I thank God for the gift of prayer. And I thank God for giving us the courage we need to face our own fearful time.
In Christ’s name. Amen.
Rev. Dr. Harvey Hill
Third Order Franciscan