28 March 2010
Rev’d Paul White
Readings: Palm Gospel Luke 19:28-40
Dramatised Passion Reading: Luke 23:1-49
May I speak in the name of God + Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
Do you remember, about this time last year, the huge furore over the pension of Sir Fred Goodwin? Under his chairmanship the RBS bank had been brought to the brink of collapse and it has had to be bailed out by the taxpayer and yet the government had approved an exit package for him which entitled him to a annual pension of over £700,000 a year.
When the government realised that it had made a massive mistake that could not be legally undone Harriet Harman (the leader of the House of Commons) went on televison and said that whatever Sir Fred’s legal entitlement to his pension this matter would not be decided in the courts of law but would be decided in the court of public opinion.
As a slight aside it is interesting that the Government was slightly less keen on appealing to the court of public opinion when the MPs expenses scandal came to light later in the year but that is by the by for now.
I have to say that that Harriett Harman’s reference to the court of public opinion sent a shiver down my spine for two main reasons:
- As a lawyer by training I have an innate respect for the rule of law and to abandon law in favour of something as fickle as public / tabloid opinion looks like a quick and slipperly slope to the loss of civilisation; and
- As a Christian approaching Palm Sunday and Holy Week I also had today’s readings at the back of my mind which really, I think, illustrate how dangerous a master public opinion can be, and how especially how dangerous the mentality of crowds can be.
We had two readings this morning – the Palm Gospel before we processed into Church and the dramatised passion of Jesus from Luke 23. They could hardly be more different in tone – in the palm gospel we recalled Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem. He had been healing and preaching and telling people about his relationship with God the Father for two or three years previously but now there was a sense that his ministry was reaching its goal and he was riding into the City of David to achieve something great – to do what he had come to do.
But what was his goal? Why did Jesus ride into Jerusalem? The crowd thought that they knew – they spread cloaks and palm branches before the colt on which he rode and they shouted:
“Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!”
They thought that this worker of miracles, who so obviously had God on his side, had come to Jerusalem for one purpose only – to overthrow the Roman occupiers and to re-establish the Jewish monarchy and so restore the Kingdom of Israel to its rightful place as the home of God’s chosen people. When Pilate uses the term “The King of the Jews” in the passion gospel he is not giving it the spiritual quality that we now associate with that term – he thought, and the people thought, that Jesus had come to be the earthly King of the Jews and so the crowd greeted him as a returning king and as a saviour from foreign oppression – “Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David!”
But what did Jesus himself think he was coming to do in Jerusalem? We know from earlier readings that he had a quite different understanding of what awaited him. In Mark 8 Jesus taught about what awaited him in Jerusalem and the end of his Journey:
He then began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and after three days rise again. He spoke plainly about this, and Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But when Jesus turned and looked at his disciples, he rebuked Peter. “Get behind me Satan!” He said, “You do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of men.”
So if Peter, one of Jesus’ closest disciples did not really understand what awaited Jesus in Jerusalem and had in mind the things of man (i.e. earthly power) rather than the things of God (i.e. a transformation of earthly power) then it is hardly surprising that the crowds who lined the road into Jerusalem did not understand either.
So the tone of the Palm Gospel is one of triumph and great expectation – the crowd expect great things of this successor of King David.
And yet how quickly things change and how quickly the mood of the crowd changes.
Within only a few days, and especially after the incident when Jesus throws the money changers out of the Temple, it becomes clear to the powers that be – especially to the Jewish leaders that this Jesus could really upset the status quo and they know that this could not only affect their own power but it could cause the Romans to clamp down on the city. And so the chief priests and the Sanhedrin – the ruling Jewish council – have Jesus arrested and then taken before Pilate in the scene that we had read for us this morning.
And the contrast between the crowd in the Palm Gospel and the crowd in the Passion reading is what makes me so nervous of the court of public opinion because it was exactly that court which tried Jesus. In the space of one week, or thereabouts, the people of Jerusalem had gone from proclaiming Hosanna to crying Crucify Him, Crucify Him! Public opinion had built up expectations into Jesus as a being a King but when it looked as though the game was up and that their expectations had been disappointed how quickly they started braying for his blood.
And are things really any different now – I mentioned Sir Fred Goodwin a moment ago – in 2007 he and his ilk were the ‘master of the universe’ and could do no wrong – but when the house of cards collapsed they become pariahs who are vilified by the press and even have their houses attacked. And how often does that happen with so-called celebrities – they are built up and knocked down time and again for public entertainment by the court of public opinion.
My spiritual director once said that God never sees crowds he only sees people. Individuals always seem to think that if they are part of a crowd that the rules of morality and responsibility somehow no longer apply to them. We certainly see that in the bible not only when the crowd cry for Jesus to be crucified but, for example, when Stephen was stoned to death in Acts 7 it was by a crowd that had been stirred up by the chief priests and, again, when the women who had been caught in adultery was brought before Jesus in John 8 it was a crowd of people who were ready to stone her. But when Jesus was asked how he would judge the women he did not address the crowd as a crowd but, rather, he asked them all as individuals to look into their own hearts and to see ask themselves whether they were really without sin. And when they did so they went away, not as a crowd, but one by one as each came to realise their own sinfulness.
And one day each one of us will also stand before Jesus and be asked to give an account of our brief time here on earth. When that happens there will certainly be no hiding in the crowd and it will never be an excuse to say that we suspended our own morality because it was what everyone else seemed to be doing, or it was what the court of public opinion seemed to demand. When we stand before Jesus we will, be uniquely alone and accountable for our actions. Now that should never be a cause for despair because we know that our God is a loving and gracious God who wants to raise us to everlasting life and to claim our place in the new heaven and the new earth, but it should instil in us a sense of personal responsibility for our own actions and decisions. Do we run with the crowd and accept the fickleness of public opinion or do we try and hold ourselves to a higher standard? What matters more to us – the judgement of our fellow people in the court of public opinion or the ultimate and eternal judgement of God?
We are now entering into Holy Week and, like today’s readings, it is a week of contrasts and emotions. It has drama, it has tragedy and, without wishing to spoil the ending too much, this time next week we will be celebrating the greatest victory of all. It is the most important story and the most important drama in human history and, amazingly, each of us is expected to play a part in that story and, unlike earlier this morning, we have abolute freedom to choose our role. Are we the crowd who, through our conduct and ignorance continue to cry “crucify him” because it is what the world seems to expect or are we like the soldier at the foot of the cross who truly recognises what has happened and who is this person who hangs in front of us – do we as individuals say: “This man is really the Son of God.”