13 April 2014
St Mary’s Hadlow
Readings: Palm Gospel Matthew 21:1-11 Passion Gospel: Matthew 27: 11-54
May I speak in the name of God + Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
Cast your mind back, if you will, to 2009. Do any of you remember the huge furore over the pension of Fred Goodwin? Or Fred the Shred as he became known by some? Of course he was Sir Fred Godwin at the time but was stripped of his knighthood in 2012. Under his chairmanship the RBS bank had been brought to the brink of collapse and it had to be bailed out by the taxpayer at huge expense 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 (then 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.
I have to say that that statement sent a shiver down my spine for at least two reasons:
- Firstly, as someone with an innate respect for the rule of law I fear that to abandon law in favour of something as fickle as public opinion looks like a quick and slippery slope to the loss of civilisation; and
- Secondly, as a Christian 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.
And of course, since those far off days of 2009 it seems to me that our society has become increasingly beholden to the court of public opinion – whether it is the inexorable rise of talent shows in which careers can be made or broken by those who vote, whether it is the mainstream media who build up celebrities in order to knock them down again in the name of their readers or viewers or whether it is the new media such as Facebook or Twitter which sometimes have the power to mobilise thousands to a cause in a matter of moments. Only this week we had Maria Miller forced to resign not by the prime minister or parliament but, essentially, by the court of public opinion. I will come back to that in a moment.
We had two readings this morning – the Palm Gospel before we processed into Church and the passion of Jesus from Matthew 27. 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 he who comes in the name of the Lord!
Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David!”
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” 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? Well, we never hear him address or even respond to the crowd as he enters Jerusalem but we do know from earlier readings that he had a quite different understanding of what awaited him. Sticking with the Gospel of Matthew cast your mind back to Matthew 16. Peter acknowledged that Jesus was the Christ, the one anointed by God, and then in verse 21 Jesus says clearly what this anointing means, and what lays in wait for him in Jerusalem:
21 From that time on Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life.
22 Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. ‘Never, Lord!’ he said. ‘This shall never happen to you!’
23 Jesus turned and said to Peter, ‘Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling-block to me; you do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.’
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, the court of public opinion, 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 in the garden of Gethsemane and then taken before Pilate.
And the contrast between the crowd in the Palm Gospel and the crowd in the Passion 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.
My spiritual director once said something I will never forget. She said that God never sees crowds he only sees individuals. People always seem to think that if they are part of a crowd that the rules of morality and individual 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, amazingly, we have absolute 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.”