Look where it occurs in each (Mt 21:1-11; Mk 11:1-10: Lk 19:28-40; Jhn 12:12-19) and how much gospel text follows it, and realize this event forms a line of demarcation. At this point a weird and powerful phenomenon suddenly gathers overwhelming momentum to roll through the approaching week like an enormous tide, sweeping one way then another, seeming to control the whole course of events, even of world history: crowd mentality.
My mother warned me long ago to avoid stirred-up crowds. And through my adult years I’ve seen the wisdom in her advice. On numerous occasions in varied settings I’ve sometimes observed, in stunned astonishment, bizarre and chilling behavior in groups of people captivated by some cohesive force. I’ve watched individuals I thought I knew transform into unfamiliar beings taken over by a Group Mind, whose personality supplanted their own.
Is this what happened back in that week two thousand years ago–if not at Christ’s entry, at least later on, when the crowd ended up chanting, “Crucify Him! Crucify him”?
In Their Sandals
I try now to put myself into the scene that fateful first day—as, say, one of the villagers seeing two men enter my town, untie my neighbor’s donkey colt, and start leading it away. I hear someone shout the equivalent of “Hey! What are you doing?” and their reply: “The Lord has need of it,” then the counter-reply: “Oh.” Then I watch the two men, the colt, and its mamma depart, and I watch the people around me—and the huge crowd beyond the village—respond.
A stirring takes place. Individuals make a mental connection between this event and ancient prophesies, and begin murmuring of them to others, and soon it seems the whole village is emptying to rush forth and join the crowd beyond.
These people may have been rustics, but they weren’t ignorant about certain ancient foretellings. Under Rome’s oppression, they found hope in past promises of a future Messiah: like Isaiah 62:11–and Zechariah 9:9. And now the miracle-working Teacher in the crowd was about to use a donkey foal and its mother to enter the great, prophetically pivotal city, Jerusalem, “the Daughter of Zion” (Zec 9:9). Could it be…?
The thought would take my breath away. How could I not follow, at least at a distance?
Could I then have kept from getting caught up in the spreading fervor, amid the crowd chanting and singing the familiar words,“Hosanna! [Save now!] Hosanna in the highest! Blessed is He Who comes in the name of the LORD!” (Ps 118:25-26; see also Ps 118:19-24)—and throwing palm branches and their own outer clothing onto the path before the Man on the donkey? If nothing else, wouldn’t intense curiosity seize me?
Yet more was at work here in these people than curiosity, or football-stadium-type cheering. For by the time the whole multitude had crowded into the astonished city, some of whose occupants had come out to join them, even the children were shouting and singing—to the point that the dismayed Jewish officials demanded Jesus shut them up, make them stop. He replied by quoting Psalm 8:2 and adding that, were the whole crowd silenced, the very rocks would cry out. Something uncanny and supernatural was happening here.
It was frightening. It frightened the scribes and Pharisees. This popular groundswell could cause the iron fist of Rome to come down upon them and their whole nation! It frightened the Roman occupiers as well—always uneasy as they felt anyway in their oversight of a people who proved so capable of turning into a rabble.
What about the Disciples? I don’t mean the masses thronging along for all kinds of reasons (the miracles, a desire for their own king and freedom, or animosity toward odious Rome–or just propelled by mob-mind, which needs no sensible reason, but simply responds with the collective response). Hadn’t trepidation filled the disciples’ hearts when they heard Jesus say he was going into Jerusalem to be betrayed and handed over and killed—so much that it numbed their minds into denial that such a thing could happen to Him they recognized as “The Christ, the Son of the living God”? (Mt 16:16; Jhn 6:69)
What a day that was! And what a week to come! It deserves our thought and attention in the week before Palm Sunday. How would you have been affected by the crowd and its group mentality—then, or days later, when it roared for Jesus’ death? Let’s take some time to think about this.