The week leading to Easter begins with the account of Palm Sunday where Jesus is caught up in that rather triumphal entry into Jerusalem. The crowd, first ecstatic with joy and hope, then has a mood swing. It is a story that has long fascinated me.
Those who are given to remark that the Gospels (or indeed the Bible) have little to say to us today – to these times and our issues – have most likely read or reflected little upon the texts. This Palm Sunday story paints an aspect of human nature that has changed little over the millennia.
This throng of Jesus’ followers has been swept up by his words, his cures, and his bounty. They have now taken to the streets. This man seems the incarnation of all their hopes. He is the one who was to come – the Messiah. So they parade Jesus royally towards Jerusalem. In a surge of enthusiasm and wild gesture, they even throw their clothes on the ground for him to walk upon. A carpet of reverence. Others pull branches from trees to lay at his feet, to settle the dust, to smooth the way. They chant songs of his kingly lineage and mighty power.
But within a week that very same crowd will be baying for his blood. They will trade him for a base criminal. They will hand him over to the occupying forces, their bitter enemy. Their cries of hosanna become cries of crucifixion. Jesus will be judged unjustly. Tortured. Stripped of every vestige of dignity. Sent to the most horrific of deaths – the one reserved for the absolutely despised and rejected of people.
The same crowd! No one there to counter the groundswell of changing opinion and simply ask “But didn’t we just …?” “Can’t you remember when …?” “Hang on a minute …?” “Have we forgotten something here …?” Was there no one to take a stand, to point to a truth, to remember the story? Maybe there were some. But if so, they were a muffled minority.
Does it sound all-too-familiar? The public opinion, the groupthink, the peer pressure, the media campaigns. This is the human condition – be it 33AD or the third millennium. Yesterday’s heroes are dragged from the pedestals we earlier put them on. The high-fliers are shot down. Tall poppies are cut. Their supporters and allies slip away into the night. Public delight in seeing someone humiliated, in watching someone squirm. Gossip circulates. The media has a feast. ‘Never kick a man when he’s down’ is the adage – but we do. So often. An Australian of the Year and double Brownlow Medalist, in a complex fall-from-grace, is booed into depression and early retirement. It looks like a twenty-first century coliseum fixture. A Rugby League pin-up boy, the darling of the sports press, commits a tacky indiscretion at an Australia Day party and his character is in tatters, the satirical shows milk every drop of humiliation from it, and he is whisked away overseas, deported. In politics, on both sides of the House, leaders are lionised. The Party stands shoulder to shoulder at their back. After the adulation, they don’t deliver. So before long, the knives are out. Off to the backbench, then the back blocks. A field day for the columnists. Where is the next Messiah-in-waiting? We know it on a smaller scale, too – in families, in the schoolyard and in the team, in the work place and at the club.
Yes, the Gospels capture human nature well. That’s because the authors don’t write from theory. They know the human condition. They describe the reality plainly. And then they present alternatives, different values, another frame of reference.
Schools in the Jesuit tradition claim to forge ‘commitment’. Perhaps one of our prayers this Easter Week might be for consistency, for integrity. For God’s grace to resist the seduction of destructive public opinion. Not to ‘go with the flow’. Not to be a ‘fair weather friend’. To choose not to clamor with the mob or share the herd mentality. To pray for the strength to be a voice of truth or of charity when false, loud and insistent voices abound. When those dark voices would lead us in ways that in our clearer and more authentic moments we would never tread.