An accidental blog

"If God is sovereign, then his lordship must extend over all of life, and it cannot be restricted to the walls of the church or within the Christian orbit." Abraham Kuyper Common Grace 1.1.

Sunday, 24 March 2013

Palm Sunday: why were the crowds so fickle?

Several suggestions have been made as to why Jesus could draw the acclamation of the crowd on Palm Sunday and incurred their ‘Crucify him!’ less than a week later. Edersheim proposes that the multitude were ‘pilgrim strangers’ who acclaimed Jesus. Whereas the majority were ‘bitterly and determinedly hostile to Christ’ [1] Hence, two distinct groups were involved thus removing the need for explanation. This may contain a kernel of trth but it is a gross oversimplification. Another proposal is that the multitudes on Palm Sunday were Jesus’ disciples and the event went largely unnoticed by others. [2] This is unlikely; how are we then to learn of the responses of the Pharisees (Lk 19:39) and of the whole city (Mt 21:10)?

We can go some way to answering the question if we split it into three parts.

Why did the crowds acclaim Jesus?
Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem coincided with the time of the Passover, a time when Jewish messianic expectation was at its peak. They were awaiting the messiah who would free them from the Roman occupiers. Jesus riding into Jerusalem in fulfilment of Eucharist's prophecy (Zech 9:9), could only fuel their aggressive nationalistic fervour [3] Hence, their acclamation of Jesus, miracle worker, potential messiah and liberator from Rome. This was not the first time that the crowds had misunderstood Jesus’ intentions. [4]. Jesus told the parable of the minas (Lk 19:11ff) because they had assumed that the kingdom was going to appear at once. They were perhaps still labouring under this misconception.

Why did the crowds want Jesus crucified?
The Romans regarded Jesus as a threat to the stability of Israel; the chief priests, scribes and elders of Jerusalem saw Jesus, with his increasing popularity (Lk 19:47; Mk 11:18), as a threat to the very nature and identity of Israel and had long planned to kill Jesus. Hence, the highly unlikely alliance of Jewish leaders and Romans in the execution of Jesus, the ‘king of the Jews’. With the crowd’s hopes of deliverance from the Romans dashed it was relatively easy for the chief priests to persuade them to release Barabbas and crucify Jesus (Mk 15:11; Mt 27:20).

The events between the triumphal entry and the crucifixion
The Jewish hopes of a deliverance from the Romans were dashed by the events that took place between the entry and his crucifixion. An examination of two events will suffice to illustrate this point

The cursing of the fig tree
The fig tree was a symbol of Israel (Hos 2:12; Is 34:4; Lk 13:6-9), and the withering of the tree would have been understood as a prophetic action of what was about to happen to Israel if they did not repent. Hardly the action of a messianic deliverer.

The cleansing of the temple
Jesus’ action in the temple has pose a few problems for interpretation. It of itself could not have been the reason for Jesus’ death: if so, he would have been arrested straight away. Neither could it be an attempt to ‘cleanse’ the temple: buying and selling was required for temple worship. It is best seen as a ‘demonstration’ in the temple; as Ben F. Meyer comments: ‘Planned for prime time and maximum exposure, it was a “demonstration” calculated to interrupt business as usual and bring the imminence of God’s reign abruptly, forcefully, to the attention of all.’[5]. It was an acted out parable of judgement on the temple. It was an attack on idolatry, the temple was the centre of the religious life of Judaism [6], it was the place of God’s presence, consequently they thought it was indestructible. God would protect it as he had done in the past. [7] This dedication to the temple resulted in it becoming a symbol of nationalism and then an idol. [8,9]. Jesus’ attack on it then would neither endear him to the Jewish leaders nor the crowds! Hardly surprising that the crowds should at one moment declare him as king and the next call for him to be crucified.

[1] Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah (MacDonald, reprint of the 1886 ed), part II p. 371.
[2] E P Sanders Jesus and Judaism (SCM, 1985).
[3] John Riches The World of Jesus: First century Judaism in Crisis (CUP, 1990) suggests that the triumphal entry and the cleaning of the temple could have ‘evoked echoes of a Judas Maccabeus’s repossession of Jerusalem and the Temple after its desecration by Antiochus Epiphanes (1 Macc 6)’ p. 105.
[4] The fact that Jesus was riding into Jerusalem on a donkey should have undermined any idea of military force. Perhaps crowd psychology too k over common sense.
[5] The Aims of Jesus (SCM, 1979) p. 179.
[6] Christopher Rowland Christian Origins (SPCK, 1985) p. 162.
[7] Marcus J Borg The Conflict, Holiness and Politics in the Teachings of Jesus (Mellen, 1984).
[8] Idolatry distorts reality, they were blinded to the fact that Nebuchadnezzar, for eaxmple, had at one time destroyed the temple.
[9] G B Caird comments: ‘Instead of being the centre of a world religion, the Temple had becoem the symbol of nationalism and division’ ‘Christ’s attitude to the institutions’ Exp. Times 62 (1950-51) p. 260.

From the archives April 2007

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