Standing out from the crowd

Palm Sunday – 2014

Matthew 26:14-27:66

Marian Free

In the name of God who challenges us to discern right from wrong and to have the courage to stand out from the crowd. Amen.

Anyone who has ever been to a concert or a sporting match knows that it does not take long to snap into sync with the crowd. Being part of a group can be extraordinarily compelling and energising. The sense of sharing a common interest holds together people who are very different from each other and causes them behave as one.

Crowds are notoriously difficult to control – in part because of this sense of unity and in part because as a result, they take on a life of their own. In many instances – especially in the case of spontaneously formed crowds – the group morphs into a self-organizing system. There is no need for central control – the common purpose holds them together. In the case of a sporting event or concert, there is no one with a megaphone saying “now!” Everyone simply cheers (or boos) together. They know instinctively how to behave. They are absorbed into the behaviour of the crowd and act as one. Even when a crowd has a leader, a crowd mentality can take over making the leader powerless – for example, surging forward despite being urged to stop or rioting when the intention was a peaceful protest.

Crowds can be sinister or positive. It is easier to be brave (or foolish) when you know that you are acting in a manner that is consistent with those around you. Being part of a group creates a feeling of solidarity, a feeling of empowerment, a belief that the many can make a greater difference than one. Being part of a crowd can be also liberating and disinhibiting. The sense of anonymity, the adrenaline rush provided by being in a crowd can provide just the excuse for someone to behave in a lawless manner, when at other times public opinion (or their own conscience) would prevent them from doing the same thing.

A crowd can work together for good – changing an unjust government or law or cleaning up after a natural disaster. But a crowd can just as easily work for bad. Crowds can turn ugly in a moment. The same mentality that had a group protesting peacefully can be turned into the opposite by the action of a few. Crowds can determine the fate of a nation, but they can just as easily decide the fate of an individual.

It can be difficult to hold one’s position, to be the person standing out from the crowd, the one shouting: “stop!”, when everyone else is shouting: “go!” Only truly courageous people have the courage to act unilaterally – to go against the flow, to stand up for a principle or ideal when no one else can yet see the need.

It is not surprising that crowds were drawn to Jesus’ arrival in Jerusalem. That he was on a donkey was calculated to attract attention. According to Zechariah, this was how the promised King would arrive. No doubt some people noticed and, thinking the prophecy fulfilled began to gather and cheer. Soon others would have joined. As the excitement built, more and more people would have wanted to be part of the excitement (perhaps so they could tell their grandchildren that they had been there). It is not surprising that the Romans and the leaders of the Jews were anxious – they knew from bitter experience how little it took for a crowd to become a riot.

It is not surprising that after Jesus’ arrest, the crowds gathered to see what would happen next. Many would have been wondering who Jesus really was and whether – if he were the King – he would find a way out of the predicament in which he found himself. Moreover, for those who have little to look forward to, a trial breaks the monotony of everyday life. It has the potential to create drama and intrigue and the outcome is never certain. Once a crowd had gathered, it could be easily manipulated. The chief priest (or others) would not have found it too difficult to incite the crowd to shout: “Barabbas” or “crucify him!” Those who did not want to join in would have found it hard to remain silent.

Because we know the story, it is easy to believe that we would have behaved differently, that we would have resisted the pressure of the crowd, and that – heedless of the consequences – we would have taken a stand to prevent an innocent person condemned to death. However, there is no reason to believe that we would have behaved any differently, that, in the circumstances we would have found the courage to stand-alone against a crowd.

Let us hope that we will not be put to the test and that if we are, we will not be found wanting.


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