Summit Presbyterian Church
Palm Sunday — April 9, 2017
Matthew 21: 1-17
The size of a crowd is notoriously hard to measure. In the modern method of crowd counting — which dates to the 1960s and a professor named Herbert Jacobs - you know I can’t resist sharing factoids I discover on the internet — in the modern method of crowd counting, you use geometry and arithmetic. You measure the area where the crowd is standing, divide it into grids, estimate the density of the crowd — is it 9 square feet per person, or 4?, and multiply. These days serious crowd counters use digital cameras on weather balloons. They count heads in blown-up photographs, they take pictures at different angles and investigate on the ground. But crowds move. People are hidden by trees. They clump together in funny ways. You don’t know who you’re missing and who you’re counting twice. At best, you can give a numerical range and rule out the most unrealistic claims.
But it’s not just the math and the logistics that make counting crowds difficult. It’s the passion. It’s the vested interest people have in the numbers. In a democracy, crowd size matters: so protestors usually claim there are more people at a march than official estimates. Speakers speaking from the speaking platform almost always think more people are listening to them then disinterested observers believe. (Kind of like preachers speaking from pulpits). Egos make it hard to count crowds.
Matthew says crowds followed Jesus nearly everywhere; both in Jerusalem and in the countryside. To hear him teach. To be healed. Matthew doesn’t try and count them, with the exception of the time when Jesus fed the crowd with with just a few loaves and fishes. Matthew says Jesus fed five thousand men that day - besides women and children, because in the ancient method of crowd counting you didn’t count women and children. In this procession that inaugurates the final week of Jesus in Jerusalem, Matthew says only that a VERY LARGE crowd went ahead and followed behind, laying out cloaks and branches. We don’t have any corroborating non-gospel accounts, so it could have been what we’d call a modest parade or it could have been a massive demonstration. Matthew claims the whole city was in turmoil.
But Jesus doesn’t seem interested in the size of his crowds. Not in this one as he enters Jerusalem, or in Galilee. He never boasted about the numbers. On occasion he even tried to withdraw from the crowds, but since he had compassion on them he would return to heal and teach. When Jesus entered the temple and overturned the tables of the money changers, he acted alone; he didn’t encourage or incite the crowd to follow him in this act of political theatre. (Which is why, perhaps, the temple police didn’t confront him — the temple complex was so big they may not have known about it). The chief priests and scribes were disturbed by the folks surrounding Jesus — not by their numbers, but by who they were. The blind and the lame who were being cured. The little children who were calling him Son of David. We can understand their concern about children — we worry that leaders will manipulate young people into following them — but Jesus wasn’t encouraging or using them. He quotes scripture, pointing out that children also praise God. According to Matthew — and other gospel writers - Jesus didn’t court, manipulate, or incite the crowds. He wasn’t a crowd counter.
Jesus had his eyes and heart and mind set elsewhere. He knew where he was headed, and in the meantime he had work to do. In that last week he taught day and night inside and outside the temple, telling his most provocative parables and giving his most difficult instructions. He warned of the coming judgement. He emphasized the importance of the greatest commandment, loving God and neighbor. His final parable is the one where the Son of Man comes in glory to judge the nations, separating the sheep from the goats, saying that whoever gave a drink of water or cared for one of the least of these these also did so to him — and those who refused refused him as well. He told parables about those who would be left behind or cast into darkness in the coming age: tenants of the vineyard, foolish bridesmaids who forgot oil for their lamps; the slave who hid his talents in the ground; those who weren’t properly dressed for the wedding banquet. He denounced scribes and Pharisees, he argued about paying taxes to Rome, he lamented over Jerusalem and predicted the destruction of the temple. In other words, he didn’t give uplifting sermons. He didn’t give crowd-pleasing speeches. Jesus didn’t calculate his words, or keep silent to avoid trouble. He spoke as the Spirit moved him. He spoke the truth, hard as it was for people to hear. Indeed, Matthew claims that at the end the crowds turned against him. Now it must be said that sometimes our interpretations of his words have been tragically off the mark, teaching contempt for the Jews or even inciting violence. But that wasn’t the intent of Jesus: he’s calling his disciples, including us, to love. Not just the easy love for like-minded folks of our own clan that love us back. We can all get behind that. But to a more demanding love. A love that’s always ready for the coming of God and for the neighbor who may be sick or hungry, lonely or in prison. A love that chooses non-violence, even at risk to one’s self — as Jesus chose when he was arrested, telling his followers to put away their swords. A love which forgives others, as Jesus forgave those who betrayed and deserted him. A love which gives truthful testimony, as Jesus did before the Roman governor who ordered his death. A love which is triumphant over death, but that is also acquainted with suffering and grief. A love that puts serving God above pleasing the crowds. A love like the one that Jesus showed for the world.
It’s not easy for us to love that way. We prefer a crowd-pleasing love, even when we’re followers, not leaders. We prefer a love that skips over Maundy Thursday and Good Friday and goes straight to Easter. We prefer a love that doesn’t demand change, in our relationships or in our world. We prefer a love that doesn’t ruffle feathers, a love that avoids conflict. But Jesus invites us into a deeper, risk-taking, love. A love that crosses race and class and other divisions we create. A love that challenges injustice. A love that speaks up for peace when war is much more popular. A love that makes us vulnerable. A love that is unafraid to share the good news of Jesus Christ in a world of fake news. A love where crowds may turn from us or wander away — even if those crowds are only friends or family. But it’s such a love where we find blessings. The blessing of walking with Jesus. The blessing of doing the right thing. The blessing of a world that is more just and compassionate. The blessing of resurrection hope, which comes when we go through grief and loss. May we have the courage and faith to love as Jesus loved. In this week and beyond.