When they had come near Jerusalem and had reached Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, ‘Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to me. If anyone says anything to you, just say, “The Lord needs them.” And he will send them immediately.’ This took place to fulfil what had been spoken through the prophet: ‘Tell the daughter of Zion, Look, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.’ The disciples did as Jesus had directed them; they brought the donkey and the colt, and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them. A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. The crowds that went ahead of him and that followed were shouting, ‘Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!’ When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, ‘Who is this?’ The crowds were saying, ‘This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.’
(The Gospel of Saint Matthew chapter 21 verses 1-11)
Today, in the light of social distancing, we see crowds with new eyes. People crowded together are a threat to individual health and collective security. In Jesus’ day too crowds were seen as a threat, though for different reasons. Judaea – administered by Rome since the death of Herod the Great – was a powder keg of fermenting revolution. Terrorist groups, resistance movements, and opportunistic bands of raiders all posed a threat to Roman governance, and to the Emperor’s continued tolerance of a native religious administration. Festivals posed a particular threat, because of the crowds they attracted, which provided the opportunity to messianic figures to whip populations into a fervour of violence. In part this was because festivals was rooted in an expectation of religious and national liberation. Over several decades Roman-officered military forces had aggressively stamped out a series of rebellions. The Roman governor (whose title was procurator), attended the festivals in person, bringing a doubling of the military forces at hand to deal with any trouble which arose. It was into this highly charged arena that Jesus came on Palm Sunday. His appearance, and the euphoria of the pilgrim crowds surrounding him caused bewilderment among the residents of Jerusalem. ‘Who is this?’ The response of the pilgrims was that Jesus was a prophet from Nazareth. That alone was enough to put Jesus on a watchlist. But their song, and the manner of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem held deeper significance: of a king who would ride into the city which was his by right to govern (Zech 9:9); a king – and more than a king – who, with humility, would establish justice and save his people. Jesus had resolved to do what was necessary to save the people. The Jewish religious authorities too could see only one solution to the threat they perceived that he posed to the people and to their own authority, “It is better… to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed.” (John 11:50). And so the scene is set and we, like the disciples, the crowds, the onlookers, the authorities and rulers, and like Jesus himself, must make our choice. Where will we stand, and with whom? And what will we sacrifice for the greater good?