Follow the leader?

Follow the leader?

Palm Sunday March 28, 2021 Isaiah 50:4-9, Philippians 2:5-11, Matthew 21:1-11
Follow the leader?

Social media has grown rapidly in importance. Apparently, more than 3.5 billion people actively use social media, that is about 45% of the world’s population. 

Users of social media look up to influencers, people to guide them with their decision making.

Influencers are people who have built a reputation for their knowledge and expertise on a specific topic. They make regular posts about that topic and they generate large followings of enthusiastic, engaged people who pay close attention to their views.

Brands love social media influencers because they can create trends and encourage their followers to buy products they promote. 

There are various categories of influencers:

  • Mega-Influencers have more than a million followers. Major brands may pay them up to $1million dollar for a post. Many of them are celebrities.
  • Macro-Influencers have between 40,000-1million followers. They have a high profile and are good at raising awareness.
  • Micro-Influencers are ordinary everyday people who have between 1,000 and 40,000 followers. They do not want to harm their relationship with their fans. They are thus cautious to promote the right product. This tells me that we are not as independently-minded individuals as we would like to think. We see what others do, we hear what they say and then we follow their example. We don’t form our own opinions when we make decisions and our decisions are not as rational as we like to think! Even though we like to think that we lead and not follow the herd, the fact is that human beings are like sheep. Alex Wise, an executive coach says it bluntly: “We are not as intelligent and independent as we would like to think we are. Yes, we have potential and there’s the few anomalies. However, the majority of us are like sheep and act according to our herd. This is the reality of our society.”

We follow trends – based on others. The actions of others guide our behavior.
In our reading today, we see something similar. Jesus is near Jerusalem, he sends two of his disciples to a village to find a donkey for the Lord. He gets on the donkey and rides into Jerusalem.

Let’s now focus on the crowd: it is very large, they spread their cloaks on the road, some cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. They shout, they say good things about the man on the donkey: Son of David, one who comes in the name of the Lord, hosanna in the highest heaven!

And the whole city was in turmoil! The Greek word for turmoil is used in Matthew 27:51. There it used for an earthquake! In spite of an earthquake-like turmoil about this Jesus is that the people of the Capital Jerusalem apparently don’t know who he is! They asked: “Who is this?” The crowd pretends they know, but its answer is rather vague: “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.” 

The prophet, Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee really does not say much, does it. And yet, the crowd gets excited and there is no reference of any individual who objects to their excitement! They are celebrating – some started it and the rest are following!

However, the crowd’s assessment that Jesus is a prophet worth celebrating does not last long. A few short chapters later (Matt. 27:15 -23) there is a reference to the crowd again.

This time their mood is somewhat different! Unsurprisingly, they act like a herd again! They don’t think for themselves! The crowd is so fickle that the chief priests and elders persuade the crowd to demand the release of Barabbas. Jesus? Get rid of him! Pilate asks: “Which of the two do you want me to release for you?” They say: “Barabbas!” “What about Jesus?”, Pilate asks. They yelled: “Let him be crucified!” Why? Their answer is a typical mob response, they shouted all the more, “Let him be crucified!”

These two stories of the crowd’s behavior could in fact be case studies. The first one is of a crowd that is swept along in praise without really searching, without really understanding or embracing the truth of who this Jesus really is. It is much easier for them to simply join the chorus of hosannas than to really and truly ask the fundamental questions of who Jesus really is, what his message is, and what does he require of those who follow him?

The second one is a case study of how easy it is for a crowd to be swayed and accept and even embrace an action that are destructive and deadly.

So, let us think about the first case study: A crowd is swept along in praise without really searching, without understanding or embracing the truth of who this Jesus really is. They simply join the chorus of hosannas without asking fundamental questions of who Jesus really is, what does he represent, and what does he require of those who follow him? They followed without being interested in the truth!

Jesus, earlier in the same Gospel of Matthew, in chapter 13, tells a parable of the sower. Some seed fall on rocky ground where there is not much soil. The seed quickly spring up but they had no depth and they don’t last. This seems to be like the crowd on that day when Jesus entered Jerusalem. They celebrated, they offered their hosannas but it did not last. They followed the herd for the moment but without any depth or substance!

 In the western world over the centuries Christian culture was the dominant culture. People used to go to church in masse! It was expected of them, everyone did it.  They called themselves Christians, for most did so. It is a well-known fact that many church-going people know surprisingly little about the Gospel. The Pew Research Center a few years ago asked people 32 religious questions: On average, Americans correctly answer 16 of the 32 religious knowledge questions. Atheists, agnostics, Jews and Mormons average 20.9 correct answers. Protestants as a whole average 16 correct answers; Catholics as a whole, 14.7. Atheists and agnostics, Jews and Mormons perform better than other groups on the survey even after controlling for differing levels of education.

So even the best only get only 50% right! And yet the Bible is frequently used to win an argument. And people often speak as if they are 100% certain they speak on behalf of Jesus! And they use Jesus as their final argument to justify their own views and condemn others’ view.

Instead of following the herd like sheep, would it not be better to be informed, to be like Isaiah whose being is governed by hearing and speaking? He is like someone who is in both his hearing and speaking concentrated on God, and that these have God as their source. He is in fact equipped and informed to lead his people.

How would it be if we as people of faith were informed and willing to weigh opinions, distinguish between noise and fact, with a passion for truth and a readiness to lead instead of repeating what others say and do?

If we were better informed, we took time and made an effort to know who Jesus is, what He came to do, and what he wants us to do, maybe, just maybe we would be less anxious and uncertain about what to do and how to respond to a whole new reality we are entering. 

So, you see the response of the crowd back then has something to teach us today!

Perhaps there is another way than simply following the herd. Perhaps it is time for us to revisit the Gospel message with new eyes and new questions. Perhaps it is time to ask essential and existential questions about this man Jesus. Why was he willing to enter Jerusalem knowing how dangerous it was? Who is this Jesus who willingly gave himself in service of others? What does his life and actions say about God’s love of sinful, stubborn and broken human beings? What does his life teach us about service, about being humble, about respecting others, about a willingness to be the least and to be willing to give your life for others?

Perhaps if the crowd back then thought these things through, there would have been fewer who shouted their hosannas. But perhaps the smaller crowd would have remained faithful a few days later. Perhaps they would not en masse have yelled “Barabbas!”

The second case study is about how easy it is for a crowd to be swayed, accept and even embrace actions that are destructive and deadly. The crowd one day shouted their hosannas and the next shouted: “Crucify him!”
The relevant question is: if we were amongst the crowd back then, what would we have yelled? Or, how willing are we to stand up and speak out against the destructive instincts of the crowd today? Do we silently accept behavior that we deep down know is destructive and demeaning? Can you think of examples?

I have a personal example: I have seen and lived the detrimental effects of it and I see disturbing signs of it in our country. I am of course thinking of the increase in racism and hate-crimes in the USA. Last year the FBI recorded the highest number of hate motivated killings since the FBI began collecting data in the early 1990’s. This year we have learned that Asian Americans are targeted.

Why is this so disturbing? Human behavior has not changed much over the millennia. Our species has always been one that herds. If there is an increase in racism, hatred and bigotry in a society, attitudes and actions will increase too. If there is any sense that racism, hatred, bigotry, and violence are acceptable, then actions will follow. It becomes a downward spiral, which means it feeds back into itself causing a situation to become progressively worse.

Prejudice, racism and hatred can easily spin out of control and history teaches that it is possible that they can become the dominant and even accepted view in a society. We have to be aware, vigilant, courageous, and willing to oppose these destructive views and behaviors.
The crowd in Jerusalem, who yelled “crucify him” of course did not calculate what the outcome of their actions would be. They did not think about it too much! Matthew’s Gospel states that their leaders, the priests and elders, persuaded them (yes that is what it says (Matt. 27:20) – to demand for the release of Barabbas. And the crowd? They followed!

The events of Holy Week, from Palm Sunday to Easter teach us that God sent the Son into this world to show us that God is love and that God loves humankind. These events show us that people are fickle, unreliable and dangerous. We are easily persuaded! Let’s be honest: we too could simply follow the crowd.

But we, as people of faith, have another option: we could think anew about this Jesus! Who is he, what he stands for, and why he did what he did?

His culture was filled with all kinds of prejudices, bigotry, and hatred: against women, Samaritans, and gentiles. These prejudices were accepted and even promoted.

Jesus, however showed courage to act in a different way. He broke with what was generally accepted back then. He loved and respected all people. In a world where hate was not only common but accepted and promoted, Jesus shows that love is the lasting power! What will we do with his message and his example? Amen.