Back in January, I went down to the mall one Saturday for a peace demonstration. It was a cold, cold day but there were tens of thousands of people who were there. Many had signs and other placards. We wound up standing near some folks from Wesley who were marching for the Methodist Federation for Social Action. There was a lot of standing around as we waited to get going and the Wesley folks decided they were going to run into the National Gallery in search of a restroom. We said we’d hold their banner until they got back. We never saw them again.

About this Sermon
Rev. Mark Schaefer
Kay Spiritual Life Center, American University
April 13, 2003
Isaiah 50:4-9a; Mark 11:1-11; Mark 14:1-15:47

The crowd was so huge that once it got moving, it almost took on a life of its own. They weren’t the only people we lost that day. A friend of mine from church went to go check out something and was never seen again either. It was impossible in that multitude to find anyone because it certainly wasn’t possible to go against the flow or to march at a pace that was faster than the crowd to look for anyone.


There are times when it is all to easy to get lost in the crowd. Sometimes when it’s easy to let the crowd push us along. Sometimes with disastrous results. One of the themes in the Gospel of Mark is that of the ‘multitudes’—in Greek, the ὀχλος, the ochlos, the crowds that follow Jesus throughout his ministry. The crowds that greet Jesus on the way into Jerusalem are the same crowds that shout for his crucifixion. Sometimes we forget that. Sometimes we are tempted to think that they are different groups of people. Sometimes we think that one group—the peasants—welcomed him, and another, perhaps “the Jews” rejected him. Nope—St. Mark makes that clear—it’s the same bunch of people.


How could it be that the crowd could welcome Jesus with palms and psalms on a Sunday, and by that same Friday, five days later, be shouting “Crucify him!”? How does that happen? How do we go from waving palms to erecting crosses?

A. Failed Expectations

Well, usually we chalk it up to a straightforward answer: they expected one thing and were disappointed. I actually find this explanation the most compelling when it comes to Judas. I have certainly always found the explanation that he did it for money to be lacking. There have been a number of theories about Judas being a member of a zealot party that was ultimately disenchanted with Jesus on account of his failure to assume a more militant role. That might account for his betrayal, because there’s no one who is capable of harming a beloved master like a disillusioned disciple.

But would that really account for the whole crowd? I mean, would they have had the time, or even the inclination, to reflect on the man they thought Jesus was and reject him for who he turned out to be? No doubt his teachings would be made known throughout Jerusalem, but it hardly describes how public opinion could shift so quickly and so devastatingly.

Maybe there was something else going on having to do with the crowd itself.

B. Kitty Genovese

In 1964, a young woman named Kitty Genovese was stabbed outside her apartment in middle class Kew Gardens, Queens. As she lay in the street, crawling to the door of her building, she called out for help numerous times, even saying “I’m dying, I’m dying.” It was later determined that there were 38 bystanders who witnessed the entire episode, even the return of her assailant as he sexually assaulted her and stabbed her again, killing her. Not one of them intervened. Not one of them called the police until more than half an hour later. When the police arrived three minutes later it was too late. Doctors later concluded that had police arrived after Kitty was first stabbed, she could have been saved. But no one had called.

Image courtesy wordle.net

The nation struggled to figure out how such a terrible thing had happened. They tried to come to terms with the fact that 38 people had witnessed at least part of the assault and had done nothing. Many blamed television and the desensitization to violence. Many blamed the impersonal nature of urban life. Psychologists have since concluded that there is a psychological syndrome, now called the “Kitty Genovese Syndrome” that takes effect. In large crowds there is what is called a “diffusion of responsibility”—in effect, everyone believes that someone else will respond. Someone else will take care of it.

What they concluded was that Kitty Genovese would have been better off if there had been only one bystander, as opposed to thirty-eight. That one person would have had no choice but to realize that he or she had to respond, because no one else would. With a crowd, the idea that someone else will take responsibility is all too easy to maintain.

C. Mob Psychology

Could that have been what was going on in Jerusalem, those many years ago? Could it have been simply a case of diffusion of responsibility? Could there really only have been a few who welcomed Jesus and a few who wanted him crucified, and everyone else was going along for the ride? Wouldn’t that be nice if that were really the case? Or at least, better? Wouldn’t it be good if we could just chalk the whole thing up to mob psychology and the depersonalization that takes place in such a large setting?


There’s just one problem with all that. We don’t do this kind of thing only when we’re in crowds or multitudes. We do this all the time. Whether it’s in politics or in sports or in our religious life, we are constantly handing over to be crucified those whom we had lifted up. We see this in politics: we elect presidents we believe can save us, and when they don’t we look forward to tearing them down. We root for athletes until they get too full of themselves and then we root for them to be taken down. We root for business leaders, until they become too rich or powerful and then we tear them down.

We see this in foreign policy all the time, too (I am sure Saddam Hussein felt particularly confused in 1991 when he went from being our best friend against Iran to being ‘the next Hitler.’) We are often so much better at tearing each other down than we are at lifting each other up.

And we do this all the time in our interpersonal relationships. We would just as easily betray someone close to us when they have done something to disappoint us. Perhaps we lifted them up too high in the first place—so that really they only disappoint us by being human. And for that we tear them down. We do that a lot with our elected officials, don’t we?

So we can’t write this one off to some kind of collective psychology or diffusion of responsibility. We’re all responsible because we all do this. That’s who we are: sinners. The crowd shouted “hosanna” one day and “crucify him” the next because it was full of people just like you and me.

I crucify Christ with every mean-spirited word, with every action that breaks faith with one of my brothers and sisters. When I fail to respond in love, forgiveness, and mercy, and respond instead in hate, vindictiveness, and judgment. And so do you. And so do all of us. There isn’t any of us who isn’t part of the “multitude.” It’s one of the reasons we sing “Were you there when they crucified my Lord?” on Good Friday. It’s why we read passion plays with congregational responses in them. It’s meant to remind us of the fact that we would have acted no differently. From time to time you hear people say, “Oh, wouldn’t it be wonderful to have been back in those days with Jesus and the disciples?” As though their participation would somehow have been different than those who were there.


But there is a word of grace here. Jesus knew that he was going to his death on the cross. He had been predicting his death all along, and starting with Peter’s confession that Jesus was the Messiah, he began to predict it with greater and greater frequency. Jesus knew he was going to be handed over to be crucified. It makes me wonder how he felt on Palm Sunday. We always show him smiling in the movies. I wonder if those hosannas rang a little hollow in Jesus’ ears, knowing what he knew.

We forget that sometimes: that Jesus went into Jerusalem likely knowing it would bring about his death. And yet he did it anyway. Why? Why would anyone do that for a crowd of fickle ingrates? Maybe this has happened to you: you hear through a friend that someone thinks badly of you. Then that person comes up and greets you warmly and pretends like there’s nothing wrong. And you think, ‘What a jerk.’ And you certainly don’t feel like doing anything nice for that person, because you know how they truly feel about you. Now imagine Jesus, coming into Jerusalem, willing to go to the cross for people who are singing hosannas now, but in five days’ time will be crying out for his crucifixion. Can you imagine? I can’t It’s mind boggling.

But that’s who we’re dealing with here. We are dealing with a lord of Grace and the Prince of Peace. We are dealing with one who knew our fickle ways before we knew them. Who knew that we would be shouting “hosanna” on Sunday and “Crucify him!” on Friday. And in spite of that, he went to the cross for us.

No amount of mob psychology can excuse our tendency to crucify the ones we love. But no amount of wisdom can fathom the depths of the grace of One who loves us in spite of our utter rejection of him.


I can’t fathom it. I’m not good enough. I am one of those who would be in that crowd shouting “Crucify him!” And yet, Jesus entered into Jerusalem that Palm Sunday, to go to the cross, knowing that the crowd would reject him. He went to the cross for me. And because of that, I shout “Hosanna!”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *