Monday, March 21, 2016

MULTITUDE MENTALITY

(Fair Weather Followers)

It is astonishing how a period of one week can completely change a person’s opinion about something. Changing situations can, of course, change opinions. However, it is also true that we are a capricious people. Many times the reasons for the changes that we make are ill defined, or not defined at all.

There is perhaps no greater example of this than what occurred almost 2000 years ago. It all began on the original Palm Sunday. The people of Judea were enthralled with the personality of Jesus. On that day, as he was coming from Jericho into Jerusalem,
he was followed by what Matthew calls “a great multitude.” People wanted to see Him. People wanted to be with Him. “Hosanna!” they shouted. “Salvation!” It was a triumphal entry.


Entry of Christ into Jerusalem
Anthony vanDyck (1599-1641)


It was scarcely one week later that Jesus was on trial before Pilate. Pilate saw the anger that the Pharisees had against Jesus, but Pilate himself could find no reason why Jesus should be put to death. In those days and in that place there was a custom in honor of the celebration of Passover. According to this custom, the governor would release for the people one prisoner of their choice.

Pilate was hoping that this custom would get him out of his predicament. He asked the people whom he should release for them. He had heard of the happenings of the week before when Jesus rode into Jerusalem amidst a great crowd of admirers. No doubt, Pilate had even witnessed part of the celebration. The multitudes were laying palm branches and even their own coats in front of Jesus to give him a carpeted path to the city.

Pilate thought he knew the depth of the popularity of Jesus with the Jewish people. Perhaps, he thought, the people would get him off the hook by requesting the release of Jesus. But Pilate was basing his hopes on the attitude of the crowd one week before. He did not take into account how the opinion of the multitude could change in a matter of only a few days....


The governor answered and said to them, “Which of the two do you want me to release for you?”

And they said, “Barabbas.”

Pilate said to them, “Then what shall I do with Jesus who is called Christ?”

They all said, “Let Him be crucified!”

And he said, “Why, what evil has He done?” But they kept shouting all the more, saying, “Let Him be crucified!”  (Matthew 27:21-23, NAS)

I have wondered about this change in the people. In the course of one week, how is it that their shout could change from “Hosanna” to that of “Crucify Him?” I have even asked myself a question. If I had been in that crowd of people, what would I have been shouting?

Of course, I would like to give a quick answer that all would consider proper. However, those types of answers never help. We can never know ourselves that way. We should not underestimate the collective power of the multitude.

Jesus knew the people well. From very early in his ministry a great crowd of people was nearly always with him. Sometimes I wonder how Jesus could find any time at all alone. There were times that he could not. The gospel writer Mark tells us about the experiences of Jesus and His disciples. “The multitude gathered again,” Mark said, “to such an extent that they could not even eat a meal.” (Mark 3:20, NAS).

Jesus did love the people and he cared about them. When they were sick, he healed them. When they were hungry, he fed them. He had compassion on them. To Jesus, the people “were like sheep without a shepherd” (Mark 9:36).

Nevertheless, Jesus also knew their capricious nature. As he approached Jerusalem, people were thronging around him and shouting, “Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord; Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!” Hearing this and being caught up in the emotion of the crowd of people and of the moment, we might expect Jesus to express some hope in these followers.

In the place of Jesus, we well might have said to ourselves, “Listen to what they are saying. The message that I have been bringing seems to be finally sinking in. Perhaps there is a hope for these people after all!”

That was not his response. We are told when he approached the city; he wept over it, saying, “If you had known in this day, even you, the things which make for peace! But now they have been hidden from your eyes” (Luke 19:42, NAS).
Jesus understood well what Pilate did not. Jesus knew the changeable and flighty mentality of a great crowd of people. I think that we would also do well to understand this multitude mentality better and to realize that we are not immune to it. Do we think we are somehow immune to the mindset of a fickle crowd? I would like to think I am, but if I am honest, I know that I am not.

The Sports Crowd Mentality

When we lived overseas, I did not really followed professional football as I once did. Another thing was that, during a good part of those years, the Packers did not have a great team. Only with passing interest would I glance at their won/lost record to see how far out of contention they were.

However, several years ago (maybe about 1995 or 96), when we lived in Venezuela, the Packers suddenly found themselves in playoff contention after many unsuccessful years. Even in Venezuela, my friends would ask me about the Packers, because, after all, I was from Wisconsin—a well-known “cheesehead.”

One of our missionary friends at the time was from Chicago but wished he were from Wisconsin. He kept on talking about the Packers and the upcoming Super Bowl. I started to buy a paper that had American sports in it so I could keep track of “my” team.
The only way one could watch the Super Bowl in our village at that time was if one had a satellite dish, and none of us did. Nevertheless, when the day came, my Wisconsin-wanna-be friend had arranged with the clinic in town to use one of their hospital rooms and had them point their dish at the satellite that was carrying the game. Many of the American missionaries crammed into that little room, sitting on the hospital bed and in every available space, and watched the Super Bowl. Packer fever ran wild!

When I went home to Wisconsin the next summer, I saw the Packer golden “G” everywhere I looked—on coats, on cars, on mailboxes. I saw a lady carrying a Green Bay Packer purse! Perhaps now these things are not so surprising, but at that time, this was a new thing to me. Seemingly, everyone had bought some item to identify that they were a Packer fan.

This all demonstrates to me how we all get caught up in the excitement of the moment and in the collective emotion of the crowd. It perhaps does not do much damage in sports (although it can), but this fervent association and identification with the crowd does a tremendous amount of damage in our spiritual lives.

On Palm Sunday, the multitude was excited. They had seen Jesus do miracles. They had even heard that he raised someone from the dead! John tells us that on that day, they were not only coming out to see Jesus, but they also wanted to see Lazarus (John 12:9). If there would have been marketers in that day as there are today, I am sure that there would have been someone selling little action figures of Jesus, complete with a Lazarus figure that would pop out of the tomb! The people were excited and they would have wanted to buy something to show that they had seen Jesus.


He Wept Over It
Enrique Simonet (1866-1927)

But Jesus wept.
That there should be a great number of people following Jesus is not surprising. Surely, he would attract attention. However, in the very telling chapter of John 12, there are a few things brought out about the attitude of the crowd of people to show the hollowness of their commitment. Their attraction to Jesus, I think, was not much different from that of the attraction of sport fans to their favorite team. And fair-weather fans at that.

As a young boy, I was a baseball fan; a very enthusiastic fan, I might add. This was very long ago. I was a Braves fan, but they were not the Atlanta Braves at that time. They were the Milwaukee Braves. It was the team of
From my old baseball card collection
I think these cards are from the early 1960’s
Hank Aaron, Warren Spahn, and Eddie Matthews. Only very rarely was I able to see a game on TV, but I listened to every game that I could on the radio. I knew every player and all the statistics that went with them. I could recite their batting averages, RBIs, ERAs, HRs, and many other letters associated with baseball. I was intrigued by their personalities. I cheered when Spahn struck out a batter, or when Aaron hit a home run. I was amazed at the lightning swiftness of Eddie Matthews at the “hot corner.” In my eyes, these men did wonderful things.
In the eyes of the multitude on Palm Sunday, Jesus had done wonderful things. Many had stories to tell. The latest incident with Lazarus was perhaps Jesus’ greatest feat, but he had done many other remarkable deeds as well. As long as Jesus continued to amaze them, the people followed, but, as I said, Jesus knew the shallowness of their commitment. John the apostle tells us that despite all of these wonders, in the end the people really did not believe in Jesus (John 12:37).
In the midst of the narrative about the reactions of the people, John chooses to include something that is seemingly unimportant and outside the train of thought. When the Biblical writers do this, I always take notice, because I think there must be a very specific reason for doing so.
Independent Thinking in the Midst of the Multitude
John gives an account of some Greeks who also had come to Jerusalem. These seem not to be part of the mass of people, but it is clear that they were ones who were seeking God, since they had come to worship at the feast.
They came to Philip with a very simple request.
Sir,” they said, “We wish to see Jesus” (John 12:21, NAS).
I think that John included these Greeks in his account of the day to demonstrate the contrast that existed in the followers of Jesus. There were many who followed Jesus because he was the latest attraction, but there were a few who followed him because he spoke the way of life.
I do not know if the response of Jesus to the Greeks was surprising to them. If I had been in their place, I think it may have been for me. In essence, what Jesus told them was that he was about to die.
However, this death was not to be a defeat, but was the means to glory. “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies,” he said, “it remains by itself alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (John 12:24, NAS).
In the midst of this dissertation, a voice comes out of heaven from God the Father himself. This was a further confirmation of the message and ministry of Jesus. The voice from heaven was in response to something that Jesus had said: “Father, glorify Thy name.
It is then that we read: “Then a voice came out of heaven: ‘I have both glorified it, and will glorify it again’” (John 12:28, NAS).
We are not told of the response of the Greeks who came. I wish we were. However, that which we are mainly concerned about here is the depth of the commitment of the multitude. Most people in the mass of the crowd were enthralled with Jesus, as long as he continued to demonstrate victory over sickness and death.
However, now Jesus was talking of his own death. This is not what they wanted to hear from their hero. What would a football fan think of their star quarterback who, on the eve of the Super Bowl, goes on TV to say that he was sure that his team would lose the game the next day.
It was because of this that many of the people of Jerusalem chose not to believe the message of Jesus, despite all the signs that he had given to them. They were looking for a hero that would continue to amaze and enthrall them.
Then there were others in Jerusalem (John mentions specifically that many were rulers) who secretly did believe in Jesus, but because of fear of the Pharisees, they kept their beliefs to themselves. The words written about them are especially sad: “they loved the approval of men rather than the approval of God” (John 12:43 NAS).

Among sports enthusiasts we speak of “fair weather fans.” They cheer their team only when things are going well. Most of the people in the Palm Sunday Triumphal Entry crowd were “fair weather followers.” When Jesus was performing miracles and preaching to large crowds of people, they followed him everywhere he went. However, when Jesus spoke of things that were more difficult, they quickly turned away. In one week, their shout changed from “Hosanna!” to that of “Crucify him!"
In response to the Greeks who came and asked to see Jesus, he said this: “He who loves his life loses it; and he who hates his life in this world shall keep it to life eternal. If anyone serves Me, let him follow Me; and where I am, there shall My servant also be; if anyone serves Me, the Father will honor him” (John 12:25-26, NAS).
These words of Jesus are not words that would inspire the masses to keep following Him. We like “winning words”—words that can stir up a crowd. We like words that are positive and enthusiastic.
But these “winning words” are the words that play to the more shallow reactions of the people. Jesus has never looked for ones who were content simply to follow the multitude, no matter where the crowd may lead them.

In another occasion when Jesus spoke some difficult words and many turned away from Jesus, he asked his disciples if they also were going to leave. “Lord, to whom shall we go?” Peter responded. “You have words of eternal life” (John 6:68, NAS).
Peter’s commitment went far deeper than outward circumstances. His commitment was far deeper than the way that the masses were responding. He told Jesus, “We have believed and have come to know that You are the Holy One of God” (John 6:69).
Peter’s commitment was based not on a fascination with a heroic personality, but on a personal relationship. He did not follow Jesus because the crowd approved. He followed Jesus because Jesus gave life.

For every follower of Jesus, it does no harm to ask oneself if their shout would have changed, as did the shout of the multitudes in that day. Do we shout praises with the masses one week and condemnation the next? We will not if we realize, as did Peter, that it is Jesus alone that offers us the words of eternal life.

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