Today we continue our Lenten series “Were You There…” by reflecting on Matthew 27:1-32 Were You There… in the Shouting Crowd? On Palm Sunday the crowd was shouting for Jesus to become their king, now just a few days later the crowd is calling out to crucify Jesus. It is easy to get caught up in joining the crowd in the moment, but it’s also easy to forget who we are as followers of Jesus and to stop reflecting on who Jesus is calling us to be in those moments.
Were You There… in the Shouting Crowd
John tells us at the beginning of his account of Jesus’ life that “He was in the world, and the world was made by him, and the world knew him not.” Even those who were the closest to Jesus didn’t really know who he was until after his death and resurrection. Many people say that they could never have betrayed Jesus, but that comes out of the arrogance of looking back with knowledge and insight that the people then didn’t have.
Matthew begins this part of Jesus’ journey to the cross by returning to Judas. After 3 years of being with Jesus, Judas still didn’t understand who Jesus was, or what Jesus had been preparing them for. His betrayal was especially personal, even if the prophets had pointed to Judas’ betrayal. At the supper, Judas was served by Jesus, in the garden he kisses Jesus and calls him rabbi. This is personal, but now it sinks in to Judas just what the consequences are of his betrayal and deep remorse fills him at just how terrible his betrayal is. Judas’ betrayal was ordained already in the Old Testament, but that doesn’t take away his personal responsibility for his acts or for listening to the voices of his greed, his personal ambition, to Satan.
Judas tries to return the money. He throws the blood money into the temple, throwing away his god, but his guilt and remorse is so great that it prevents him from leaning into the forgiveness he could have experienced from Jesus. Jesus’ grace and love is big enough, but Judas couldn’t see it or accept it. In Judas we hear an echo back to Zechariah 11:12–14, “I told them, “If you think it best, give me my pay; but if not, keep it.” So they paid me thirty pieces of silver. And the Lord said to me, “Throw it to the potter”—the handsome price at which they valued me! So I took the thirty pieces of silver and threw them to the potter at the house of the Lord.” Zechariah’s talking about the sheep turning against the good shepherd here, a painful foreshadowing of what’s happening now to Jesus. In Zechariah, the people are rejecting the good shepherd and refusing to give him his pay even, and even when they do, it is an insulting amount, showing no respect.
Now Matthew turns to the scene at Pilate’s palace and how the power of the crowd can lead to injustice and knowingly wrong decisions. Jesus is brought before Pilate, the one in charge of making sure that the Roman rule of law is carried out. Pilate knows something’s going on here that’s not completely legit, “he knew it was out of self-interest that they had handed Jesus over to him.” Pilate only interested in Jesus’ claim to be king of the Jews because that can lead to a revolt against Rome. Pilate asks Jesus straight up, “Are you the king of the Jews?” Jesus doesn’t affirm or deny the question, he simply states, “You have said so.” But when Jesus is accused by the chief priests and elders, he remains silent, echoing back to Isaiah 53, where Isaiah talks about the suffering servant staying silently.
John tells us in his gospel that Jesus’ response to Pilate’s question whether he’s king of the Jews, “Is that your own idea, or did others talk to you about me?” Whose voice has Pilate been listening to, whose voices are going to lead Pilate’s decision: Caesar’s voice who was unhappy with how Pilate has been dealing with the Jews in the past for allowing riots to happen, the Jewish religious leaders who can make his life miserable, the voice of fear in his own head, or to his wife’s voice, as his wife sends him an urgent message, “Don’t have anything to do with that innocent man, for I have suffered a great deal today in a dream because of him.” God’s confirming that Jesus is innocent; Pilate has no excuse for the decisions he makes next.
Pilate tries a different tactic now and offers to release a prisoner as part of the festival, something that had become a custom. Pilate offers to release either Jesus or Jesus Barabbas. When the crowd, stirred up by the Jewish religious leaders, choose Barabbas, Pilate’s forced to give a formal verdict, which should have been innocent, he instead literally washes his hands of his responsibility to defend the innocent, and hands Jesus over to be crucified. Jesus has been betrayed by the religious leaders, by Judas, by Peter, by the crowd, and now by Pilate. Do we really think we would have done anything different from any of these people?
The people accept the responsibility for the death of Jesus, even placing it on their children! I have a hard time understanding placing blood guilt on my children, but it shows me how powerful the crowd mentality is, how the chief priests can so rile them up to do something so unjust. It’s easy to get caught up in joining the crowd in the moment, especially angry crowds who often seem to have a darkness in them; it’s easy to forget who we are as followers of Jesus when these voices are shouting in our ears, and we can stop reflecting on who Jesus is calling us to be.
We easily listen to those who tell us that what we already believe is the only truth, we allow our ears to be tickled and we even get self-righteous about it. Adam and Eve listened to a different voice than God’s and it led them into rejecting God’s will for them. Thankfully, God doesn’t give up on us, and in his justice and mercy, sends Jesus to atone for our sin on the cross, where he died and rose again, covering our sin and making us right with God again. But our response is to make listening to God’s voice in the Holy Spirit our act of grateful response to Jesus.
Whose voices are you listening to? Who’s tickling your ears right now? We tend to hunker down with those voices that stroke what we want to hear and tune out other voices. When we do this, we develop strong “them and us” ways of thinking and this distorts our relationships and ability to listen and relate with those who believe differently than we do. This can lead us to even believing that the other person’s motives are deliberately wrong.
We can find ourselves in places where we are unable to recognize our own issues and the possibility that we may not have all the truth, or that we may even be wrong, the plank and splinter parable of Jesus. This is a pride and arrogance issue and is a huge problem today, both in our culture and even in the church, something I also struggle with much too often. This was part of what the chief priests, Pharisees, and Pilate were all struggling with and that the crowd didn’t even recognize, but got swept along into.
We’re called to listen to the voice of the Holy Spirit rather than the voice of the crowds or those inciting the crowds. We’re called to learn to recognize the voice of the Holy Spirit and reject the voices of those tickling our ears for their own purposes. This means regularly spending time reading the story of God and Jesus in the Bible as the voice of the Spirit, it means spending time talking to God in prayer and then being quiet to allow the Spirit to speak, which is why praying the Bible is so important. The church, over thousands of years, has developed ways of listening to, and being shaped by the Holy Spirit. Here are 12 spiritual disciplines I believe help us learn to listen to the guidance of the Holy Spirit: study, prayer, fasting, confession, worship, fellowship, rest, celebration, service, generosity, chastity, and disciple-making.
It’s important that we work on our own humility because we are connected to Jesus, as Paul writes in Philippians 2, “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others. In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross!”
Earlier on in Matthew 23:37–39, Jesus hurts for what’s coming up for the Jewish people at the hands of Rome, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing. Look, your house is left to you desolate. For I tell you, you will not see me again until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.’” Even though Jesus has been betrayed repeatedly, he remains focused on walking the journey to the cross for the people, listening to his father’s voice over every other voice. On the cross justice and grace come together; justice for our sin and grace in the forgiveness and restoration between us and God.