SCRIPTURE – Mark 15:6-15
Now it was the custom at the festival to release a prisoner whom the people requested. A man called Barabbas was in prison with the insurrectionists who had committed murder in the uprising. The crowd came up and asked Pilate to do for them what he usually did.
“Do you want me to release to you the king of the Jews?” asked Pilate, knowing it was out of self-interest that the chief priests had handed Jesus over to him. But the chief priests stirred up the crowd to have Pilate release Barabbas instead.
“What shall I do, then, with the one you call the king of the Jews?” Pilate asked them.
“Crucify him!” they shouted.
“Why? What crime has he committed?” asked Pilate.
But they shouted all the louder, “Crucify him!”
Wanting to satisfy the crowd, Pilate released Barabbas to them. He had Jesus flogged, and handed him over to be crucified.
Were You There? Sermon Series
Sermon #5 – The Crowd
March 17, 2013
I was stuck in an elevator once while leaving a doctor’s appointment. There were eight people in the elevator with me, on the way down from the 20th floor of a building in downtown Chicago. We didn’t know each other, hadn’t seen each other before, probably didn’t have much in common. There was an African-American lady in a nurse’s uniform, an elderly Asian couple, a man in a lab coat. We were just strangers living our separate lives who happened to get on the same elevator.
Until it stopped. At that point, we stopped being a collection of strangers, and became a crowd, which is defined as a collection of people who share at least one significant trait, like cheering for the same team or liking the same band. The trait this small crowd shared was that we were all stuck in the same elevator. Maybe not the most enviable trait, but a shared trait nonetheless. From strangers to a crowd.
But our forced bonding didn’t stop there. After about 30 anxious seconds, a guy in the back said, “What in the world is going on?” A lady responded, “I don’t know, but they better hurry up and fix this.” And then the murmuring started. “Yeah, what’s their problem? Don’t they know we’re in here?” Tempers began to rise, faces were getting redder, even the sweet elderly couple had a scowl on their face. One guy actually curled up in the fetal position and laid in the corner. That was me. The nurse at the front began pounding on the door. “Hey, we’re in here!” We all started shouting.
At that point, we stopped being a crowd and became a mob. A mob is defined as a crowd that is overrun with emotion and capable of doing things that none of the individuals would do under cooler circumstances. If this were a normal elevator ride, we wouldn’t have shouted and pounded on the elevator wall. That would not have been well-received. But this was not a normal elevator ride. After another minute, the elevator kicked back to life, we breathed a big sigh of relief, I got up off the ground, and when we got to the first floor, we all exited and went our separate directions, strangers once again with nothing in common, except for a possible case of elevator phobia.
The behavior of human groups is a fascinating study. While I was working on my communication degree, I took a class in group dynamics, and it was so interesting to learn about how groups of people can take on a life of their own and do things that the individuals in the group would never choose to do. The phenomenon is called “groupthink,” which is defined as “a psychological event that occurs within a group of people, in which the desire for harmony or conformity in the group results in an incorrect or deviant decision-making outcome.” Groups of people have incredible influence over those around them, and those inside them.
I believe some of that influence was being exerted during the events of Holy Week. There are two significant times when groups of people gathered. The first was Palm Sunday. The group that gathered on the road entering Jerusalem was a crowd. The trait that bound them together was their enthusiasm for the arrival of Jesus in Jerusalem. The excitement was high and they were all ecstatic about this amazing miracle worker and teacher.
Word was spreading that Jesus could be the Messiah, which had significant implications for the Jews living in Jerusalem. If that were true, then Jesus was arriving to take his place as the true ruling King. Rome would be vanquished, the Jews would be vindicated, and God’s kingdom would finally come here on earth. As the people began shouting and waving palms, I imagine the crowd grew bigger and bigger. It probably even attracted some folks who had no idea what was going on. When you see a crowd of people standing around looking at something, doesn’t your curiosity make you want to go over and see what they’re looking at? Whether they cared or not, the crowd still shouted and chanted and spread their cloaks because, well, everyone else was doing it, and, like joining a conga line at a party, it seemed like the popular thing to do at the time.
Which leads us to the other gathering of people during Holy Week, this one on Friday morning outside of Pilate’s residence. The crowd that praised Jesus on Palm Sunday have now heard him teach in the Temple, have watched him challenge their own religious leaders, have seen him arrested and beaten. This was not what they were expecting. They wanted Palm Sunday Jesus: triumphant, exalted, entering the city like the grand marshal of a conquering parade. They had no use for Good Friday Jesus: bloody, beaten, humble, humiliated. They were angry. They were emotional. They were capable of doing things that individually they would never do, like call out for the crucifixion of an innocent man. Our crowd has now turned into a mob.
The occasion for their gathering is the ceremonial release of a prisoner during the Passover festival. Pilate offers them a choice: he will either release Jesus or Barabbas, an insurrectionist who had committed murder. Release a murderer who is a threat to the empire, or release an innocent man. The choice seems obvious to those of us outside the mob, doesn’t it? Groupthink. The desire for harmony or conformity in the group that results in an incorrect or deviant decision-making outcome. Sometimes a group of people can influence individuals to do things they don’t want to do.
I remember going to see a band in concert back in college. I didn’t really care for the band, but my friend really liked them, he offered to drive, and I didn’t have anything else to do. The concert was by far the worst one I had ever seen. The sound was too loud, the band had no energy, and the room was a smoke-filled, foul-smelling cramped closet. The whole time I thought to myself, “I can’t wait to get out of here!” When the band finished playing, a few people near me started yelling, “Encore! Encore!” At first I thought, “You’ve got to be kidding! My ears are still bleeding! ” But more people started yelling, and those around me nudged me and said, “C’mon!” I found my mouth saying “Encore!” while my brain was saying, “Are you crazy?” The influence of a group can be strong.
That influence is what led the mob to call for the release of Barabbas, not Jesus. They were stirred up by the religious leaders, and disillusioned about who this Jesus has turned out to be. I don’t believe that everyone there that day wanted Jesus to die. But I didn’t want an encore from that band, either. When the Jewish religious leaders goaded a few people to start calling for his death, the chant was picked up by the crowd, maybe even by people who would have been satisfied with a less severe solution. A mob will do things that its individual members would never do on their own, and I believe that some of them present that day quietly acquiesced to the violent death of a man of peace, because it was easier to go along with the crowd and silence him than it was to deal with the repercussions if he’s allowed to live and be heard.
In many ways that’s the same choice we face today. To live in our culture means to be a part of many subcultures. When we claim allegiance to a group, we surrender control over part of our identity. To say that I’m a Republican or a Democrat, a member of the PTO or Garden Club or an Internet chat board, is to say that, while I may not agree with every principle and value of that group, I will allow myself to be defined by that affiliation or allegiance. To say you’re walking in the Breast Cancer Fundraiser or volunteering with the Boy Scouts says something about what’s important to you. What do the groups you are a part of say about you? And what do you do when you’re forced to choose between the harmony or conformity of a group and your faith?
The most difficult part of being in a group is taking a stand against that group. Groupthink is powerful. It’s so much easier to compromise and go along with the crowd. After all, if someone would have shouted that Jesus should be released by Pilate, they may have ended up on the cross right next to him. Sometimes it’s easier to stay quiet, to not rock the boat, to let the group do your thinking for you.
Paul says in Romans, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” In other words, think for yourself! Don’t be goaded into going along with what is popular or convenient or safe. Christianity is about going against the grain; it’s about letting our faith define us, not our affiliations or feelings. So often our beliefs are challenged or ignored by other groups of which we are a part. And then we must decide: do we stay silent for the good of the order, or do we speak up, do we become the dissenting vote, the voice crying out in the wilderness? Do we let Jesus continue to live in our lives, even if it means there are consequences for us?
The easiest decision, the most popular decision, the safest decision, isn’t always the Christian decision. Each time we acquiesce to the will of the crowd over and against what God calls us to do, we once again cry “Crucify him!” A pastor friend told me once that we should let all our decisions be filtered through the God question: What is God calling me to do in this situation? Which choice will bring God the most glory? Each time we choose to honor God in our lives, even if it means not going along with the crowd, then we continue to let Christ’s voice be heard.
We are a lot of things: we are board members, we are activists, we are club members, we are employees, we are residents, we are taxpayers, we are a part of many crowds. But no matter how else we are identified, first and foremost, we are Christians. We are Christians.