A Fickle Popularity

Palm/Passion Sunday

Psalm 118
Matthew 21:1-11
Isaiah 50:4-9a
Philippians 2:5-11
Matthew 26:14-27:66

Among the more difficult aspects of adolescence is that so much hinges on that most elusive and most fickle of realities—the esteem of their peers. While obtaining that coveted commodity – admiration from one’s classmates – is difficult, holding on to it seems nearly impossible.

As I think back on my own time in high school, I can remember hearing—and sometimes voicing—the common complaint that the teenage experience felt like a cutthroat popularity contest. Maybe it shouldn’t be so surprising or disappointing to wake up and find, decades later, that our society, populated by alleged grown-ups, still resembles nothing so much as a popularity contest.

While we would like to buy into the myth of self-assurance and pretend that we are the kind of confident people who don’t care what anyone else thinks, we live in a world that runs on social media “likes,” positive Yelp reviews, blog post clicks, and television ratings. It’s tough not to get swept up in such things, whether you’re a minister scanning attendance records, a professor flipping through class evaluations, or a Facebook user wondering why there aren’t more thumbs-up icons next to your latest witty and/or profound reflection on theology, politics, or televised sports. It’s important, from time to time, that we turn down all of this noise and allow ourselves a reminder of what this anxious striving after popularity and acclaim actually accomplishes, and just how capricious such pursuits can be.

On Palm Sunday, the church remembers the moment in Jesus’ earthly life when his popularity was at its peak. Having spent much of his life in relative obscurity, Jesus had become a public figure around the age of thirty. His ministry of preaching and healing that began in the region of Galilee had become more widespread, resulting in large crowds and frequent conflicts with some of the religious luminaries of his day. In other words, Jesus had become something of a big deal, drawing the kind of publicity—good and bad—that modern-day celebrities crave.

As the twenty-first chapter of Matthew’s gospel opens, Jesus is preparing to celebrate the Passover with his disciples. This was one of the most anticipated events in the Jewish calendar, a time when the city would be packed with worshipers, spilling into the streets and filling up the temple courts, taking it all in as they readied themselves for one of the largest communal religious celebrations of the year.

For Jesus, this feast also presented an opportunity to make a statement about who he was and what he had come to accomplish for God’s Kingdom, in God’s name, and among God’s people. And so, he prepares to make his entry in the most attention-grabbing way he can imagine. He rents the most majestic stallion he can find, from the most reputable stables in town. He takes a sizable chunk of the money from Judas Iscariot’s bag and buys a resplendent royal robe, finishing the ensemble off with a scepter that would be the envy of any Roman dignitary. The Son of David was going to make his presence known in a way that would unmistakably and inevitably lead to his coronation in the courtyard of the temple, the very temple that pretender to the throne, Herod, had rebuilt in a cynical attempt to gain the love of his subjects.

Except that’s not how it happened at all. Jesus made his presence known that day, but not in the most obvious or ostentatious manner. The crowds celebrated his arrival, but not in the way someone like Herod, Pilate, or Caesar would have anticipated. Jesus’ preferred method of travel on that Sunday before Passover wasn’t the one that most kings would have chosen. Instead of a mighty steed, he rode into town on a humble donkey. Instead of a red carpet, the hooves of his unassuming transport carried him across the cloaks of the children of Israel, spread across the road in welcome. Instead of flags of triumph, waving in the breeze, Jesus entered Jerusalem greeted by palm branches in the hands of children, who were shouting “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!”

This entry, and the celebration that accompanied it, might have been unconventional according to the ways of the world, but it was perfectly fitting according to the proclamations of the prophets from centuries past. The people who lined the streets of Jerusalem that day seem to have recognized that Jesus’ visitation to their city was the fulfillment of what their ancestors had awaited. And so they gave Jesus the welcome he deserved.

Of course, we know that the popularity Jesus enjoyed on that first Palm Sunday would be short lived. In just a few days, Jesus would be betrayed, arrested, handed over to the Romans, and crucified. Not even a week would elapse before those same crowds that shouted “Hosanna!” would lift their voices to cry “Crucify him!”

In this, Jesus continued to fulfill the words of Scripture. In the way he so quickly became an object of scorn and hostility, at the hands of those who had professed to love him, in the way he committed his life and his entrusted his spirit into the hands of his Heavenly Father, even as he hung on the cross, Jesus embodied the words of the Psalmist, who wrote of the inconstancy of people and institutions:

It is better to take refuge in the Lord
than to put confidence in mortals.
It is better to take refuge in the Lord
than to put confidence in princes.

The final week of Jesus’ earthly life stands as history’s most convincing illustration of the fickleness of public opinion. Those who claimed to love him were just as quick to turn on him. Fortunately, the power of Jesus’ work and witness among us does not hinge on the esteem of the crowds. He was faithful to the end, able to look beyond both the tenuous acclaim and the cruel contempt of the masses, and to find his identity, his vocation, and his strength in a more stable place. Whether the crowds celebrated him as Messiah or crucified him as a traitor, he took refuge in the will of his Father, and was therefore able to bring hope and life even to those who were quick to heap hatred and violence on him.

One Response to “A Fickle Popularity”

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  1. Phil says:

    Your post rings so true, especially on the Internet, and even more so if possible on the Catholic web.

    Every site across the Net it seems is really little more than a mutual validation transaction. Like minded people huddle together in little groups, each agreeing to tell the other what they want to hear. If you play the game, you are declared a popular. If you can’t or won’t play the game, you become the scorned outcast. Popularity is the currency of these mutual validation transactions and those engaging in a real inquiry will, almost by definition, rarely achieve it.

    What do Catholics do online? They talk to other Catholics. Almost exclusively. Why? Because that’s who will validate their perspective. A happy Catholic site is one where these mutual validation transactions take place smoothly without interruption, and thus everyone is popular, and the bottom line is reached.

    It never seems to occur to anybody that the stated purpose of Catholicism is saving souls, and thus Catholic dialog should presumably be focused on engaging those who aren’t Catholic.

    Good luck finding a single site on the Internet that was set up specifically as a place for Catholics to have _real_ dialog with non-Catholics. And I don’t mean sites controlled by Catholics so that they can enforce their mutual validation system upon visitors, which is hardly real dialog.

    An editor I was once honored to pester 🙂 called this the tribal nature of the Net, a wonderfully concise description. Popularity within the tribe is the bottom line, the only thing that really matters it seems.

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