The evangelists crafted characters to draw readers in. Throughout the Gospels, certain individuals or groups draw readers’ attention and give them a point of access to the narrative. When readers identify with these characters, they become participants in the action. In this way, the Gospels give Christians of every era the opportunity to encounter Jesus.
Not as I will, but as you will. (Mt 26:39)
What expectations have we placed on Jesus? How has he responded?
If we had a faith like his, what fears could we overcome?
In Matthew’s passion narrative, the crowds are one of these “points of access.” Matthew holds up their fickle behavior as a warning. He knows that an encounter with Christ can bring a burst of excitement as new believers feel Christ’s active presence and project onto Christ all sorts of unfulfilled expectations. In a short time, however, these believers realize that grace does not unfold according to human fantasies. Initial excitement becomes confusion, resentment and finally rejection. This perversity of heart colors both Palm Sunday Gospel passages.
Jesus is not a native of Jerusalem, but something about the place affects him deeply. Jerusalem symbolizes all of humanity’s passion, dreaming, striving and industrious self-defeat. In the thunder of the crowds he encounters the whole drama of humankind. In the teeming crowds he sees us.
The crowds do not see him. No one recognizes the humble carpenter who heals the sick and preaches forgiveness and generosity. Instead, they project their unfulfilled expectations and desires onto Jesus. Some long for a political liberation, some for a reform of the temple, some for economic rectification. Still others have no clear desire except that things change for the better. Many of these hopes are mutually exclusive.Jesus satisfies none of these expectations. Matthew sketches Jerusalem’s disenchantment in a few quick episodes. Jesus alienates political radicals when he accepts the payment of taxes to Caesar. Likewise, Jesus’ action against the Temple was more impulsive than strategic and led to no structural reform. Jesus preaches several parables that are insulting to faithful Jews, and he fills his discourse with unnerving talk about the destruction of the Temple and the end of the world. Within a few days, Jerusalem had lost interest in his message and the crowds were howling for his blood.
Matthew’s passion narrative warns us against similar expectations and disillusionment. Not every Christian will reject Christ with the vigor of the Passion Week crowds, but disciples in every age have turned away when Christ failed to fulfill their limited expectations.
When he looked out over the crowds that day in Jerusalem, Jesus saw a humanity worth dying for. Even when they rejected him, his love did not change. He could see beyond their narrow visions of power and prestige, and he knew what they truly needed was the same unshakeable faith in the Father’s love that had propelled his own ministry. A demonstration of that love was the one thing that could truly save them, and he bent his will to providing it even though it meant his death.This is Matthew’s lesson for us. Jesus demonstrated faithful divine love even when it meant the cross. When we see beyond our initial disappointment, we find in Christ’s act of love a gift that truly saves us. We find we are children of the same God whose love triumphs even over death.