In the first century, Jerusalem was one of the largest cities between Alexandria in Egypt and Damascus in Syria. Herod the Great had ushered in the city’s renaissance with his vast building projects. He reorganized the city’s serpentine streets into a paved grid. He built himself a palace with luxury bedrooms for 100 guests. In the midst of the crowded city, his palace was a walled resort. A network of underground cisterns collected rainwater and made its gardens green and refreshing (cf. Flavius Josephus,
The Wars of the Jews,
Book 5, 4). Herod also constructed an amphitheater and a hippodrome for the enjoyment of the people. And, as his crowning achievement, he reconstructed the Temple, making it a wonder of the ancient world. Jerusalem was truly a cosmopolitan city, prosperous and inviting.
Each year when Passover came, the pilgrims would flood the city, swelling its population from 80,000 to 250,000. For the Jews, Passover was the most important feast. It commemorated their deliverance from Egyptian bondage. According to all four gospels, Jesus was crucified in Jerusalem during the Passover celebrations when the city was throbbing with activity. It is no surprise, then, that Luke tells us that “a large crowd of people followed Jesus, including many women who mourned and lamented him” (Lk 23:27).
The spectacle of a man being led out of the city to be crucified could not go unnoticed. In fact, the Roman authorities would make every effort to have the condemned man walk a path that would attract the greatest attention. They wanted his cruel fate to be seen by as many people as possible. In this way, it could serve as a warning to anyone who would even think of opposing Rome.
Although Jesus had only spent a short time of his public ministry in Jerusalem (cf. Mt 21:10-11), he, nonetheless, was well-known. Many had heard of his miracles. Only recently, he had healed a beggar at the Pool of Bethseda in the North of Jerusalem (Jn 5) and the blind man at the Pool of Siloam in the South of Jerusalem (Jn 9). So well known was Jesus that his enemies feared his arrest would cause a great disturbance (cf. Mk 14:2).
When the two disciples on the road to Emmaus spoke with Jesus, unaware of who he was, they were astonished at his apparent ignorance at the events surrounding the crucifixion. One of them, Cleopas, asks, “Are you the only visitor to Jerusalem who does not know of the things that have taken place there in these days?..The things that happened to Jesus the Nazarene, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, how our chief priests and rulers both handed him over to a sentence of death and crucified him” (Lk 24:18-20). Christ’s crucifixion was a most public event.
Luke is the only evangelist to report the presence of a large crowd that follows Jesus. Is Luke thinking of those individuals who were present in Pilate’s praetorium and had shouted for his crucifixion? When Pilate had offered to release Jesus in honor of the Passover, they had demanded, instead, the release of Barabbas, a known murderer. The crowd had been manipulated by Jesus’ enemies.
Crowds are easily manipulated. The anonymity of the crowd masks personal responsibility. People in crowds think differently than when they are on their own. We always need to be aware that, whether we are alone or with others, we are responsible for our own decisions and actions. Conscience is never absolved by appeal to others. We are to do the right thing, no matter what others, even if their numbers be great, may do.
Or is Luke thinking of those following Jesus on the way to Calvary as individuals who had hoped that Jesus would liberate them from the tyranny of Rome? But now they realized that this would never be. Jesus had refused to accept the role of political Messiah that they envisioned for him. As a result, their hopes are dashed to pieces like broken glass.
These disappointed individuals no longer were sympathetic to Jesus. They were angry. Jesus was no different than
Judas of Galilee
before him (6 A.D.) or Theudas after him (46 A.D.). He was just another in the line of false Messiahs that came and went. Both Judas of Galilee and Theudas had championed a revolt against Rome and led the people to bloodshed. Now, as Jesus faced the fate of all rebels, perhaps those following Jesus in the crowd are there to take revenge for being deceived. It is all too easy to place expectations on others and then, when they do not measure up to what we want, to turn against them. It takes real love to accept others for who they are.
Could not some in the crowd along the Via Crucis have been just casual passers-by? They saw the others following Jesus. They joined with them, if merely to satisfy their curiosity.
A careful reading of Luke shows us who Luke sees as the individuals making up the crowd that follows Jesus. Luke situates this notice that “a large crowd of people followed Jesus” immediately after the conscription of Simon of Cyrene to help Jesus carry his cross. Simon is forced to carry the cross. As he is made to follow Jesus as Jesus walks ahead of him, Simon becomes a disciple.
In the Lucan narrative, Simon serves as a positive figure to transition the narrative away from the enemies of Jesus to those who do not oppose him. For Luke, the crowd is not forced to follow Jesus. These individuals deliberately follow him along in the crowd. They had come to know something of Jesus during his ministry and there was the beginning of love. Now that he is taken away from them, they are discovering how strong that love is. So often it is separation, and sadly death, that make us realize the value of others in our life.
These good people following Jesus are sympathetic to him. They may not be disciples. But they are open to discipleship. They are drawn to Jesus in his suffering as they were drawn to him in his public ministry. There is something that attracts them to him. It is the attraction to goodness and the inexplicable working of divine grace. It is from this all discipleship takes its origin.
From the crowd, Luke singles out the women who are crying and mourning the suffering of Jesus. He does this for a reason.
To be continued
(This is the first column this Lent in the continuing series of characters in the Passion narrative.)