At Home in Lent - Palm Sunday: Newspaper

At Home in Lent ~ Palm Sunday: Newspapers

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Public opinion

The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them; they brought the donkey and the colt, and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them. A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. The crowds that went ahead of him and that followed were shouting, ‘Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!’ When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, ‘Who is this?’ The crowds were saying, ‘This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.’

Matthew 21:6–11

In Broxbourne, Hertfordshire, is the printing plant that produces several of our major newspapers daily. Every 20 minutes a lorry arrives with huge rolls of paper from Scandinavia, and these are automatically loaded on to a conveyor system that logs, moves and delivers them to the printing presses with timely accuracy and efficiency. The printing of a newspaper is a technologically advanced operation. The paper travels through the presses at about 30mph, and at that speed if the paper tears or breaks, hundreds of copies are wasted. From imaging on a computer screen to folding and stapling, the production of a newspaper is a single, uninterrupted process. At the end of the line are pallets waiting to be put on to lorries, which within minutes can join the nearby motorway to deliver the papers nationwide, bearing news, stories, criticism, gossip, information, opinion polls and perhaps even ‘fake news’. The sheer mass of this media is breathtaking.

Since World War II, interest and expertise in measuring public opinion has grown. Ipsos MORI has dominated the world of opinion polls, producing carefully sourced and balanced market research data to be mulled over by newspapers and broadcasters. They have sometimes been accused of ‘getting it wrong’, especially in the wake of the 2015 and 2017 UK general elections, but nevertheless the predictions of the market researchers are usually fairly accurate. We must, however, always be careful to distinguish between opinion and fact.

When Jesus entered Jerusalem on a donkey, the crowd knew who he was (or they thought they did). The media of the time (grapevine and gossip) had the whole city in turmoil, wondering who he was, but Matthew also tells us that some of the crowd knew, and the buzz got around that this was Jesus, the prophet from Nazareth. The word spread fast. Nowadays, when the media are pushing headlines to our screens even while a story is unfolding, and newspapers are rushing to get something coherent on to tomorrow’s front page, we can play with the idea of what the media would have said about the arrival of Jesus into Jerusalem on what we now call Palm Sunday. Various Easter TV programmes and books have done this over the years with mixed results. We can contemplate what it might have been like to be in the crowd, to hear the questions and answers fly to and fro, to see this strange figure apparently fulfilling prophecy and to join in the ancient acclamation from the Psalms. ‘Hosanna’ means ‘Save us’, and is found in Psalm 118:25: ‘Save us, we beseech you, O Lord! O Lord, we beseech you, give us success!’

Public opinion was for Jesus that day. Public opinion was that he was a good thing, a Saviour who could deliver them from whatever it was that they wanted to be delivered from. Freedom from Rome, oppression, religious repression, poverty, taxation, hunger, bullying, injustice: all or any of these things could have been in the minds of those shouting ‘Hosanna!’ Sadly, it seems none of them really knew who Jesus was or what he was offering. We can never know, because there were no pollsters or market researchers on hand to ask them, so no data to be interpreted or manipulated. We do have Matthew, though, whose description we take to be accurate.

Similarly, only four days later, another crowd gathered to hear Pontius Pilate ask what to do with the same man, and, undoubtedly stirred up, this self-selecting sample of public opinion called for his death. There was no survey, no voting, no democracy involved at all. A mob both hailed Jesus and endorsed his execution. Pilate had asked Jesus, ‘What is truth?’ (John 18:38), and then went on to bow to the Latin adage vox populi, vox dei (‘the voice of the people is the voice of God’).

Today, the echoes of this incoherent and dangerous manifestation of public opinion is as chilling as it was for Jesus and his close friends, as our society seems to be increasingly defined by the same idea. The public did not know who he was, so they decided who he was. Then, four days later, they changed their minds and decided he was something else. As in our age today, what they decided depended on what they were told, and what they were told was either only partially true or downright false. So it came to pass that public opinion hailed Christ as conquering king and, within a week, put him on the cross.

In a lecture at the University of Kent on 25 January 2013, Sir Robert Worcester, who founded MORI in 1969, said:

Opinions: the ripples on the surface of the public’s consciousness, shallow and easily changed; attitudes: the currents below the surface, deeper and stronger; and values: the deep tides of public mood, slow to change, but powerful.

On Palm Sunday, it was clearly opinion that shouted ‘Hosanna!’ But that opinion reflected attitudes of hatred towards Rome and the other injustices the people were experiencing. What were the values of the first-century Jerusalem mob? Whatever they were, they were drowned by self-interest, desperation or perhaps both. Self-interest and desperation might explain their apparent fickleness and connect them to so many of the crowds who gather in squares all over the world today as hopeful revolutions give way, as they usually do, to tyranny and oppression.

It was the equivalent of the Jerusalem media that altered public opinion and made a fool of the people, first acclaiming and then condemning Jesus. But before we blame anyone, remember that the public was the crowd: a self-selecting sample of floating voters who listened to whoever shouted the loudest. There were many who were not in the crowd on either occasion, whose measured opinions, attitudes and values were never heard that day. Next time you pick up a newspaper and scan its facts and opinions, consider where the opinions it helps you form might lead.

Jesus, you were both hailed and harrowed by unthinking, uninformed and desperate opinion. Build in us truly Christian values that in our attitudes and opinions we may always be true to you. Amen

The Rev'd Dr Gordon Giles, St Mary Magdalene, Enfield.

Please note this text is copyright © BRF, Oxford, 2018