The Wisdom of Crowds vs The Wisdom of God - Palm Sunday 2017
Tuesday, August 15, 2017 at 10:05AM
Justin Dodd

Palm Sunday could be described as the tale of two crowds. The jubilant hero-worship of the crowd who welcome Jesus into Jerusalem, and the angry mob who bay for his blood in Pilate's palace and then taunt him on the road out of the holy city to his execution. Of course, at the centre is the same man. The question could be asked, which crowd if any, was right? 

In 1907, Charles Darwin’s cousin Frances Galton pointed out that the average of all entries in “the guess the weight of the ox” competition at a country fair was startlingly more accurate than any individual guesses or those of alleged cattle experts.

This notion that the judgement of crowds is surprisingly accurate was explored in James Surowiecki’s book The Wisdom of Crowds. But is it always true that the average judgement of a crowd will converge on the right solution? Surowiecki points out that the crowd is far from infallible. Research in 2011 at the Swiss Institute of Federal Technology demonstrated the undermining effect of social influence. Groups were asked to guess the values of things such as the length of the Swiss-Italian border. As information increased about the guesses of other group members, the individual guesses become narrower, degrading the accuracy of the overall average. In other words, as more information became available about each other’s guesses, the groups were tending towards a consensus to the detriment of accuracy.

The instinct in human behaviour to herd towards something arbitrary and even dangerous shouldn’t surprise us. All of us know what it is to be swept up in the emotional momentum of a group – peer pressure being an obvious example. The Swiss team tell us that the herding effect is likely to be much more detrimental in decisions that have no objectively clear answer. This may well explain some of the recent political upheavals in the West and indeed something of the behaviour of the two crowds described so vividly in our Gospel readings this Palm Sunday.

As Jesus enters Jerusalem the crowds shout “Hosanna to son of the David”. You may be surprised to learn that this chant “Hosanna” appears only here in the English Bible. It picks up on the word used exclusively in Psalm 118.25 of the Hebrew scriptures. More interesting, is that the Hebrew word – Hoshi’a na - is inserted into the sentences in the Gospels that are otherwise all in Greek. Why keep the Hebrew for this word and translate the rest?

Hoshi’a na, which literally means “save now,” has subtlety shifted in its meaning from simply being a prayer of supplication to God to something closer to a statement of confidence. Psalm 118 was very popular in the time of Jesus and gave expression to the deeply longed for emancipation of Israel from Roman rule. Is this what the cheering crowd expect and even joyfully demand of Jesus as he enters Jerusalem? Likewise, does disappointment soon spread into collective betrayal and then anger when Jesus does not deliver on this desperate expectation? “Even the criminal Barrabas is of more use to us than him!”

And yet, it could be argued that we in fact encounter three crowds this Palm Sunday – the joyful crowd, the angry mob and the silent bystanders. This third group are the people who are no doubt present at both of the pivotal events which shape Holy Week. They might describe themselves as ordinary people simply getting on with busy lives and not wanting any trouble. They have come to Jerusalem, which always seems to be in some kind of political turmoil, to celebrate the Passover. Perhaps this man called Jesus is the messiah, perhaps he is nothing more than a blasphemer or a self-obsessed charlatan.

Our silent majority have things to do; accommodation to find; food to prepare and cook; children and elderly relatives to care for. Even though they don’t really have the time to get involved they may have waved a palm branch or stopped to stare at the badly beaten prisoner dragging his cross up the hill amidst the mocking and jeering.

Like the disciples, the closest friends and confidants of Jesus, we may find ourselves in all three of these crowds but participation in the third does not demand much of us. “Let’s just see how things play out, there is so much to do and we have many problems of our own. After all, this man has said and done some very controversial things. The taunts of the chief priests are cruel but surely true “He saved others; he cannot save himself… let him come down from the cross now, and we will believe in him.” Matthew 27:41-42

The picture of a father carrying his dead child in the Syrian town of Khan Sheikhun this week should be burned into the retina. We should not be able to escape it by folding up the paper or closing our eyes. The use of sarin gas by the regime of Bashir-Al Assad is now undisputed.  Who is crying to God on their behalf to “save now”?

Three crowds. Three types of human response. Who is this man and for whom does he die? Recognition comes late to the centurion and those who remain after Jesus’ death. “‘Truly this man was God’s Son!" Truly the innocent have been slaughtered by the guilty, for the guilty. Have we cheered? Have we jeered?  Or worst still, we have stood by and watched?

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