The Will of the People
The Will of the People
“The public have spoken.It’s the will of the people.” We’ve heard these words many times in the nine months since the result of the referendum. They have brought us to the point of formally giving notice that the UK intends to leave the European Union. On 29 March, just over two weeks before Easter, our government delivered a letter to the President of the European Council, Donald Tusk.
Twice in the account of the first Easter, the momentous final week of Jesus’ life, the public spoke and the will of the people was expressed. It wasn’t in the privacy of a polling booth, with each person making a considered decision. Then the public spoke and expressed their will on the streets, in a vast crowd, which became a mob in uproar.
The first occasion was Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem on a donkey. The church calls this “Palm Sunday”. Each of the four Gospel writers record this (Matthew 21: 1 – 11, Mark 11: 1 – 11, Luke 19: 28 -44 and John 12: 12 – 16). We are told that a very large crowd gathered. Many spread their cloaks on the road, others formed a procession ahead of him, and some followed him. He was a subject of popular acclaim as people shouted, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the Highest.” The will of the people, spontaneously and popularly expressed, was of acclaim of Jesus, and probably of rebellion against the powers that ruled their lives. Something was happening, things were changing, and Jesus might be the figure around whom the hopes of the nation could be built.
Five momentous days later, things had changed. No cloaks were spread on the road. Jesus was stripped of his own clothes and wrapped in purple robe, probably an old and discarded symbol of authority. The religious authorities had stirred up the crowd, and now the will of the people was “Crucify him!”
We are told that Pontius Pilate, the Roman Governor, was well aware of the motives of those who had brought Jesus before him. “He knew it was out of self-interest that they had handed Jesus over to him.” Pilate tried hard to find some way of releasing Jesus, albeit with a flogging. But as the public spoke, and the mob was in uproar, he saw he was getting nowhere. He made a vivid gesture of washing his hands of the issue – something which has passed into our language – and handed Jesus over to be crucified. At the same time he declared himself innocent of Jesus’ death, as he passed responsibility to the crowd. “All the people answered, ‘His blood is on us and our children.’”
As he washed his hands, Pilate abrogated the responsibilities of government. He was not at the head of a representative democracy, such as we enjoy today. But it was still a government of which St Paul could write, in his letter to the Romans, “There is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities which exist have been established by God.… For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good.”
The events of those five days two thousand years ago show that the will of the people can change, and it can be manipulated. The same is true today. For this very reason, we have established and developed forms of government, appointing people “who give their full time to governing.” (Romans 13: 6). We entrust weighty decisions to them, and whichever way we voted last June, we should be concerned whenever they tell us, “The public have spoken.It’s the will of the people.”