Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Part IV: A Face in the Crowd

Late Sunday Afternoon

[Based on Matthew 21:1-11; Mark 11:1-11; Luke 19:28-38; John 12:12-19]

The formal arrival and review now complete, Mamercus and his century settled into their quarters at Fortress Antonia. The soldiers were given some down time to rest after their journey before assuming their assigned duties. After a short respite, Mamercus decided to take a walk and soon found himself strolling along Solomon's Portico, a broad avenue along the outermost eastern wall of the Temple complex.

King Herod had rebuilt the Jewish Temple, embarking on a massive construction project that had lasted 40 years! The sight was truly immense in scope covering 45 acres. Mamercus doubted even the original Temple that once stood here could match the splendor of this place. (The original temple had been built by Solomon, and destroyed during the Babylonian invasion. It had been rebuilt when the Jewish people returned from exile, but was not nearly as magnificent as the original Temple.) Truly Roman engineering was remarkable!

The "new" Temple dominated the landscape and was visible virtually anywhere in the city. The Temple's massive white marble walls gleamed in the late afternoon sun and gave it an almost otherworldly glory. Even the three great towers near Herod's palace seemed small in comparison.

Having ascended a three-story staircase to enter the Temple complex, Mamercus was now atop the Temple Mount and walking in the so-called Court of the Gentiles—the outermost area of the temple in which everyone, including Gentiles were allowed. The area was buzzing with activity. Hundreds, if not thousands, of pilgrims making their way to the city for the Passover observance were mulling around, some of them looking a bit confused and overwhelmed, others looking tired after a long journey. In addition to the normal brisk commerce that took place in this outer court every day, dozens of additional impromptu merchant stalls had been set up along the portico for the convenience of the incoming travelers.

Vendors were here selling virtually anything a pilgrim could possibly need for the Passover ceremony—and even some stuff they probably didn't. It just wasn't practical for pilgrims to bring what they needed with them, so they tended to purchase what they needed once they arrived in Jerusalem. It was really a win-win for everyone. The pilgrims got what they needed for the Passover observance, and the Temple made a handsome profit.

Moneychangers were also on hand to convert Roman coinage to Jewish currency, always for a small additional fee. And of course, men wearing the tell-tale regalia of lower ranking Temple officials—white linen robes and funny-looking hats—were sprinkled throughout the crowd to help the pilgrims figure out where they needed to go and what sacrifices were required once they were ready to enter the temple—for a small fee of course. Jewish males could even arrange for a tour of the temple if they wanted—again for a price.

Mamercus took all this in with hardly a second thought. It was just what went on in Jerusalem during the Passover and it was of little consequence to him. He worked his way through the crowds and made his was just starting to walk back down the portico toward the exit when there arose a clamor near the eastern entrance—the one that led out toward the village of Bethany and the Mount of Olives.

Someone in the crowd shouted: "Make way for Jesus!… All hail the liberating king!!"

Mamercus' mind instantly flashed back to the conversation he had earlier about the so-called Jesus threat. Clearly, this "Jesus" had to be the same Jesus that he had been warned about. He wasn't sure how seriously he should take the report at the time but obviously the intelligence reports were true. Jesus was in fact on his way to Jerusalem (again, not all that surprising given the occasion) but the response of the crowd surprised him just a little. His pulse quickened just slightly and almost without thinking he reached for his sword to make sure it was in place should he need it.

But, almost as quickly, he relaxed… Entering the gate at that moment was a lone figure riding on the back of a donkey. A rather haphazard looking line of followers straggled in behind him, some mounted others trailing behind on foot. This was the total opposite of the crisp military formation that he had been part of this morning and, frankly, Mamercus thought the display looked a little pathetic. He couldn't understand why everyone was getting so worked up? The man certainly didn't look like a king; he looked more like a common peasant.

Some of the people in the crowd started spreading their cloaks before him on the road; others spread palm branches along the road; still others tried to run up and touch Jesus and his entourage. Mamercus noted that if anyone had tried that this morning they would have been summarily killed, but this Jesus character didn't seem to mind mixing with the crowd.

Someone standing nearby shouted: "Hosanna!"—which means, "Lord save us!" Others repeated the accolade.

"With what," Mamercus chuckled to himself, "His charm and good looks?" He hardly thought this guy could save himself in a fight, much less anyone else, and certainly not a whole "nation" of people. He certainly didn't fit the profile of a military hero. Where was his armor? Where was his sword? What weapons would he fight with if it came down to it?

One of the white-robed-clerics Mamercus had seen earlier was standing nearby and said: "Behold Israel. As the scriptures foretold, your king comes to you riding on a donkey!"

Mamercus was a bit confused. Standing in the midst of this mass of humanity erupting in spontaneous celebration, cheering and waving their branches, he suddenly felt a little out of place. At least for a brief moment, he wished he was back at the palace. He sensed an almost palpable excitement seemingly growing by the moment among the Jewish people gathered in the Court of the Gentiles, as they cheered the arrival of this relatively unknown Nazarene. Mamercus found himself thinking again, "Who in the world is this guy and why is this nobody causing such an uproar?"

Maybe Pilate’s concerns were not totally off base. It is clear that this crowd seems desperate to have someone, anyone, to believe in. His earlier thoughts not withstanding, even this brief encounter gave Mamercus the distinct sense that this man did in fact possess a certain charisma. For some unknown reason, the Jewish people seem to want to follow Jesus and put their hopes and dreams for the future in him. And while he doesn’t seem to come seeking their accolades, he is not exactly discouraging what they say either… which is troubling. Some of what they are saying could be construed as blasphemy against Caesar.

Mamercus would definitely need to find out more about this Jesus of Nazareth and reassess the threat he posed to Rome. He would also need to alert the primus pilus of these new developments. If the Jews did break out into a full-scale revolt, it could quickly spread into the countryside, and other groups might follow suit. Mamercus was not about to let that happen if he could help it.

Check it out.

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