Readings: Tobit 1:3, 2:1-8; Psalm 112; Mark 12:1-12
Crowds are terrifying. They provoke at least two kinds of fear. One is the fear of a crowd turning angry and violent. Then it is like water or fire, there seems to be no end to the damage it could do. The other is a fear that is more like awe or wonder, and that stirs us when we witness huge demonstrations, whether in sport or music or religion. Any great event, celebrated on a massive scale, involving crowds of people, is awe-inspiring.
Existentialist philosophers warned about the power of the crowd. The crowd is a mighty force, swallowing us up and moving us in a particular direction. The gaze of the crowd - what other people think, and think of us, 'society' or 'public opinion' - is also a powerful force, a kind of 'superego' which seems always ready to criticise and condemn, to mock and humiliate. For such philosophers the crowd is an enemy of authenticity and the individual is obliged to assert his individual identity over against it. He must stand back from it, and apart from it, and away from it, if he is to be himself. As Sartre dramatically put it, 'hell is other people'.
We are told in the gospel reading that the chief priests, scribes and elders were afraid of the crowd. Earlier they had refused to answer Jesus' question about John the Baptist because they were afraid of the crowd who regarded John as a prophet. In today's passage we see that they are once again afraid of the crowd and hesitate to take action against Jesus who in this parable is clearly being critical of them.
We might think that the saint, then, is the person who stands back and apart and away from the crowd, a striking individual who stands out and is courageous enough to stand, even alone, over against the crowd. In this the saint is like the existentialist hero, a single authentic individual. Tobit is such a person in today's first reading. One of the crowd's most powerful weapons is mockery. Even more than physical violence or ostracisation, mockery is a very powerful weapon in making people conform to group thinking. Humiliation, whether feared or actual, is one of the most important factors in understanding human behaviour.
But the saint is not one who despises other people even when they are welded together in a crowd. Tobit, like Jesus, or the good person of the psalm, is with people, caring for them, and at their service. Jesus is busy about the task of building a community, which is a very different thing from a crowd. Such heroic people are not afraid to take action that is individual, original, creative. The Holy Spirit is not in the business of creating clones but of stimulating a whole variety of gifts and services. Grace diversifies and individualises, it does not shrink and collapse. The holy person will act rightly in spite of opposition and even mockery. But he does not regard other people as hell.
We need to be careful that we do not swap one crowd for another, one public for another, one kind of group thinking for another kind of group thinking. The security offered by the group is attractive, of course. But it becomes a crowd when we begin to sacrifice something of our freedom to it. For freedom Christ has set us free, Paul says, don't go giving away your freedom again. The stone rejected by the builders has become the cornerstone: the first part of a new structure, the first member of a new community. It is not a community of existentialist heroes, however, a kind of Stoic monastery, but a community of good people who have come to understand what love means. A community united in love allows space and complete respect for both the nature we share in common with all other human beings, and the individual spirit that God has created each one of us to be and whose flourishing in its unique authenticity is a wonder and a joy for all of us.