by Father Mike Stubbs
In January 1901, a lynch mob forced its way into the Leavenworth County Jail and carried off a young black man whom they then chained to a stake and burned alive.
Fred Alexander, 22, was being held in the jail as part of the investigation of an assault upon a young white woman. At first, the mob was going to hang him on the courthouse grounds, but instead decided to take him to the scene of the young woman’s murder, where they doused him with coal oil and set him afire as he cried, “Lord, have mercy! Lord, have mercy!”
Lynch mobs make up an ugly part of human history. A crowd explodes in anger, gets out of control and takes the law into its own hands. Individual responsibility goes away as mob psychology takes over.
That is exactly what we see happening in Sunday’s Gospel reading, Lk 4:21-30. Jesus’ words have stirred the crowd to action. He reminded them how God had shown favor to certain foreigners in Israel’s history. In other words, he implies that his audience is not so special after all. God’s love is universal. It is not limited to the Israelites.
The crowd responds violently to Jesus’ words: “They rose up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town had been built, to hurl him down headlong.” If that didn’t kill him, they would then stone him to death. Throwing a person over the side of a cliff was the usual prelude to stoning the person.
Fortunately, that doesn’t happen. Jesus escapes from them, to continue his ministry elsewhere. At the same time, this attempted lynching anticipates the cruel death that will result from Jesus’ mission. Throughout his ministry, Jesus will continue to provoke anger from his opponents. That anger will eventually lead Jesus to the cross. Jesus’ escape in our Gospel story represents a temporary reprieve.
A lynch mob is governed by mob psychology, in which the individual can avoid taking responsibility for the awful actions of the group. He or she is just going along with the crowd. That is not a valid excuse, but the person may draw upon it to rationalize what has happened.
In any event, the Gospel reading cautions us about the dangers of going along with the crowd. We may not end up as part of a lynch mob, but we may give into peer pressure that leads to sin.
And ultimately, that is what put Jesus to death.