Back in 1910 a man called George Gibson Polley made an unusual bet with a big group of people. He bet them a considerable sum of cash that he could climb, unaided, up the outside of a huge department store in Chicago. An enormous crowd gathered as he made his ascent – most felt certain that he would fall to his death. However, to everyone’s amazement, he managed to scale the whole building by gripping the narrowly protruding edges of the bricks.
Polley won the bet and realised that he had found an excellent – if somewhat dangerous – way to make money. He began to scale buildings for cash all over the United States. He kept the financial arrangements as secret as possible so that it looked as if he was just doing it to please the crowds.
His list of achievements was impressive: Polley shinned up an enormous flagpole on Rhode Island; he climbed the Customs House in Boston, a building over 500ft tall; his next move was to successfully climb what was then the tallest building in the world, the Woolworth Building in New York.
Unsurprisingly, Polley soon received a nickname: ‘The Human Fly’. He also received considerable wealth as a result of his performances. Everything seemed to be going well. However, to his surprise, the crowds began to peter out… The reason for the audience decline was that Polley was just too good at what he did. Everyone who watched him swiftly drew the conclusion that he never made mistakes. The unlikelihood of him meeting a grisly end made people lose interest.
Polley swiftly addressed this problem. In so doing, he displayed a clear understanding of human nature: people are enthralled by watching a person fall.
So skilled was Polley at his ‘trade’, he began including mistakes in every climb to keep the audience captivated. Two or three times in each ascent, he would loosen his grip and slide a little down the side of the building. His doom seemed certain. The shrieks and cries from the audience would, however, turn to cheers as he then caught himself, adjusted his grip and continued up the building.
Sadly, Polley died of a brain tumour when he was just 29 years old. In his relatively short life he scaled over 2000 buildings. Polley earned a fortune by successfully exploiting people’s desire to witness a fall.
If we journey back to Jerusalem at the time of our Lord’s crucifixion, we also encounter people gathering to witness a fall. The crowds, who cheered for Jesus as he arrived in Jerusalem, screamed for Him to be crucified just five days later. I don’t think George Gibson Polley would have been too surprised by their behaviour.
In a far more profound way than Polley, Jesus understood the innermost workings of people’s hearts and minds. In John’s Gospel we read,
Now when he was in Jerusalem at the Passover Feast, many believed in his name when they saw the signs that he was doing. But Jesus on his part did not entrust himself to them, because he knew all people and needed no one to bear witness about man, for he himself knew what was in man. (John 2:23-25)
The crowds who gathered for Jesus were far more than the ghoulish onlookers that Polley attracted. Jesus’ crowds took an active part in bringing about His execution. Despite this, in the most selfless way, Jesus did not exploit or judge them. Rather, He prayed that their guilt would be expunged:
And Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” (Luke 23:34)
More than praying for their forgiveness, He paid for their forgiveness by way of the cross. Jesus’ legacy was not an impressive pile of cash; it was and ever shall be the cancelled debts of all who put their faith in Him.