Then he called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.
If you flick through the pages of any children’s Bible or story of Jesus books you will keep seeing lovely colourful pictures of happy, smiling and often arm-raising and jumping up and down people. They are the crowd or crowds. Watch any big action hero or war film and there are always lots of extras, usually in uniform or period dress. The ‘crowd’ are the extras in the Jesus story, all in their beards and headscarves, sandals and striped robes.
As with film extras, we usually ignore the crowd in the gospel story treating them basically as part of the human background scenery to the main star characters. But who were they, what sort of parts do they play and how did Jesus treat them? Were the crowd just an unknowable bunch of walk on extras to him or did he have an eye for them as distinctive and important individuals?
The first appearance of a real crowd in the gospels comes at the end of a busy day for Jesus. In Mark 1: 32 the ‘whole city’ were gathered at his door as many were cured and others were set free from demon possession. The crowd or crowds however that I want to focus on are the Galilean northerners, not the more sophisticated, metropolitan Jerusalemites.
The Galilean crowds keep coming at every opportunity. We see them at the lakeside, jumping into boats to follow him, and gathering in their thousands on the hillsides for teaching and healing. First they are coming from local villages and later from distant towns and regions.
My favourite crowd painter is L.S. Lowry. His crowds are made up of ordinary ‘working and finding life to be a struggle northerners’, just like Jesus’s. Lowry paints them in large numbers and usually fairly dull colours. Quite a few of them are often struggling with children, prams and unwell bodies. And because he separates them all so that they are hardly ever touching each other there is a sort of atmosphere of aloneness and going nowhere-ness in his crowds. I often feel that people should look at Lowry paintings whilst listening to the Beatles ‘Eleanor Rigby’ or ‘Nowhere Man’ in the background.
Jesus’s crowds were all looking for something more out of life and were drawn to him as the one who could provide it. For his part Jesus was deeply moved by them:
‘He had compassion for the crowd’
‘Come to me all you that are weary’
‘The fields are ripe for harvesting’
He seems to have had a two pronged approach to the crowd. His first prong was to affirm, teach, heal and dish out food to them all; a sort of universal blessing for the ‘unblessed’. Prong number two takes crowd members to a deeper level. We use the term ‘following the crowd’ almost as a term of abuse. It indicates lack of individuality, weakness, a failure to be our true selves. The crowd tells us what to wear, watch on the telly, eat and drink and even where to go on holiday. Jesus sets people free from following the crowd and calls on them to step out and follow him.
The first fishermen disciples, the unlikely tax collector, women that had been set free from possessive devils and oppressive men, a rich man in Jericho and a blind man on his way up to Jerusalem. In each case Jesus sees them not as numbers in a crowd but as individuals with names and faces.
I am surrounded by a crowd, family members, friends old and new, acquaintances, Facebook people and work colleagues. The list goes on, the crowd gets bigger. So what would it mean to offer some sort of over-all warmth or love to them all? Whilst inviting the odd individual to step out of the crowd so that I can pray for them, have a conversation and build a relationship.
In fact my church too is surrounded by crowds. People coming for weddings and funerals, occasional attenders, parents who want their children christened and entering our school, those who come to our fund-raising events and special festival services. Like Jesus we want to offer something good to them all, but how about going one step further and calling people to come out of the crowd and become part of his community.
All the lonely people,
Where do they all come from?
All the lonely people,
Where do they all belong?
‘Eleanor Rigby’ by The Beatles.
Help me to step out of the crowd,
To be my true self,
Follow my chosen path,
And think my own thoughts.
Help me to hear your voice,
And to respond.