“And Jesus saw a great multitude, and he felt compassion for them because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things” (Mark 6:34).
“The Pharisees answered them: ‘You have not also been led astray, have you? No one of the rulers or Pharisees has believed in him, has he? But this multitude which does not know the Law is accursed'” (John 7:47-49).
In both of the passages above, ‘the crowd’ gets in the way of someone’s plan.
Two interactions with ‘them’
In Mark 6, Jesus had just reunited with his disciples after sending them out to teach, heal and cast out demons. When they returned, Mark reported so many other people were coming and going that they did not have time to eat (Mark 6:3-32).
Jesus and disciples boarded a boat, seeking a place of privacy and rest. Instead, the crowd ran to the landing place, gathering more people as they went, and already were there when Jesus and the disciples disembarked. They were ready to hear Jesus teach, and none of them thought to bring any dinner.
In John 7, the Pharisees and the chief priests set aside their theological differences to accomplish a very practical result—arrest Jesus. Jesus was speaking about being sent by God, many in the crowd believed and wondered aloud whether he was the Messiah, though some doubted his origins.
The Pharisees and chief priests sent the temple police to arrest Jesus. Instead, the officers came back impressed by the things Jesus said and the way he said them. The Pharisees scoffed and insulted the officers by comparing them to the crowd.
How ‘they’ get in the way
In Jesus’ case, the crowd got in the way of rest. Anyone in a position of ministry, service, teaching or healing knows this feeling well. There always is more to do, and no one knows when the next break is going to come.
In the case of the Pharisees and chief priests, the crowd was a threat. If they followed a (presumably) false Messiah, everything would come crashing down, as this same group said in John 11:48: “If we let him go on like this, all men will believe in him, and the Romans will come and take away both our place and our nation.”
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The crowd was a threat because they were gullible, they didn’t know the Law, and they were under the curse, besides. Their opinion on Jesus counted for nothing, because they were ignorant and going to hell.
Two responses to ‘them’
Here’s a curveball for you: The Pharisees probably were right technically. The crowd likely did not know the Law, but even if they did, they certainly were under its curse. For the Pharisees, this meant the crowd’s voice should be ignored. Important decisions such as ‘what shall we do with the one called Jesus?’ were better left to the experts.
Yet, Jesus saw the crowd in a different way, “like sheep without a shepherd.” “Lost,” we might say. Jesus, much more than the Pharisees, had the right to declare the crowd ignorant and hell-bound. If he wished to curse them, he could have done it by right and authority. Instead, “he felt compassion for them.”
Compassion is the major difference between Jesus and the Pharisees and chief priests. The next thing that happened was the miraculous feeding of the five thousand (and more), a miracle of provision and abundance sparked by a heart of compassion.
‘Us’ and ‘them’
Which brings us to “us.” How do we feel about “them?” “Them” is the crowd in your way. “They” are standing between you and a well-earned rest. “They” are ignorant of God’s law. “Their” political views are threatening to bring everything crashing down. “They” should shut up and just let you or whoever you think is an expert be in charge.
If this is the way we feel about “them,” then we can start tithing from our spice rack, blowing a trumpet when we give our offering, and praying, “Thank you, God, that I am not like other people.”
As we enter 2020, we enter another election year. In our homes and our churched, at work and on social media, we will have multiple opportunities to say how we feel about “them.”
What will our family, our coworkers, our congregation, our Facebook friends hear from us? Will they hear, “This ignorant crowd is accursed!” or some version of it?
Or will they hear another voice, a voice of compassion that gives thanks to God before breaking bread and sitting down to feast, a voice in which the crowd discovers that where Jesus is, there is more than enough to go around?
Patrick Adair is pastor of The Crossings Baptist Church in Mesquite, Texas.