April 1, 2007

Crowds May Come
Matthew 15:29-39; 21:1-9

One afternoon during our first visit to Jerusalem back in 1980, Deb and I inadvertently wandered through the nearby village of Silwan. We had no clue where we were, but it didn’t take too long before some of the locals joined us. A few children approached us first, asking for spare change. Then others came, obviously intrigued by two foreigners roaming aimlessly through their streets. Soon, more and more kids joined the group, repeating together in unison, “Money,” “Money.” Finally, when I grew weary of the hubbub and, hoping to silence the chants, said in German, “Ich kann English nicht sprechen,” the children were up to the task. “Gelt,” “Gelt,” they quickly responded, no doubt knowing the word for money in every language! Through it all, what began as an exploratory walk for Deb and me soon turned into hours of commotion, anxiety, and more and more people.

More and more people. There are nearly 7 billion of us in the world today. Is it only me, or does it ever seem to you that perhaps half of the world’s population wants at least a minute of your time or mine? It’s often hard to find space—a moment of silence. The phone rings. Someone knocks at the door. Your son or daughter needs help finding this. Your mom or dad wants you to do that. A neighbor, colleague, student, teacher or even a passerby—somebody always seems to want or need something. “I don’t feel as though I have a minute for myself,” I remember saying to my wife in an unusual moment of desperation just a few weeks ago. There is always someone. And sometimes, the crowd gathering around us seems larger than we can bear.

Crowds appear frequently in all four of the gospels, too, but particularly in Matthew. Matthew, in fact, refers to crowds at least fifty times, and with only a single exception or two, those crowds are gathered wherever Jesus happens to be. The crowd serves as a primary character in many of Matthew’s stories about Jesus—the anonymous, somewhat shapeless group of people who are seemingly as present as the very air that both Jesus and the disciples breathe. These nameless people often simply form “a” crowd. At other times, such as when Jesus was leaving Jericho one day (20:29), they constitute a “large” crowd. And on still other occasions, even during the earliest moments of his Galilean ministry, a “great” crowd gathered (4:25). Jesus knew all about crowds.

The many crowds that Jesus encountered throughout his lifetime gathered around him, as you might imagine, for any number of reasons. They congregated some days simply because they did not want to miss what was going on. They resembled, in other words, a contemporary crowd watching fire fighters scramble to save a burning building or a quartet singing on the sidewalk at Baltimore’s Inner Harbor. At other times they came, like the children in Silwan, in hopes that Jesus would do something for them—restore their sight, heal their wounded limbs, or feed their weary bodies. On certain occasions the crowds gathered because they wanted to hear more about Jesus’ message and mission. And at other times they assembled to celebrate all that Jesus had done among them. Such is the reason for the festivities in chapter 21 that serve as the backdrop for our Palm Sunday celebrations. Crowds shouting and rejoicing as Jesus, the promised one, makes his way into Jerusalem.

Once in a while, however, the crowds congregated in order to cause Jesus harm. Soon after the hoopla on Palm Sunday, Jesus’ journey to the cross intensified dramatically. Within a few days, a crowd, armed with swords and clubs, accompanied Judas into the garden in order to arrest Jesus. A short time after that, they gathered again to instruct Pilate to release Barabbas and crucify Jesus. No doubt some of the same voices who had just days before shouted with excitement at Jesus’ arrival were now demanding his execution. Again and again, Jesus faced crowds, a seemingly endless array of people who filled up many of the spaces of his everyday life. Sometimes they came with the best of intentions. Sometimes they did not.

And Jesus’ reaction to these crowds, Matthew tells us, varied as well. He was, after all, strikingly human. He did, with great regularity, feel compassion for the crowds and reach out to them at their points of need. When they were hungry, he fed them. When they were sick and crippled, he healed them. When they were curious and wanting further instruction, he taught them. When confronted by the various crowds that came his way, Jesus often responded with compassion and reached out to help them.

Even when reaching out in compassion to the crowds gathered around him, however, Jesus typically did so in what we might call self-protecting or self-sustaining ways. Note, for example, the episode in chapter 15 that we read this morning. “Great crowds,” Matthew writes, assembled around Jesus, bringing with them their sick, blind, and maimed friends and relatives. After healing them, Jesus grew concerned about the crowd’s welfare. The events had apparently drug on for several days, and no one had had anything to eat. At this point, Jesus’ response is instructive. He first confides in his disciples, acknowledging the compassion that he feels (15:32). He then prays, opening himself up to the endless resources of God (15:36). And finally, he asks the disciples to distribute the food (15:36). Can you only imagine what would have happened had Jesus sought to care for this expansive crowd alone? What condition might he have been in had he attempted on this and other occasions to address the needs of those around him without ever involving others? I suspect he would have reached out to far fewer crowds.

But Jesus, in spite of his self-protecting efforts, had limits, too. Matthew assures us that, like a therapist keeping an eye on the clock, Jesus sometimes dismissed the crowds—he didn’t always linger with them indefinitely. After feeding a “great” crowd on the shores of Galilee, for instance, Jesus desperately wanted some space. He wanted, as you and I sometimes do, to be alone. So he dismissed the people, went up the mountain by himself, and prayed (14:22-23). On another occasion, after sharing a variety of parables with the crowd, Jesus walked away (13:36). “He left the crowds,” Matthew informs us, and “went into the house.”

In addition to gracefully sending the crowds on their way at times, Jesus actually tried to ignore them altogether once in awhile. In chapter 8, for example, Matthew describes for us what must have been a particularly exhausting experience for Jesus. When he entered Peter’s house in the town of Capernaum, he first touched and healed Peter’s bed-ridden mother-in-law. Moments later, everyone under the sun apparently heard the news and swarmed in so that they, too, might be healed. People sick in body and possessed by evil spirits. And Jesus, Matthew specifically points out, cured them all.

The next day, however, was a different matter altogether. Jesus, apparently, had his Monday mornings, too, just like we do. I’ve been allergic to Monday mornings ever since the days when I pastored the church in the Bronx. What can I say?—Sundays are draining for me. I told my youngest son just over a week ago that he must know how much I love him. I got up at 4:45 a.m. last Monday morning, after all, in order to take him to visit a graduate school in D.C. by 8:00 a.m.! Monday is my “emotional hangover”

Jesus had days like that, too. When “great crowds” gathered following the events in Peter’s house, Jesus seemingly had little left to give. He had apparently read Henri Nouwen’s book, Reaching Out, and had come to realize that it is alright at times for a teacher to have his office door closed. It is healthy on occasion for a pastor to be unavailable. It is wise at times for mom and dad to get a break from the kinds, and the kids from mom and dad. It is not only forgivable, but necessary, for people who give and give to stop giving from time to time in order to replenish themselves. You cannot give what you do not have. You cannot minister to others without first allowing God to minister to you. So Jesus, seeing yet another crowd gathering like a threatening storm cloud, “gave orders”—it was more than a simple request or suggestion—to his disciples to get the boat ready for a trip to the other side of the lake (8:18). Jesus sought, without a doubt, to avoid the crowd, regardless of the level of their needs at that moment. He wanted space. He needed to get away and regroup. He resisted the urge—the compulsion—to always be all things to all people. He closed his door. And it apparently did not matter to him then just what everyone else might think. Jesus had reached his limit, so he decided to get away from the crowd.

Jesus, as he journeyed from Bethlehem to the cross, met crowds all along the way. He attracted them like a magnet. Many of these crowds were friendly. Others were not. Some sought Jesus’ counsel and instruction. Others his life. To many crowds Jesus reached out with compassion. From others he walked away, knowing when he had little if anything left to give. Whatever the occasion and whatever the mood, crowds played a significant role in Jesus’ life.

Yet among the countless exchanges that took place between Jesus and the crowds, I can’t help but reflect this morning, particularly as we move into Holy Week, on the three separate occasions when Jesus sensed that the crowd around him was in need of food and he fed them. These three “feedings,” interestingly enough, are distributed in Matthew’s Gospel in each of the three geographical phases of Jesus’ ministry. In the opening fifteen chapters of this gospel, Jesus focuses his ministerial energies on Galilee. When the crowds gather around him in 14:13-21, Jesus feels compassion for them and feeds thousands of Jewish people.

At the close of his Galilean ministry, Jesus, for the only time in Matthew’s Gospel, quite deliberately leaves the land of Israel and wanders up north into Phoenicia, into the district of Tyre and Sidon. On his way home, he follows a rather bizarre, out-of-the-way route and travels some 125 miles before reaching the southeastern shore of the Sea of Galilee. This journey, described more precisely in Mark 7:31-37, leaves Jesus teaching and preaching in a predominantly Gentile area. Once again, the crowds gather around him, and Jesus, as before, feels compassion for them and feeds thousands of Gentiles—non-Jewish people (15:21-39).

Jesus, however, is not yet finished “feeding” the crowds. After this second miraculous feeding of the multitudes, Jesus turns his sights toward Jerusalem and the cross. Crowds gather and shout as he enters the city, throwing branches and garments before him. Soon, however, the shouts of support and affirmation will turn to words of betrayal, denial and even condemnation. What a week this will be for our Lord. Yet in the midst of this hellish week, another crowd gathers around Jesus, smaller but no less important than the previous two. On this occasion, Jesus once again prepares a meal, but not for either the measureless Jewish crowd of chapter 14 or the massive Gentile crowd of chapter 15. Instead, Jesus finds himself surrounded by a handful of disciples who have wandered with him through Galilee, Phoenicia and now Judea, those same disciples who helped him distribute the bread and fish during the earlier feedings. Jesus now feeds those closest to him, those who have decided to take the journey with him, those hanging in there with him to the very end.

Throughout Matthew’s Gospel, crowds of all sorts and sizes come to Jesus, and crowds still come to him today. And my suspicion is that, in the crowd assembled here this morning, elements of all three of the crowds that Jesus fed during his earthly ministry are represented to one extent or another. Members of the Jewish crowd are with us today. People steeped in religious tradition. Regular church-goers. They know the songs and speak the language. Representatives of the Gentile crowd are also here. People who feel like they are outsiders looking in. They are new to Christ and the Church. They are unfamiliar with the standard Christian vocabulary and traditions. And finally, there are surely many disciples in this crowd this morning—both “Jews” and “Gentiles.” People who are close to Jesus and are determined to walk with him until the very end. That is the type of crowd that is assembled here this morning. Some have come to watch. Others to seek healing. Some have come to shout their praises. And perhaps even some to ridicule and mock.

So how will Jesus respond to those of us in the crowd this morning? Will he walk away, tired and weary, or will he feed us? On this occasion, Jesus, no longer affected by bodily limitations, comes among us with more food than we might ever imagine. Food to heal our broken bodies. Food to nourish our weakened souls. Food to relieve our nagging doubts. Food to satisfy our deepest longings. Crowds often came to Jesus, and he fed them. I suspect that, as we come to him in whatever condition we find ourselves, he will feed us, too.