Jesus and the Multitudes
Luke 5:17–32; 18:15 – 19:9
Jesus answered, ‘Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call not the righteous but sinners to repentance.’
Most human societies are divided between the elites and the masses. The elites are the 1 or 3 or 5 per cent at the top that have and hoard the most money, weapons, power, influence and opportunities. They make the rules and usually rig the game to protect their interests. They forge alliances across sectors – in government, business, religion, media, the arts, sciences and the military. As a result, they have loyal allies across all sectors of a society and they reward those allies to keep them loyal.
Down at the bottom, we find the masses – commonly called ‘the multitude’ in the Gospels. They provide cheap labour in the system run by the elites. They work with little pay, little security, little prestige and little notice. They live in geographically distant regions or in socially distant slums. So to the elites, the multitudes can remain surprisingly invisible and insignificant most of the time.
In the middle, between the elites and the multitudes, we find those loyal allies who function as mediators between the few above them and the many below them. As such, they make a little more money than the masses, and they live in hope that they or their children can climb up the pyramid, closer to the elites. But those above them generally don’t want too much competition from below, so they make sure the pyramid isn’t too easy to climb.
These dynamics were at work in Jesus’ day, and he was well aware of them. In his parables he constantly made heroes of people from the multitudes: day labourers, small farmers, women working in the home, slaves and children. He captured the dilemma of what we would call middle management – the stewards, tax collectors and their associates who extracted income from the poor and powerless below them for the sake of the rich and powerful above them. And he exposed the duplicity and greed of those at the top – especially the religious leaders who enjoyed a cozy, lucrative alliance with the rich elites.
In addressing the social realities of his day, Jesus constantly turned the normal dominance pyramid on its head, confusing even his disciples.
Take, for example, the time a group of parents brought their little children to Jesus to be blessed (Mark 10:13–16). Their great teacher had important places to go and important people to see, so the disciples tried to send them away. But Jesus rebuked them. ‘Let those little children come to me,’ he said. ‘For of such is God’s kingdom.’
Or take the time Jesus and his disciples were passing through Samaria, a region that ‘proper folks’ hated to pass through because its inhabitants were considered religiously and culturally ‘unclean’ (John 4:4–42). Jesus decided to wait outside the city while his companions went into town to buy lunch. When they returned, Jesus was sitting by a well, deep in a spiritual and theological conversation with a Samaritan woman . . . and one with a sketchy reputation at that. The sight of Jesus and this woman talking respectfully was a triple shock to the disciples: men didn’t normally speak with women as peers, Jews didn’t normally associate with Samaritans, and ‘clean’ people didn’t normally interact with those they considered morally stained.
Or take the time Jesus and his disciples, accompanied by a large crowd, passed a blind man along the road (Mark 10:46–52). The man seemed marginal and insignificant, just another beggar, and the people around told him to quiet down when he started crying out for mercy. But to Jesus, he mattered. The same thing happened when Jesus was on his way to heal the daughter of a synagogue official named Jairus (Mark 5:21– 43). Along the way, Jesus was touched by a woman with an embarrassing ‘female problem’ that rendered her ‘unclean’. She didn’t even think she was important enough to ask for Jesus’ help. Jesus healed her, publicly affirmed her value, and then he healed the official’s little girl. Little children, a Samaritan, a man who might today be classified as ‘disabled’ and ‘unemployed’, a frightened and ‘unclean’ woman, a little girl . . . they all mattered to Jesus.
It wasn’t just weak or vulnerable people whom Jesus considered important. Even more scandalous, he saw value in those considered by everyone to be notorious and sinful. Once, for example, Jesus and his companions were invited to a formal banquet (Luke 7:36–50). Imagine their shock when a woman known to be a prostitute sneaked into the gathering uninvited. Imagine their disgust when she came and honoured Jesus by washing his feet with her tears and drying them with her hair. When the host indulged in predictably judgemental thinking about both the woman and Jesus, Jesus turned the tables and held her up as an example for all at the banquet to follow.
That host was a member of the Pharisees, a religious reform movement in Jesus’ day. The Pharisees were pious, fastidious and religiously knowledgeable. They maintained a close association with ‘the scribes’, or religious scholars. Today some might call them ‘hyper-orthodox’ or ‘fundamentalist’. But back then most would have considered them pure and faithful people, the moral backbone of society.
From the start, the Pharisees seemed strangely fascinated with Jesus. When Jesus once claimed his disciples needed a moral rightness that surpassed their own, they must have been unsettled. How could anyone possibly be more upright than they? He further troubled them by his refusal to follow their practice of monitoring every action of every person as clean or unclean, biblical or unbiblical, legal or illegal. To make matters worse, he not only associated with ‘unclean’ people – he seemed to enjoy their company! The Pharisees just didn’t know what to do with a man like this. So they kept throwing questions at him, hoping to trap him in some misstatement.
Once they criticised Jesus for healing someone on the Sabbath, their name for the seventh day of the week when no work was supposed to be done (Luke 14:1–6). Jesus asked them a question: If your son – or even your ox – falls into a hole on the Sabbath, will you wait until the next day to rescue him/it? By appealing to their basic humanity – kindness to their own children, if not their own beasts of burden – he implied that God must possess at least that level of ‘humanity’. In so doing, Jesus proposed that basic human kindness and compassion are more absolute than religious rules and laws. ‘The Sabbath was made for human beings,’ Jesus said in another debate with the Pharisees (Mark 2:27). ‘Human beings weren’t made for the Sabbath.’
Jesus often turned the condemning language of the Pharisees back on them (Matthew 23). ‘You travel over land and sea to make a single convert,’ he said, ‘and convert him into twice the son of hell he was before you converted him! You wash the outside of the cup but leave the inside filthy and putrid. You are like those who make beautiful tombs . . . slapping lots of white paint on the outside, only to hide rot and death inside!’
The contrast between Jesus and the Pharisees was nowhere clearer than in their attitude towards the multitudes. The Pharisees once looked at the multitudes and said, ‘This crowd doesn’t know the Scriptures – damn them all’ (John 7:49). But when Jesus looked at the multitudes, ‘he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd’ (Matthew 9:36).
There are always multitudes at the bottom being marginalised, scapegoated, shunned, ignored and forgotten by elites at the top. And there are always those in the middle torn between the two.
To be alive in the adventure of Jesus is to stand with the multitudes, even if doing so means being marginalised, criticised and misunderstood right along with them.
Meditate & Contemplate
1. What one thought or idea from today’s lesson especially intrigued, provoked, disturbed, challenged, encouraged, warmed, warned, helped or surprised you?
2. Share a story about a time when you felt like one of the multitude, or when you behaved like one of the Pharisees.
3. How do you respond to the stories of Jesus engaging with ‘the multitudes’ and the Pharisees in this chapter?
4. For children: Think of one of the children in your class who is the least popular or who seems to have the fewest friends. What do you think that child wishes other children would do for him or her?
5. Activate: Make an opportunity this week to spend time with some member of ‘the multitude’.
6. Meditate: Think of some group of people you normally turn away from. Imagine them, in silence, and repeat these words: ‘They are harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.’ Notice what happens to your heart as you do so.