I’ve always struggled with crowds. Some of my loneliest times have been in the midst of a great mass of people, all engaged in something apparently very social or group oriented but somehow empty to me. Not entirely sure why but believe that it may be something to do with the fickle nature of people when groupthink sets in. Someone can be a hero one moment and a villain the next.
At this point in the 21st century, we seem to be obsessed with crowds and especially in gathering and counting them. How many Facebook “friends” do you have? Twitter followers? Blog subscribers? Website visits? Regular “attenders” at your meetings? YouTube views? Likes on your Facebook posts? I trust you get the picture. These are all modern measurements of our ability to gather a crowd or even crowd control. Of course we are successful when we do since that means we are influencing many….or are we?
Jesus, the Nazarene, arguably the most influential person to ever set foot on this earth (even those who are not his followers would concede this) had a very different approach to crowd control and management of large groups of people. For example…
John 6 is a fascinating account of the rapid growth of followers of this increasingly famous prophet from Nazareth. As we enter John 6, Jesus impact had been growing steadily through several healings which were increasing the attention on what he was doing. However things are about to go to another level when he feeds 5,000 people (John 6:1-14) by multiplying a small boy’s lunch of 2 fish and 5 barley loaves. The setting was on a hillside likely near the southern end of the Sea of Galilee opposite Capernaum in the Galilee region of Israel. Jesus had just finished a particularly long day of teaching and the people were hungry. Note that by the typical counting methods of the day there were likely 5,000 men present not including women and children. The total number was probably much higher. After this miracle, he now had the crowd’s attention and their reaction is noteworthy “Surely this is a Prophet who is to come into the world.” (v 14) It’s interesting to note that no one had to tell the crowd this. The supernatural event did the telling. When a truly supernatural event happens, advertising is unnecessary.
At this point, the story takes an interesting turn. In this day and age, we would be asking if anyone captured any video of the event so we could post on Facebook or YouTube as quickly as possible. Get the message out. Our ministry is on fire and it’s time to promote. Not Jesus. He does the opposite. He retreats to a mountain to be alone. He is so on a different page than us.
Then “When evening came, the disciples went down to the lake and got into a boat and set off across the lake for Capernaum. By now it was dark and Jesus has not yet joined them.” (John 6:16-17) Matthew and Mark also record this story so it was clearly very important. During the trip across the lake a severe storm comes up threatening the lives of the disciples. Jesus watches for awhile and then walks towards them on the water. They were terrified but were wiling to take him into the boat. Good call guys! Note to self: this is always a good idea during life threatening situations.
In a very short period of time the supernatural thermometer has risen dramatically and there is a definite buzz in the atmosphere. So much so that the crowd recognizes that something significant is afoot and finds their way to Jesus and his disciples on the opposite shore. It is fair to assume that this newly assembling crowd is likely much bigger and in a different frame of mind than the crowd that was fed earlier. Word would have been spreading fast about the miracle working “Prophet”. The group that now assembled near Capernaum was probably a mix of the 5,000+ that was fed and people who had heard the story. Also, imagine the whispers in the crowd about the storm incident (do you really think the disciples said nothing?). What about the detectives in the crowd who saw the disciples leave in a boat without Jesus and then heard that the boat arrived with Jesus in it? Safe to say that the atmosphere was now electric.
At this point, Jesus not only does not use this opportunity to promote his ministry and capitalize on his new found fame but proceeds to do the opposite of what we would expect with this amped up and excited crowd:
In verse 26 he responds to the first question about how he got to Capernaum by saying “I tell you the truth, you are looking for me, not because you saw miraculous signs but because you ate the loaves and fishes and had your fill.” Jesus doesn’t simply accuse them of being “sign-seekers” but makes an even more negative statement by accusing them of only wanting to fill their stomachs. When he had the opportunity to leverage his momentum further he commits marketing (or ministry) suicide by critizing his followers…but he is not done yet.
He then goes on to describe himself as the “bread from heaven” and “bread of life” and “having come down from heaven”. This twists the crowd into knots and as they are still trying to figure out how Joseph and Mary’s kid “came down from heaven” he goes even further by saying that they are to “eat this bread” and then concludes with a provocative statement that unless they “eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you”. (John 6: 53 – 54) It would appear that he is now advocating cannibalism. Modern day political careers have been destroyed by less.
Wait, you say. Jesus was just referencing a future time when we would all partake in communion in church and remember his body and blood as we take the sacraments wasn’t he? Yes, that is true on one level however the people present at the time would have had no idea about that concept. In fact, they would have seen this statement as completely contrary to Jewish law which forbade cannibalism and the drinking of blood. Perhaps that is why they responded “This is a hard teaching. Who can accept it?” (John 6:60)
At this point he has lost his momentum, lost the crowd and most leave the scene. In modern terms, he has blown his opportunity… or has he?
Upon reflection, it seems that overall God is very unimpressed by a crowd and large gatherings of people. In fact, as demonstrated by Jesus, he seems to delight in whittling them down to a handful. Remember Gideon’s reduction of his fighting force from 32,000 to 300? How about David and his 30 or so mighty men? Daniel and his 3 friends? Jesus leaving the future of his kingdom in the hands of the 11 remaining disciples?
Have a look at Jesus life and notice all of the times where he avoids crowds, challenges large assemblies with teachings that he undoubtedly knows will drive most listeners away and is generally unimpressed with popularity. In this day and age of mass-marketed spirituality, maybe we need to rethink some things. Jesus’ form of crowd control seemed to be to drive them away. We usually want to gather and attract more friends, followers and likes and certainly speaking to large gatherings of people is the way to influence the world… isn’t it?
Perhaps my aversion to crowds isn’t such a bad thing after all…