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The Crowds


by Wye Huxford

Matthew's story of Jesus is prone to involve "the crowds."  The Greek word typically translated "crowd" appears 174 times in the New Testament; nearly one-third of them are found in the 28 chapters of Matthew.

The Jesus we meet in Matthew has His heart ripped out by "the crowds" that He viewed with compassion, because they were, in Matthew's perfect analogy for his culture, "like sheep without a shepherd."  There is something palpable about the presence of Jesus in Matthew that attracts "great crowds" to hear Him teach.  Yet it is the "crowd" that will demand the release of a murderer and Pilate will wash his hands in front of that very crowd.

At the heart of Jesus' teaching in Matthew is what we call the Sermon on the Mount.  Matthew 5-7 describes what God intended Israel to be in terms that set the stage for what Jesus modeled as the paradigm for kingdom people to do kingdom things.  The sermon describes for us what fulfillment of the Law, not abolishing the Law, must look like.

Interestingly, Matthew introduces his account of the sermon by saying, "Now when He saw the crowds."  There is no detail as to what kind of people made up "the crowd" that day.  It surely was primarily Jewish in terms of faith, but little else can be said about them.  Perhaps some were people very impressed with what they had already seen Jesus do.  In Matthew's chronology, Jesus has recently been baptized, led by the Spirit to be tempted in the wilderness, and begun His ministry by declaring, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near"  (Matthew 4:17).  Peter and Andrew, along with James and John, have been called to be "fishers of men."  In common Matthew language, Jesus has been going about Galilee "teaching in their synagogues, preaching the good news of the kingdom, and healing every disease and sickness among the people" (4:23).  Jesus certainly has a following, and just prior to the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew tells us "Large crowds from Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea and the region across the Jordan followed Him."

Some of those people must have been sitting on the mountainside.  But along with them might have been some people who saw Jesus as a threat.  Even a casual reading of Matthew (or any of the other gospel accounts of Jesus' life) shows us that not everyone was impressed with Jesus.  For all we know the crowd could have contained some folks who were there out of curiosity and nothing more.

But at the end of the sermon "the crowds" come back into view.  Matthew tells us "The crowds were amazed at His teaching."  The word Matthew uses that is often translated "amazed" could mean something like stunned, awed, or astounded.   However one prefers to say it in English, the bottom line has to be that Jesus and His teaching had a huge impact on "the crowds."

It isn't as if Jesus is offering some "watered down" version of the gospel here.  The Sermon on the Mount continues to be an incredibly challenging word from God about what the kingdom of God should look like.  Jesus challenges us at every juncture of life that following Him requires a reversal of "how things are" so that they can be "as things ought to be" (or in its immediate historical setting, Israel finally living up to God's intentions for them).

Why is it that Jesus "stunned the crowds," but so often in our culture "the crowds" aren't all that impressed with what Christians have to say about life?  Research nearly everywhere suggests that our culture in general and Millenials in particular aren't "awed" by the message of the church.

Could it have something to do with how Jesus viewed "the crowds"?  As noted above, "the crowds" caused Him to be moved with compassion becaue He saw them as "sheep without a shepherd."  but if Kinnamon, Lyons, and others are correct, "the crowds" today tend to view us as judgmental, homophobic, far-right politically, and other terms less than "awe-producing."  If "the crowds" are reading some of the websites and Facebook pages that profess to be reflecting the gospel message, there is little wonder why "the crowds" feel that way!

Jesus must have viewed "the crowds" as opportunity, not threat.  And even though "the crowds" will turn on Him at the end, He still says "forgive them" and on the Day of Pentecost, a pretty impressive "crowd" responds to the gospel.

The realization that our world ("the crowd") is indeed "harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd" should evoke compassion, not judgment.  Until that happens, "the crowds" aren't likely to be stunned by what we have to say!