David A. Davis
September 8, 2019
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I never realized until this week how often the gospels talk about the crowd. I never stopped to think how often the gospels refer to those gathered around to hear and to see Jesus as a “crowd”. Click on some bible software and do a word search on “crowd” and a really long list of references pops up on the screen. I didn’t check but probably about as many as if you typed in “Jesus”. Our reading today is from the gospel of Luke. Luke is full of “the crowd”.
Early on in Luke when Jesus first comes upon the soon-to-be disciples at their boats, Luke tells that Jesus was standing next to the lake and “the crowd was pressing in on him to hear the word of God.” That memorable story of the man on the mat being lowered through the roof by the men who wanted to bring him to Jesus, they did that because of the crowd. In Luke, after Jesus tells Levi the tax collector to follow him, Levi throws a big banquet. Luke records that ‘there was a large crowd of tax collectors” at the table with Jesus. When Jesus delivers the Sermon on the Plain in Luke it was to a “great crowd”. Jesus comes upon the funeral of the son of the widow of Nain. He brings life back to the man in front of a “large crowd”. In Luke, Jesus teaches the parable of the sower to a “great crowd”. Jesus returns to Capernaum after being on the other side of the Sea of Galilee and sending the demons from the Gerasene into the pigs. He returns to an awaiting crowd. The whole loaves and fishes scene in Luke begins with the disciples telling Jesus to send the crowd away to get something to eat. After the Transfiguration when Jesus appears on the mountain with Moses and Elijah, they came down to a great crowd. The blind man in Jericho cried out and asked about Jesus because he heard the crowd passing by. Luke is so full of “the crowd’.
Back in my office this week with my trusty bible software at my desk, after I typed in “crowd”. I went ahead and typed in crowds as in “Now large crowds were traveling with Jesus” – the first words of the reading I offered to you. I typed in “crowds”, as in crowd plural. Crowds in Luke. There’s a whole other list. How much “crowd” can there be in one gospel? When Jesus was heading to the home of Jairus to heal his daughter and the woman with the hemorrhage touched his garment? That happened while “the crowds pressed in on him”. In Luke when Jesus asked the disciples “Who do you say I am”, that conversations start with Jesus asking them “Who do the crowds say that I am?” The man who couldn’t speak who was healed by Jesus? He spoke and “the crowds were amazed”. And then here in our reading for the day, in the 14th chapter of Luke’s gospel, “Now large crowds were traveling with Jesus.”
As this chapter unfolds, as the reading comes upon this hard teaching of Jesus, Jesus is heading to the home of one of the leaders of the Pharisees for a sabbath meal. Jesus heals a man along the way and challenges them on sabbath law. At dinner, he points out who has the seats of honor and who doesn’t and tells them “All who exalt themselves will be humbled and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” Jesus tells them when they host a banquet to invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. Because when you invite your friends, your family, and rich neighbors, they always pay you back with an invitation. One of the dinner guests, I am guessing one who was not a Pharisee and one who was rather enjoying Jesus kind of putting to the Pharisees when it comes to the poor and the sick and vulnerable, that guest blurts out, “Blessed is anyone who will eat bread in the kingdom of God!”
That’s when Jesus tells the one about the person who hosted a great banquet. When the servant goes to fetch the people, who were invited they all make an excuse. I have to get out to the farm. I have to check on my oxen. I just got married. Word comes back to the dinner host who gets angry and he tells the servant to “Go out at once into the streets and lanes of the town and bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame.” And when the servant did that there was still room. The dinner host says, no doubt with quite an attitude, “Go back on the street and compel people to come so my house will be full! None of those who were invited will taste my dinner.”
At this point the crowd was listening — the non-important people and those very far from the seats of honor and the widows in the back, and the children that are invisible to the powerful and the servants waiting tables and cooks out in the back and invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind, they all started to hoot and holler. They were shouting “Amen” and telling him to “keep preaching”. Go, Jesus! Go, Jesus! Go, Jesus! Okay, the bible doesn’t say that at all. I just made that up. But that’s what I imagine happening. Because in almost every case, “the crowd” connotes, implies, refers to those nurtured, healed, lifted, touched, fed, loved, and saved by Jesus. Yes, in Luke Judas arrives with a crowd for betrayal and arrest of Jesus. And it no doubt was a crowd shouting “Crucify him. Crucify him.” And Luke’s description of the torture and execution of Jesus concludes with this: “And when all the crowds who had gathered there for this spectacle saw what had taken place, they returned home, beating their breasts.” Luke is so full of “the crowd”. And the vast majority of “the crowd” in Luke are those thirsting for and soaking in and crying out for the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Which makes me wonder why Luke never tells of a time when the crowd begins to shrink. A time when Jesus teaches about first being a servant of all, or turning the other cheek, or taking up your cross and some in the crowd hear it and say “No, not so much!’ and walk away. Yes, there was that time right near the beginning, back in his hometown, when folks were all abuzz about Joseph’s son and Jesus was being praised by everyone for his teaching. Once they heard him tell of Elijah being cared for by the widow of Zarephath, someone who wasn’t like them and Elisha cleansing the sickly Naaman who was a foreigner who was from across the border, they were enraged and wanted to toss Jesus off a cliff. But Luke doesn’t call them “a crowd”. There had to be a time when “the crowd” so enthusiastic for his love and passionate for his teaching, when the crowd hears Jesus’ teaching about discipleship, and loving not just your friends but your enemies, and showing mercy, a time when Jesus talks about the narrow way, a time when Jesus talks about how blasted difficult this life of faith is going to be, a time when they hear it and about half the crowd walks away. A time when the crowd begins to shrink.
Like here in chapter 14 when Jesus talks about hating father and mother and family and life itself. Here when Jesus doesn’t say “well, we all have our crosses to bear”. No, he says “whoever does not carry the cross, thee cross, my cross, and follow me cannot be my disciple.” Here where he talks about counting the cost before you’re all in and knowing ahead of time what you are in for in terms of life and death. Here…” So, therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possession. Salt is good; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is fit neither for the soil nor for the manure pile; they throw it away. Let anyone with ears hear listen!”
You can’t tell me that there were not those in the large crowds traveling with him those who were all in on having a place at the feast, those who were down with his gospel word of inclusion and his preference for the most vulnerable, those in the large crowds who heard what he just said and turned and walked away; That the large crowd didn’t begin to shrink a little bit. Or at the very least, there wasn’t someone who didn’t turn to the person next to them and say, “Did he really he just say all that?” Someone else who said “Yes” and then it all started sinking in, and they said, “No”; Someone who said to themselves “That’s not what I signed up for.” Or “I want to be saved. I don’t want to do all that”; Someone heading the other way saying to anyone and no one all at the same time, “This is way too hard. I’m done”
It is just so uncomfortable to hear and try to take in the examples and word choice of Jesus here: hating life itself, waging war, giving up all. It’s puzzling, to say the least; hating family and the imagery of battle and giving up every possession. But don’t get so turned off by the language, or maybe even the use of hyperbole, that you miss the point. The life of discipleship isn’t supposed to be easy. It isn’t going to be or really is ever, easy. Nobody said that a life of faith is going to be easy; without struggle, without hard choices, yes, without sacrifice. Nobody said it was going to be easy. At least Jesus didn’t. He never did.
No, it isn’t easy. To commit to a faith journey with growing edges and learning opportunities and allowing the gospel to both comfort your hurts and challenge your opinions. To heed the call to a life of generosity and serving others and giving away more of your money than your parent taught you or modeled for you. To be willing to speak up at work, or at a party, or a family holiday dinner as someone lets yet another inappropriate joke or comment fly. To consciously make the effort to listen rather than speak when someone who is of a different faith, or a different theological tradition, or a different race, or a different sexual identity, or from a different country, or a different part of the country, or a different school, or different gender, to listen to the story of someone different from yourself and just listen to that child of God. To sit and pray and talk and discern with your life partner how your walk with Jesus can set the priorities in your life together. To cling to your relationship with God when God doesn’t answer the most important thing you have ever prayed for in your life and you are left absolutely heartbroken. No, it isn’t easy.
Some of the crowd had to have left. There has to be a time when the crowd shrinks. I bet Jesus saw it all the time. He still does. And he turns to those who are still there, and he says, “I’ll go after them, one by one. You, you follow me, still. Follow