How do you feel when you end up in a crowd?
Are you comfortable with all the opportunities to meet new people and excited about all the unexpected things that happen when you put a large group of people together?
Or do you feel rather intimidated by all the colours, smells, noises, opinions, demands and looks of such a group? And how about all the different groups you can potentially be a member of, either by necessity or by choice, like family, gender, race, colleagues, political parties, professional or sports clubs, churches, orders, schools, hobby clubs and various interest groups on the internet?
If you are like me, you can find positive and negative things about all these groups.
They all have their own goals and usually they are successful to a certain degree.
There is also a sense that the people in such a group will look after each other, and usually they do support each other in some way. But with so many groups it can also get confusing. Where do I really belong? Who is really interested in me as a person, rather than in me as one of them? How do I know that the direction they pull you in is really best for you, and takes into account your whole situation and your whole being rather than just your assent to most of the ideas of the group, or your carefully polished good conduct in a given circle?
Although the crowds in Jesus’ time were rather different from today’s, the principles are still the same. And we can learn from Jesus’s attitude to the crowds as described in today’s gospel. The story starts with Jesus needing some time for himself, away from the crowds. He had just heard about the death of John the Baptist, and John had not just been a friend of his, but the one who prepared the way for Jesus. You can imagine how lonely Jesus must have felt. Now it was all up to him, and there were few able to understand the challenges of his mission. Moreover, Herod, feeling guilty for his cowardly murder of John the Baptist, had pointed to Jesus as the reincarnation of John the Baptist, effectively turning Jesus into the new enemy.
The followers of John the Baptist on the other hand, were looking for a new leader who would expose the corruption of Herod and his fellow-rulers just the way the Baptist had done. They would only have been encouraged by Herod’s theory of Christ as the incarnation of John. But the other gospels make it clear that they would soon insist on crowning Jesus as there worldy king. Now this must have made Jesus very uncomfortable, as his kingdom was not of this world. Therefore he must have had the same ambiguous feelings about belonging to this group. On the one hand he had been baptised as one of them and called himself the son of man. These people seemed to understand more about repentance and justice than the other jews. But there was a limit to their understanding and they might underrmine Jesus’ mission.
But what is Jesus’s answer when He stepped ashore and saw the large crowd?
It says he had compassion with them and cured their sick.
Jesus so identified with the common people, that he saw each individual in the crowd.
Like he himself was not fully understood, so none of these people fully understood each other. They were all just hoping and trying, but the group could not satisfy all their needs.
That is also how they ended up in the middle of nowhere, far from their homes, in the evening with nothing to eat. And that is also how we may reach a dead end, whether it is in our family, our church, our work, in politics, at school. Suddenly we wonder if this is where we really belong. Many are then tempted to hop from one group to another, but that can make the homelessness even worse.
Jesus has compassion on all the people in all the different groups. He who had no place to lay his head down, understands that we are constantly looking for something that feels more like home. But He also knows that we are not going to find it apart from our heavenly Father. Christ’s kingdom is not of this world, and yet we have to function in all those imperfect groups. There is no particular one, not even a particular church, that can provide a permanent solution. Only the wider church, in the sense of the kingdom of God, which is not of this world, can do this.
In this connection it is interesting that the Greek word for church is ecclesia, those called out, you might say called to forget about all the factions and conflicting interests and symbol politics. While remaining citizens of this world, we should embrace the citizenship of heaven. This is not a simple task, and therefore Jesus has compassion with us.
And that is why he went about healing and teaching. And why He, with the help of his disciples, provided a miraculous meal that took care of both their physical and spiritual hunger. In verse 20 Jesus had to send the multitudes away, but not without having given them a great vision.
Another person who had trouble fitting into a particular group was St. Paul.
He had received a revelation from Christ himself, to do with that same vision of the kingdom of God. He was to become the apostle to the non-Jews, but at the same time he was an educated and respected Jew. And in Romans 9 we experience him in agony, because his fellow-Jews have not received the Messiah. He would give his life for them to discover the same riches of grace, and reminds us of the irony that the Israelites were the ones to (first) receive the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, the promises and the patriarchs. How could he possible choose between his own “flesh” and this new idealistic movement?
And then, in the last verse of our reading, St. Paul himself gives us the answer.
A choice is not really necessary. From the Israelites comes the Messiah, who is over all.
If you really believe that Christ is the fulfilment of all the Messianic prophecies, like Isaiah 55, then you should be able to be a religious Jew as well as a Christian. The Messiah is not a strange sectarian leader, he is not an evangelical, a Calvinist or an anglo-catholic.
He is Lord over all. This is something that cannot be emphasized enough. The Lord, like his kingdom, is universal, and for all groups and nations and genders and persuasions.
In St. John’s gospel he says, “And other sheep I have which are not of this fold; them also I must bring, and they will hear My voice; and there will be one flock and one shepherd”.
There are some who claim that the fold was Judah and the other sheep were the other tribes of Israel.
But things become clear when Jesus tells us to make disciples of all nations.
No one is to be excluded. This reflects the words of Isaiah 55, “See, you shall call nations that you do not know, and nations that do not know you shall run to you,”
And it also reflects the character of God as it is described in Psalm 145 verse 9:
“The LORD is good to all, and his compassion is over all that he has made.”
“You open your hand, satisfying the desire of every living thing. 17 The LORD is just in all his ways, and kind in all his doings. 18 The LORD is near to all who call on him, to all who call on him in truth.”
What does that mean for us? It means that all divisions, inside or outside the church, are temporary inconveniences. We do not need to, and indeed cannot abolish all these groups. But they should not be seen as the ultimate goal or as the answer to all our questions. Christ taught us not only to have compassion with the individuals we meet personally, but with all groups because of all the individuals in them, who are much like you and me. The only thing that is dangerous is to think that only our group can establish true peace and welfare. This is the cause of most violence in the world, including Israel and Palestine. Sunnite Muslims in Syria and Irak think only they can save the Middle East. Sjiites do the same.
The only hope for this world is therefore a kingdom that is not of this world.
It is the kingdom that Jesus meant when he ordered the crowd to sit down, and to share and receive food, to have a meal together and both in the literal and the spiritual sense.
To stop killing, exploiting, ridiculing, accusing, taking revenge, lying and manipulating.
Oh, when will we accept the free gifts of Christ, and imitate them and say,
“Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price. 2 Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy? Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food. 3 Incline your ear, and come to me; listen, so that you may live. I will make with you an everlasting covenant”?
May this spirit become a uniting factor for all those who truly call on God.
May we not reduce God to a small tribal god, but worship the One Lord of all compassion.