Seeing the Crowds. . .
What do you see when you see a crowd of people? How do you feel when you are in one? I have been on the Santa Monica Pier, in Yankee Stadium, and at Times Square on holiday weekends. I have been on a Japan subway at rush hour, gently pushed in by subway attendants removing any personal space. I have accidentally found myself in Quiapo near the Basilica of the Black Nazarene on Good Friday. I lived in the fifth largest metropolitan areas in the world near one of its busiest intersections. And, I have unfortunately been in Cairo during an unsettling revolt where seemingly everyone took to the streets.
I have seen and been in crowds so tightly packed that it was difficult to retrieve my mobile phone from my pocket. I am not a stranger to crowds. And, in case you are interested, I grew up in a small town of about 4,000 people that boasted the only stoplight in over 20,000 square miles. I have gone from never experiencing a crowd as a child to experiencing crushing crowds on six continents in adulthood.
So, I will turn the question on myself. What do I see when I see a crowd and find myself in one? Historically, my reaction was to get out as quickly as possible or at least view the crowd from a distance. I don’t do black Friday sales at Walmart. And, though I have attended concerts, I would never be near a mosh pit. Thankfully, the kind of concerts I attend don’t have mosh pits.
I formerly saw the crowds as something to be avoided. I view them differently now- inevitable mass gatherings in an ever-increasing urbanized world. Crowds are daily realities. They are everywhere. They include people commuting daily in cities with inadequate infrastructure, people trying to make a collective point, those attempting to survive, refugees or unfortunates trying to receive free or affordable goods and services, folks seeking relief from under-sized tenements and protests of nearly everything protestable. They are daily realities in cities around the world.
When I see the crowds now, I see people exhibiting more frustration, becoming more robotic and impersonal and in some cases trying to find common ground with nameless and faceless sympathizers around a cause. None of these expressions generally start or end well. The most tension-free crowds are those just trying to get by or be entertained- commuters and concert goers. Most crowds are innocuous and just a new way of living in a population-exploding world.
All crowds, though, are filled with people made in God’s image and often unaware of their distinguished and valuable status. They are filled with people who have names and stories, needs and desires. But, increasingly, they are filled with people who do not know if their names are known, stories important, needs realistic and desires realizable. They are filled with people going somewhere or nowhere at all- but often without rationale or purpose regardless.
Though Jesus lived in an agrarian world in a day with far fewer people filling the countryside, he attracted crowds. It makes sense that he did. Those who desperately needed help came to him since he seemed to be the only one who could deliver. Those who sought wisdom and teaching that was fresh from someone who was approachable and not burdensome came to him because the acceptance, love and authority level he brought was greater than that of the conventional teachers. Those who sought the spectacular came to him. He did unprecedented things. The crowds surrounding Jesus were so pressing that he had to climb into a boat on one occasion to address them. His disciples became like security detail, trying to keep sick people and children from smothering and endangering Jesus and them.
But, when Jesus saw the crowd, he had compassion on them (Matthew 9:36; 14:14). He saw people, some of whom were helpless while others were harassed. He saw people like sheep without a shepherd. He saw people in need, without hope, lost, needing favor, seeking answers and worthy of them. Clearly there was a difference between how Jesus saw the crowds, how his disciples saw them and how the teachers of the law saw them. He saw them as needy and valued. The disciples saw them as intrusive. The teachers of the law saw them as a threat or evidence of competition. The disciples wanted to send them away. Teachers saw them as ignorant and misled. Jesus wanted to feed them, heal them and give them life.
Crowds are here to stay. That is the urban world in which we live. Crowds form more frequently. Social media incites their formation. Media reports their activities. People see them increasingly as avenues to produce change. So, how do we view this reality? We are still to have compassion upon them. We are still to remember that these people are distinguished and valued by God and need truth, love, faith and hope. They don’t need a car to ram into them, water canons to disperse them or IEDs to damage them. They need compassion. They need Jesus. They need us to be part of the solution and not the problem.
Jesus fed the crowd with insufficient resources- five loaves and two fish in one instance and seven loaves and a few fish in another- that only became sufficient after Jesus loved, gave thanks and began infiltrating the crowd with this meager supply. We surely have insufficient resource today to make much of a difference in the crowds around us. But, we can love, pray and distribute what we have. Who knows but that such an effort might be sufficient if God is directing that effort?