Welcome back, Sister Johanna! This is the first of a series of five linked reflections on the passage from Saint Luke 12. We were reminded how dangerous crowds can be by the tragedy at the African Football Cup of Nations just a few weeks ago.
Meanwhile the people had gathered in their thousands so that they were treading on one another. And he began to speak, first of all to his disciples: ‘Be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees – their hypocrisy…. To you, my friends, I say: Do not be afraid of those who kill the body and after that can do no more (Lk.12: 1-2,4).
As I read this passage I imagined the crowd of thousands – so many people that they were stepping on each other – and I felt a strange fear. I felt the desperation in that crowd, a crowd that symbolises, perhaps, all of humanity from the beginning of time until now; it is made of people so hurt and needy that in this case they are quickly becoming ruthless, bumping and pushing in their hunger for Jesus. But one thing at least is clear: they know that they need to reach him, that he is somehow their salvation. But they are stepping on each other.
How scary to be part of this crowd. It is not one I’d have wanted to be positioned in the middle of, with no easy exit-route if things had taken a nasty turn. And this already-desperate situation is the one in which Jesus chooses to issue a warning about yet another cause for desperation: that the seemingly venerable authority figures of the religious establishment are, essentially, phonies. This is deliberate on Jesus’ part, like everything he does. Clearly, in Jesus’ estimation, this message couldn’t wait for a smaller, calmer audience to gather at another time. Here is Jesus utilising his ‘social platform’ to the hilt in order to disseminate his message to as many people as possible. It is that important: the Pharisees are not to be trusted.
Let’s take this slowly. In saying this kind of thing so publicly, Jesus is actually saying more than one very important thing. The first is the obvious one: he is warning this crowd of people against the Pharisees. His warning has a sub-text, too. He is saying, ‘Although the Pharisees cannot be trusted to provide a religious understanding of the pain of your existence that you seek, I can; I am that meaning. Come to me. The Pharisees know the letter of the law, but I know its heart and spirit.’ In Matthew’s gospel Jesus will say even more compellingly, ‘Come to me all you who labour and are burdened and I will give you rest.’
Here, Jesus speaks first to his disciples, and they, in turn have told the crowd – not only the crowd present on that day, but also the crowd of the Church that has been present ever since the apostles began their ministry, fired by the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.
And now I turn to my own heart. How willing am I to come to Jesus? He is the meaning of my existence. He now uses the Church, in a direct line from the apostles, to disseminate his message. Do I trust that Jesus is, even now, teaching me, teaching the Church – this ‘crowd’ in their thousands – of which I am a member?
Let’s reflect on this for the rest of the day. Tomorrow we will continue.