Part 1: The Crowd (and our anxiety for “right” answers)
When they came to the disciples, they saw a great crowd around them, and some scribes arguing with them. (Mark 9:14, NRSV)
I can’t speculate on what it was like for Jesus himself, but Peter, James, and John have just had an eye-opening, transformative experience. Having stepped off alone with Jesus, they have borne witness to the glory of God – the divine nature – that always permeates Jesus but that they often are unable to perceive. Coming down from this literal “mountain top” experience to the rest of the group of disciples, they find a large crowd and hear arguing going on.
Because these thoughts evolve from a conversation God invited me in to, I have to take a moment and share about my personal feelings toward crowds.
Are you ready?
I don’t like crowds. As an introvert, I generally feel uneasy and anxious when presented with a crowd (unless that crowd is at a Star Wars convention, in which case it’s one of the greatest on earth!). I like my space, both physically and emotionally, and crowds tend to… crowd in on that space. I have been known, during church Christmas parties, to eschew the larger gathering of adults engaging in conversation and hors d’oeuvres and instead hang out with the children playing Nintendo games.
So as we read of Jesus and the disciples coming back from a spiritually formative moment to encounter a crowd, I began to feel some unease.
And then we learn that within the crowd, scribes (or “legal experts,” religious leaders well acquainted with both Scripture and tradition) have been arguing with the disciples. This isn’t in and of itself surprising, as such religious experts routinely argue with Jesus throughout the gospels. Here they likely came to continue that trend of conversation but, finding Jesus off “on retreat,” they contented themselves by arguing with his disciples instead.
We learn the nature of the argument after Jesus asks what it was about, and “someone” from the crowd (we later learn it to be the father) shares that he brought his son to be healed by Jesus and, finding him sequestered away with his inner circle, sought the help of the disciples. Knowing that healing is involved in the argument – not to mention an example of failure to do so – we can anticipate/speculate what the arguments might have been, since this moment is reminiscent of others where legal experts challenged Jesus:
When he returned to Capernaum after some days, it was reported that he was at home. 2 So many gathered around that there was no longer room for them, not even in front of the door; and he was speaking the word to them. 3 Then some people[a] came, bringing to him a paralyzed man, carried by four of them. 4 And when they could not bring him to Jesus because of the crowd, they removed the roof above him; and after having dug through it, they let down the mat on which the paralytic lay. 5 When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Son, your sins are forgiven.” 6 Now some of the scribes were sitting there, questioning in their hearts, 7 “Why does this fellow speak in this way? It is blasphemy! Who can forgive sins but God alone?” 8 At once Jesus perceived in his spirit that they were discussing these questions among themselves; and he said to them, “Why do you raise such questions in your hearts? 9 Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Stand up and take your mat and walk’? 10 But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins”—he said to the paralytic— 11 “I say to you, stand up, take your mat and go to your home.” 12 And he stood up, and immediately took the mat and went out before all of them; so that they were all amazed and glorified God, saying, “We have never seen anything like this!” (Mark 2:1-11, NRSV)
22 And the scribes who came down from Jerusalem said, “He has Beelzebul, and by the ruler of the demons he casts out demons.” 28 “Truly I tell you, people will be forgiven for their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter; 29 but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin”— 30 for they had said, “He has an unclean spirit.” (Mark 3:22, 28-30, NRSV)
(On a related note, earlier in Mark 3:5, Jesus looks around at the legal experts “with anger” because of their attitude, something I comment on in a recent sermon, “Mark’s Action Hero.”)
So often the Pharisees, scribes, legal experts, and other religious leaders of his day are taken aback by Jesus and his action. “Only God can forgive sins!” they cry out in shock and horror when Jesus declares forgiveness. They remain silent when asked if one should do good or evil on the Sabbath. They plot against Jesus, to the point of seeking his death!
Why? I think we are readily too quick to give the Pharisees a bad rap, seeing them as a one-dimensional foil to the activity of God in Jesus. But what seems to really be going on is that their commitment to the law, and to doing what is right, acts to blind them from the new activity of God in Jesus. They are so deeply committed to their understanding of the Scriptures and God’s promise of a Messiah, that they are anxious and unsure about Jesus because Jesus’ activity does not connect with their perspective of who the Messiah is or will do. They are anxious because this rabbi from Nazareth that is being lifted as the potential Messiah does not meet their expectations of the Messiah…
And the crowd, gathered around these bickering religious experts and Jesus’ seeming second-tier disciples, must be feeling anxious, too. After all, they are now faced with two very differing ideas about God, about how to live in a way that honors God, about what God desires. Which of the perspectives is right? (In another story, we are told that when Jesus encounters a crowd he “had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd” [Mk. 6:34]. To me, this image of a crowd suggest a group that is clueless, afraid, uncared for, and/or unprotected, as I imagine abandoned sheep might look.)
And so, as Jesus and the three disciples descend from the mountain to real life below, they encounter this crowd abuzz with anxious people…
When the whole crowd saw him, they were immediately overcome with awe, and they ran forward to greet him. (Mark 9:15, NRSV)
There are times as a parent when I suddenly find my two children (and sometimes their friends) descending on me all at once. They’ve had some kind of disagreement, and when they cannot work it out, they rush to me to solve it for them; to fix it. (If I’m honest, I sometimes have experienced the same thing in church ministry, too!)
In the same way, when those in the crowd cannot work out this dispute between the disciples and legal experts, they rush to Jesus to solve it. They triangulate Jesus in to the conflict between the other two, expecting that he will determine a winner and a loser.
In fact, Jesus’ eventual response almost sounds like that of an exasperated parent or teacher…
He answered them, “You faithless generation, how much longer must I be among you? How much longer must I put up with you? Bring him to me.” (Mark 9:19, NRSV)
How often do we turn to some external source, some reputed expert, to provide us the “right answer” to a dilemma we face? It seems to be a trend that if one finds a relationship distressing, a family dysfunctional, or an organization challenging, then one looks to another to step in and fix it. Marriage counselors sometimes face members of a couple expecting the counselor to fix the argument (or their spouse!), and when a quick solution isn’t presented but instead the real work of mending a relationship is posed, the couple quits.
I wonder if we have become overly anxious for the “right” answer for situations.(1) Edwin Friedman’s excellent, if perhaps obtuse, book on leadership comes to mind. In “A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix,” Friendman shares how we have come to think we can find the right data or solution to some acute problem, rather than working more deeply at the underlying causes of our anxiety and turmoil that lead to acute problems.
I believe that “the crowd” today, presented with even more differencing perspectives than the two shared in this story, still acts out of its anxious nature. Perplexed by an ever expanding diversity of options and perspectives, the crowd turns looking for the right answer to fix it; and so perhaps do we, individually. We might feel that the right job, or the right spouse, or the right leader will provide the answer, and we’ll all live happily ever after.
I had this experience in one appointment. About a year or so in to a challenging church position, a prominent leader of the church came to me to share that he was leaving the church. He shared that the congregation, and he himself, had been struggling before I got there, but he stuck it out because he expected the new pastor would come in and “fix it.” He used those exact words with me! Suffice it to say, I had not provided the fix he was desiring, and he left for greener pastures. It was a sad, but enlightening, moment.
And so here we are, shifting from my initial thoughts about my personal unease with a crowd to what seems to be a deeper anxiety within the crowd that day, and then the story focuses in a little more closely…
(1) Just an aside: I respect and appreciate how Rev. Gina Campbell, when giving presentations, asks the question of whether something is “comfortable” to her listeners, rather than “does that sound right?”