People in their Thousands
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 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 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, 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.’
But let’s not miss an important detail. Here, the text tells us that Jesus speaks first to his disciples. It is they who 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. This is part of the patrimony of the Church, then. The Church has what Jesus is. In coming to the Church, we come to Jesus.
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. This is a lectio reflection and may be more fruitful if it’s read slowly. I invite you to stop reading this reflection now and come back to it tomorrow.
We began yesterday by saying that Jesus is doing more than one thing in Luke 12: 1-2. Today we’ll continue by pointing out that in addition to issuing a warning against the Pharisees, Jesus is also dangerously sealing his fate – and he knows it. His public criticism of the Pharisees will not endear him to them; on the contrary, it will eventually result in his execution. Therefore, Jesus takes this conversation way out into deep waters, and he takes his thousands with him. Jesus is talking about death.
Jesus never had any illusions about the risk he was taking in his preaching. He knew before he even began his public ministry that he would be killed. What the crowd thought of him at this point in his career is difficult to fathom. It is unlikely that they were aware of the danger he was in. But certainly to us, who have access to more than two thousand years of Christian history, it should be clear: Jesus is saying to those who have ears to hear, both then and now, that although the religious authorities will want him dead, he is not afraid to criticise them. Then, he goes on to tell us not to be afraid of them either. He is saying this to an extremely large audience – he wants as many people to know this as possible. It is vital information. This is how he puts it:
To you, my friends, I say: Do not be afraid of those who kill the body and after that can do no more (Lk 12:4).
In lectio divina, we are not trying to turn pages and find out what happens next. We are trying to find out what is happening now in the text on the deepest level. We are pondering each word of our scripture passage, giving it time to yield up its meaning in relation to our personal life. Let’s give this line twenty-four hours to work on our hearts and return tomorrow to continue this meditation.
To you, my friends, I say: Do not be afraid of those who kill the body and after that can do no more (cf. Lk 12:4).
Jesus’ words here are bold words. I imagined myself there, at the scene, part of that huge crowd of thousands. I am hungry for Jesus’ truth. How would I have reacted to his words? Sure, I would have liked being included among those whom Jesus calls his ‘friends’. But I must confess that I would also have felt a subtle resistance to the rest of that sentence, I think. He says, Do not be afraid of those who kill the body, but after that can do no more. I don’t think I would have wanted to hear about killing and being killed.
But Jesus, in this passage, is determined to challenge us, and to make his audience face the deepest of mysteries. He is going straight for what we most fear, straight for the most horrific thing we can imagine: our death. The very subject of death touches the rawest of raw nerves. In the face of death, if we are honest about our feelings, our sense of bewilderment, horror, loss, grief, disorientation, fear and even injustice and outrage surfaces – usually overwhelmingly. And this is the subject Jesus raises. Then, with simplicity, and without a hint of melodrama, he says that we have no reason to fear death, or to fear those who, out of malice, may cause our death. Recall: there are thousands listening to this speech. He wants everybody to know.
Why is Jesus talking about death? It now comes home to me that he does this because he alone, as Son of the Living God, is the only human being – ever – with authoritative knowledge of death. His teaching about death, therefore, is an integral part of his mission – it is his mission. It is even the Good News. Jesus is, I realise with a new clarity, about death. Or that’s one way of looking at it. Granted, perhaps it is far better to say it the other way round: that Jesus is about eternal life. But this way of putting it is extremely difficult to maintain at every moment of our existence because eternal life can only be fully experienced once we have died. And dying, despite everything Jesus teaches, looks exactly the same – just as horrific – as it ever did. Moreover, the human species, by God’s design, is hard-wired to perpetuate its existence on earth; it therefore has a God-given, spontaneous recoil from death in the workings of every human instinct, appetite, and mental process.
But Jesus cannot NOT talk about death to us – not only because he knows that he will be put to death, but most importantly because death is our most fearsome enemy. He must tell us what he knows to be true about death. And he must give the example. He must make this terrifying enemy into something we view without such terror. How? By speaking the truth, even if it enrages the religious establishment to the point of wanting to kill him. And then by going courageously toward his own death on the Cross.
What are my personal feelings now as I ponder this episode from Luke? I am lingering over the idea of Jesus’ authoritative knowledge of death, trying to trust it. I want to trust it, but it is hard. My brain keeps thinking of arguments against this being true. How does he have this knowledge of death? Then I realise that we will never have the full answer to the question of Jesus’ knowledge – of anything. That is not information to which we have any access. Nevertheless, the gospels record that Jesus does know about death. He even foretells both his death and his resurrection long before it happens. We cannot know how he knows, but we can deduce from the things he does and the miracles he works that he is Lord of the living and the dead, and that when he talks about death he knows what he is talking about – he speaks the truth.
Shall we stop for today, leaving these deep ponderings in the hands of the Holy Spirit, asking that we may be led to a new understanding? We will continue tomorrow.
We are looking at Jesus’ words in Luke 12: 4, where he says, To you, my friends, I say: Do not be afraid of those who kill the body and after that can do no more. He is telling us more than we may at first realise.
I’d like to ask us to consider under what heading we usually think of Jesus. Maybe we think of him most often as a teacher, or a miracle-worker, or a prophet. Maybe we think of him most often as the one who rose from the dead. Maybe we focus on him as God and the Son of God; maybe we turn to the Creed, with full acceptance of everything that the Creed says about him. All of these ways of thinking of Jesus are wonderful and true. But perhaps we forget that he is also a lover. He is a different sort of lover, granted, from the ones that are celebrated in novels and films, but he is nevertheless a lover. And the authentic lover, who loves the beloved more than himself, wants to protect the beloved from pain and suffering – indeed, wants to remove it entirely.
The human person’s deepest suffering is in the knowledge that we must die one day. Jesus wants not only to deprive this suffering of its ‘sting’, to use St. Paul’s expression (cf. 1 Cor. 15: 55-57), but also to reassure us about the entire experience. He tells us in John’s gospel that when we die, he will take us to himself and we go to the place he has prepared for us in the Father’s house (cf. Jn 14:3). As God, Jesus is actually capable of doing this. He does not overturn the laws of nature by taking death away. Except in the case of the miracles he works, nature’s processes remain the same. But what happens after our death is something new – it is Jesus’ ‘territory’, you might say. That is what he knows about. And because of this knowledge he tells us not to be afraid.
Let’s take a day to reflect on some of the ways in which Jesus talks about our death. Tomorrow, we’ll be back for our final reflection.
We’re looking at Jesus’ message about death. Today I’d like to finish our reflection with the question, What must we do to be fully receptive to Jesus’ reassuring and loving message about eternal life? How can we really and truly make it our own, so that we, too, can say, Be not afraid?
First, I think it is a matter of trust, simple human trust. We must trust in Jesus. We have good reason to do this because his actions and words are filled with power and truth – truth no one could have imagined and deeds no one could have done but the Son of God. We can believe that what Jesus says is true and be filled with trusting faith.
Second, it’s about how we live. What does Jesus teach us on this point? Jesus wants to show us how to live in this life in order to be happy with him in the next. We are meant to be about Jesus, as Jesus is about the Father. We are to cleave to him now, pondering his teachings and praying to him, living as he teaches us to live, keeping the Commandments, and the Beatitudes. As we do this, our relationship with him will deepen and his teaching will become not external to us, on the ‘outside,’ as it were, but part of us, rooted deep within our being.
Third, it’s about full commitment. We are meant to do this wholeheartedly, to embrace everything about Jesus, and whenever we are feeling mortally threatened by anything, we are to recall that he has hold of us. We will die one day, but he teaches us not to fear death because death, as he promises, is not the end of our life – despite all appearances to the contrary.
Fourth, it’s about right-thinking. Let’s unpack this in some detail. In Jesus’ earthly life, he works miracles of healing, and even raises a few people from the dead. But he was anxious that these miracles not be misunderstood. We are not supposed to deduce from them that Jesus is some kind of holy magician. More importantly, we are not supposed to see his power as being directed toward the political machinations of this world. Bad kings and rulers will generally not be overthrown by Jesus or his followers; Jesus will not establish himself or his followers on some sort of earthly throne. He never has and never will. There will always be wars – Jesus himself says this. Nor does he use his power to reward with prosperity those who are good and punish with suffering those who are wicked. He does not want us to think that as Christians we arrogate his power to ourselves and have it on tap whenever we snap our fingers. Nor, again, does Jesus use his miraculous power to enable us to live forever in this difficult world where sinful human propensities and lofty human principles are so often widely at variance with each other. In answer to prayer, and for reasons known to him alone, he sometimes even now heals the dying and prolongs their life by some years. Perhaps someone reading this reflection has been the blessed recipient of such astonishing grace. But every time Jesus manifests power over the laws of nature this is meant to strengthen our belief in his divinity, and in the truth of every word he uttered about our death and about eternal life. The miracles are meant to assure us that we can believe what Jesus says about eternal life because he is Lord of the living and the dead, the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end, all time belongs to him and all the ages, as the priest proclaims over the Easter Fire at the Easter Vigil.
In many ways, Jesus’ message is stunningly simple. Even a child can understand it. He is God. He loves us. He wants us to be with him now, through our life of faith and through our efforts to lead a life that is in accord with his teachings. He wants us to be with him in eternity. He is even now preparing a place for us with him. Am I enough of a child to believe this?
We began our reflection five days ago by noting that this teaching is something Jesus wanted people in their thousands to know – and he chose to use the largest gatherings of his friends as the context within which his message would be proclaimed. I return now to his words now with a renewed desire truly to be one of Jesus’ friends.
To you, my friends, I say: Do not be afraid of those who kill the body and after that can do no more (Lk 12:4).