I avoid crowds, but have been caught in some rowdy multitudes.
When Brazilian President-elect Tancredo Neves’s body lay in state in Belo Horizonte in 1985, the crowds got worked up and several people were trampled to death. I had seen the mood turning dark, so skipped out for home and watched the tragedy unfold on a national TV network.
In one of our city’s nicest shopping centers, a Sunday-night fight among drunks, with chairs and fists flying, drove our family from our table, and we fled without paying. The brawl seemed to grow as it migrated from its point of origin.
Crowds can turn mean quickly.
Jesus also appears to have avoided crowds.
“Meanwhile, when many thousands of the crowd had gathered so that they were trampling on one another, Jesus began to speak first to his disciples, ‘Be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy'” (Luke 12:1 NET).
The mention of trampling seems to suggest more than the large numbers of the multitude. Luke seems to hint at surliness and hostility.
The crowd may be seen on the one hand as a sign of Jesus’ popularity, but also as a threat. The fawning crowd that acclaimed him during his triumphant entry in Jerusalem was the same group that shouted for his crucifixion.
In the press of the crowd, Jesus began to speak first to the disciples. He warned about the yeast (influence) of the Pharisees, hypocrisy. The Pharisees lived for the notice and adulation of the multitudes. They played to the crowds.
Living with an eye to the tilt of the majority inevitably leads the disciple to dissimulation, hiding his candle under the bushel, courting the approval of the group, bending to fit the mold.
As G.B. Caird wrote, “The hypocrite is one who, consciously or unconsciously, has sacrificed truth to appearance: he is more taken up with what people think of him than with the actual state of his soul; he is so busy living up to his reputation that he has no time to be himself; he must always be justifying himself to others, to himself, or to God. He may succeed in deceiving himself and others, but not God; and the day is coming when all pretense will be exposed. The opposite of hypocrisy is repentance, which means accepting the truth about oneself, facing oneself as one really is.”/1
The danger of hypocrisy grows in a crowd. One fears that more than feet will be trampled: the hypocrite cringes at the soiling of his reputation. Matters not that God is Judge; the pretender throws himself under the step of the crowd, fearing the collective frown.
Crowds have no reason, only impulses and waves. So Jesus turns first to the disciples, at the margins of stomping sandals, to head them off from a tactical error. Be who you are, he says, rather than follow the reigning religious model.
Because it’s hard to be trampled while proclaiming from the housetops whose you are.
1/ G.B. Caird, Saint Luke, Pelican Gospel Commentaries (Baltimore: Penguin, 1963): 160.