The French modernist theologian Alfred Loisy famously quipped: “Jesus preached the kingdom of God and got the church.” This dictum pits the Jesus movement against the church that followed.
The Gospels attest to Jesus having many people gathering around him for healing and to listen to his teachings. Except for the twelve apostles and the women who, according to Mark, provided for him when he was in Galilee and followed him to the cross in Jerusalem, there is no indication of how stable the group of followers was. Since many of them had to eke out hard livings on the land, probably most people gathered around Jesus when he was in town and that was about it.
The teachings of non-retaliation and forgiveness in the Sermon on the Mount and in other parables were clearly on a higher plane than his listeners could have been used to. They pose such a severe challenge that many of the greatest Christian writers have relegated these teachings to the margins and re-instituted retaliation both in moral theology and dogma. Maybe monks and nuns could turn the other cheek if a fellow monk or nun insulted them, but that was about it. No wonder Alfred Loisy and many others have grumbled about the church. Did the people who listened to Jesus and tagged along at least for a while catch on to the preaching of the kingdom based on peace and forgiveness in the midst of a world just as violent as our own? The indications I can see suggest that they probably did not.
Jesus’ closest followers consistently failed to understand and absorb Jesus’ teachings. Peter’s question as to whether or not he should forgive a brother or sister as much as seven times betrays this incomprehension. The constant bickering among the disciples as to who was the greatest further exposes their incomprehension. Mark juxtaposes this inner fighting with predictions of his crucifixion three times. Three is universally the number standing in for infinity so probably this didn’t happen just three times but an uncountable number of times. Moreover, when Jesus was arrested, he had to tell Peter to put his sword away.
The man who asked Jesus to make his brother share their inheritance equitably, only to be rebuked (along with his brother) for avarice, suggests that his listeners weren’t giving up rivalry over possessions at the drop of Jesus’ words. The crowd’s seizure of Jesus right after he had fed them bread from heaven seems to be John’s retrospective image of what Jesus’ listeners understood and hoped for.
The mysterious reversals of the crowd during Jesus’ last week are especially astonishing until we reflect on what the Gospel writer teach us about crowd psychology. All of the synoptic Gospels emphasize the fear the Jewish leaders had of the crowd. They wanted to put off the arrest until after the Passover at which point the crowd would disperse. When Jesus forced their hand, they had to do their own crowd manipulation. None of that would have worked if Jesus had spoken before Pilate. I suspect that Jesus chose to be silent because any words at all, no matter what they were, could have been construed as an encouragement to start an uprising. In the wake of Jesus’ silence, the disappointed crowd who had wanted to make him king were ready to be turned against him.
It is not productive to knock these people for being stupid, obtuse, and hard of heart. The truth is that we imitate their very stupidity, obtuseness, and hardness of heart more often than not. The followers of Jesus during Jesus’ earthly life do not give us very good models for how to listen and act. All except the few faithful women and the Beloved Disciple had deserted Jesus by the time he died. The rest of Jesus’ “followers” are very accurate mirrors that continue to stare us in the face. Then something happened. Jesus met up with the women to begin the process of re-gathering a following. Will we gather with them this time around?
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