Evangelization: The Multitudes, not the Inner Circle
In chapter 9 of St. Matthew’s gospel, Our Lord heals a man suffering from palsy, cures a woman who had been hemorrhaging for twelve years, raises a little girl from the dead, restores the sight of two blind men, casts a devil out of a man who could not speak, and in general cures “every kind of disease and infirmity” (Mt 9:35). He also repeatedly commends the faith of those who seek His help. So perhaps we should say that the deeper lesson is the importance of faith in the power of God.
But what of the responses of the vast majority in these episodes who give no evidence of faith?
For the man afflicted with palsy, Our Lord first wished to perform a miracle of a different kind: “Son, take courage, thy sins are forgiven” (Mt 9:3). But some of the scribes regarded this as blasphemy. It is to refute such an interpretation that Jesus went on to cure the man physically.
Then Our Lord and those with him sat down to a meal, including “many publicans and sinners”, and this became an occasion for two more criticisms. First, the Pharisees asked His disciples why their master ate with sinners. Hearing the question, Jesus explained that “it is not those who are in health that have need of the physician, it is those who are sick.” He has not come to call “the just”, but sinners (Mt 9:12-13).
Second, the disciples of John the Baptist stepped forward. They and the Pharisees fasted frequently, and they wished to know how it is that the disciples of Jesus do not fast. Our Lord explained—if we may call it an explanation—that the bridegroom’s company cannot mourn while the bridegroom is with them and, besides, “If the wine is new, it is put into fresh wine-skins, and so both are kept safe” (Mt 9:14-17).
At this point, one of the local rulers asked Jesus to bring his daughter back to life. When Our Lord arrived at the home of the dead child, He explained to the mourners that the girl was only asleep. We must acknowledge, I think, that they had good reason to disbelieve Him, though their laughter may reveal a false mourning, which turned too easily to scorn. But “when the multitude had been turned away, he went in and took the girl by the hand, and she rose up” (Mt 9:23:6).
Eventually, Our Lord arrived safely home. But two blind men sought Him there, and a dumb man “possessed with a devil” was also brought before Him. In both cases He demonstrated His power. But the Pharisees said, “It is the prince of devils than enables him to cast the devils out” (Mt 9:33-34).
Those who were healed exhibited a faith which may well have been stronger, at this stage, than that of Our Lord’s disciples. But most people responded differently. We are familiar with the opposition of the scribes and Pharisees. These were the official interpreters of the Law, and they were loath to admit that God could act outside the boundaries they had set. Their response was always to explain away His saving power.
Less clear to us are the disciples of John the Baptist. They may have been genuinely puzzled, seeking only to understand. Or, in enjoying their relationship to a great prophet, they may have felt elevated into the spiritual hierarchy, content to preserve their new-found status by making common cause with the Pharisees against Our Lord. Some of John’s disciples may not have passed this crucial test.
Above all, we must not overlook “the multitudes”. On the occasion of the first cure, they are described as “filled with awe”; they “praised God for giving such powers to men” (9:8). Again at the end of the chapter, Matthew says they “were filled with amazement”, for “nothing like this was ever seen in Israel” (9:33). But in another guise, they are found ridiculing Our Lord at the home of the ruler, and He puts them out so he can work in peace (9:23ff). Whether responding positively or negatively, it is at least possible that the “multitudes” are those who follow the latest sensation. Our Lord suggested as much when “he was moved with pity for them, seeing them harried and abject, like sheep that have no shepherd” (Mt 9:36).
What about us? Speaking for myself, were it not for the immense gift of the Church through which I came to believe, I might have chosen to be anything but one of the hapless multitude—lacking in due deliberation, quick to applaud the latest thing, running here and there, so malleable! Were I not called personally to discipleship by Our Lord in those early days, would I have sat in judgment on Him? Perhaps a case of “not invented here”? A scribe or a Pharisee, yes, I can see that, but one of the multitude?
Yet it is not such a bad thing to be one of the multitude. Allowing Jesus Christ to be “moved with pity” for us is not all we must allow, but at least it is a first step toward a vulnerability to the Divine. It is on behalf of the multitudes, not those already hardened into positions of superiority, that Our Lord instructed his disciples to “ask the Lord to whom the harvest belongs to send laborers out for the harvesting” (Mt 9:38). And immediately following this exhortation, He sent the Twelve on their first mission (Mt 10).
Humility is one lesson here, but another is the perennial existence of “the multitudes”. While we struggle against our modern day Pharisees and scribes and zealous disciples of partial truths, surely “the multitudes” surround us. In the clash of arms and words, whom does Our Lord pity but the multitudes? New wineskins for new wine? For all our efforts, our inner circles may still continue on their barren way, yet the multitudes may yield 30, 60 and a hundredfold (Mt 13:8).
Here we have a question of evangelization. Not so much the sword and shield, which are used in a different sort of harvest. Nor even the combine, which is useful only when the crop is ripe. But perhaps the healing touch, the good seed, and the patient working of the soil. Who can ever reap, if we refuse to sow?
For more on this topic, see my subsequent essay: The New Evangelization: What Does It Look Like?
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