SPEAKING TO LARGE CROWDS OF PEOPLE
Have you ever wondered how large crowds could hear the voice of Jesus? In our reading in Luke, which is referred to as the Sermon on the Plain, and from the harmony account in Matthew, the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus addresses a large crowd. In Mark, Jesus also addresses a large crowd by a lake. The crowd was so big that he addressed the crowd from the boat in the lake, while all the people were along the shore on the water’s edge. In all four gospels we have accounts where Jesus speaks to large crowds. This was way before microphones or megaphones. How did they hear him at all, especially in the back part of the crowd?
In all three examples given here in Matthew, Mark and Luke, we have a backdrop that is conducive for amplification. Perhaps Jesus purposely picked places to speak that would aid in the amplification of his voice. In our reading in Luke, Jesus comes down from a hill or a mountain. So, at the foot of the hill we can imagine that he is addressing a crowd directly above him on the sides of the hill, why he speaks below from a level place. In the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew, Jesus speaks from a high place on a mountain to a crowd that is gathered below, another backdrop of amplification. In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus addresses a crowd from a boaton a lake, a natural aid to amplification. However, what other methods were available for speakers in the time of Jesus, throughout the Roman Empire?
One of the methods was to have assistants that would repeat the sayings that were scattered throughout the crowd, even to the back of the crowd, much like an interpreter would use. At our Arabic/English bilingual mass on Tuesday morning, when either Deacon Phil, Judy or myself speak, we have an interpreter that repeats what we say to the congregation. Historians say this is like how speeches to crowds of hundreds or even thousands were handled. In this case Jesus would give out one of the eight beatitudes from Matthews Gospel of the four from Luke’s gospel, and after each one someone farther back in the crowd would repeat it, and someone even farther back in the crowd would repeat and that would be repeated until even the people in the back heard the words.
It kind of reminds me of Monty Pythons movie, The Life of Brian, with the scene of the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus would share a beatitude, and it would be repeated over and over. The only trouble is when it got to the back of the crowd it was not accurate. Instead of hearing Blessed are the peacemakers for they will be called the children of God, they heard: “Blessed are the cheesemakers, for they will be called the children of God”. Someone says what does that mean? Someone else says, not to take it literally, for surely it means that everyone involved in all areas of dairy production are blessed, including the cheesemakers.
That reminds me of an icebreaker game, where you whisper a sentence into someone’s ear in the front of a circle or room and everyone in turn whispers that sentence to the next person, and when it gets to the last person, they repeat what was said. Often, the sentence is nowhere near what was originally spoken. This brings up another interpretation of how communication was carried out in Jesus day.
In the Sermon on the Mount there are eight blessings, and they have more of a spiritual significance, interpreted in a spiritual realm. “Blessed are the poor in spirit; those that mourn; the meek, those that hunger and thirst for righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, and those that are persecuted, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven”. In Luke the four blessings are more literal. Blessed are the poor, those that are literally hungry right now, not just hungering for righteousness; those that are literally weeping now, for they will laugh, and blessed are the people who literally hate you and treat you awful right now. These are things you don’t pick up on the first reading, but if you study both passages you can see, yes, they are similar, but there are some obvious differences.
One of the reasons we find them different is that Jesus probably spoke these beatitudes on a plethora of occasions, and it was probably different every time he spoke. Even if the crowd could not hear Jesus, they had heard these sayings before and they owned them, as Jesus spoke. The Beatitudes were repeated among them in their families, during mealtimes or other times of gathering. These crowds came not just to hear the words of Jesus, but to be healed, to be touched by him, to be in his literal presence. Does it mean that because many of them never got close enough to hear the words spoken directly by Jesus, but to have them repeated to them by someone else, that is was not as meaningful or real to them?
What does that mean for us? Since the days that Jesus spoke these words while on earth as a person that lived among us, they have been repeated and written down if not thousands or millions of times. Does that mean they are not as meaningful now as they were then? Does Jesus speak these words to us today? Is Jesus with us. If not, why? If yes, how do we know? We choose to believe because of our faith. Does that mean it is not as meaningful as it was to the disciples that walked, ate, and spent time with Jesus. In practicality it is different, no doubt about it, but also similar, you can even say more special for us than it was for them. Why is that?
Jesus told his disciples that he would be leaving them, but he would send the Holy Spirit who will come in His name, and continue to teach them, to clarify their faith, to encourage them in their daily journey, to fill them with a joy and a peace that they cannot find anywhere else. This Holy Spirit who will journey with them, and with all the other disciples from generation to generation to us, right now will benefit from the indwelling of the Holy Spirit in each of our lives, and in the community of believers, a Comforter that will be with us now, and throughout eternity.
In Luke’s Beatitudes on the Plain, Jesus is not addressing eternity. He is addressing how we live right now. The resurrected life begins right now, not just an endpoint where we end up. If you notice the four blessings in Luke are followed by four woes. The way we live our lives now reflect the validity of our faith. Let me repeat that: The way we live our lives now reflect the validity of our faith. The Beatitudes are blessings. Yes, there are warnings, but the blessings are for us right here and right now. Every morning we can wake up and say this is the day the Lord has made. I will be glad and rejoice in it. Of course, you might want to have a cup of hot coffee in your hand as you say it, but nonetheless, this is a journey of faith, a journey of hope, and Jesus the Living Word is with us, making the Written Word lively and exciting in our journey of faith.