Jesus could no longer openly enter a town, but was out in desolate places, and people were coming to him from every quarter.
–Mark 1:45 (ESV)
The word “crowd” appears 32 times in the English Standard Version of Mark. Compare that to the 34 times the word appears in the significantly longer gospel of Luke. In Mark’s gospel, Jesus is just constantly mobbed by people. From the first chapter, it says that “his fame spread everywhere throughout all the region of Galilee” (1:28). Commentators have often noted how secretive Jesus seems in Mark, constantly asking those who have experienced His miracles to keep quiet about it. Reading this book again, it’s clear that this is primarily self-preservation. Jesus acts like a magnet, attracting the sick, the hungry, the oppressed, the curious, the skeptical, and even a few faithful into His orbit.
I have always been puzzled by the calling of the first disciples (1:16-20). Jesus simply says “follow me”, and they just get up and leave their families and their livelihood to behind to follow a homeless, itinerant preacher. But seeing the reaction of the crowds leads me to the conclusion that Jesus must have been completely compelling, in all senses of the word. If He says follow, you followed. If He spits on your eyes, you don’t question it (8:23). The power of the Holy Spirit must have been almost physically dripping off of Him. The miracles alone must have been reason enough to follow. Jesus was a tornado in human form. Or maybe more accurately the eye at the center of a hurricane of human amazement.
When composer Andrew Lloyd Webber and librettist Tim Rice wanted to explore the nature of modern celebrity, they looked back at the original superstar (this was only a couple of years removed from John Lennon igniting a firestorm of controversy by saying that the Beatles were “more popular than Jesus”). Thus was born the 1970 rock opera entitled, appropriately, Jesus Christ Superstar. In this musical, Jesus is swept along by forces he cannot control, filling him with angst and doubt, and causing his one level-headed disciple (Judas) to turn on him. The crowd at first adores him, but it just as quickly turns on him, tearing down the idol that they constructed. It is, indeed, the story of many rock stars and Hollywood celebrities who burned bright for a time until fads, fashions, and the crowds left them behind. In short, to Webber and Rice, Jesus was the first rock star, a charismatic celebrity who showed up at the right time and whose light was (like Hendrix or Joplin) snuffed out far too soon. It is a tragedy and a cautionary tale.
Jesus in Mark is a very different person than his Broadway avatar. He clearly orchestrates events, going as far as to predict His own death and resurrection (8:31). He is not filled with doubt and fear, but rather “taught them as one who had authority, and not as the scribes” (1:22). He is exasperated by the crowds, for sure, but he also treats them with compassion, miraculously feeding them not once, but twice (6:40, 8:1). Jesus’ fame is not based, as so much of modern celebrity is, on personal magnetism and self-promotion. Rather it is the power of God’s word and works that moved the people and made the disciples drop their nets and follow. Dismissing Jesus as a “right place, right time” celebrity teacher cannot account for two millenia of changed lives and a world utterly transformed in His wake.
If anything Jesus did not look for popularity, but challenged His followers in ways that seemed destined to alienate (“if anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” [8:34]). He, like many celebrities, scandalized his family and hometown, who thought he’d gotten too big for his britches (6:3), and the ruling authorities, who don’t like anyone rocking the boat. But, again, what people found when they met Jesus was not empty charisma, but instead the charism of the Holy Spirit. People crave authenticity and they found it in Jesus, who taught with authority, healed their diseases, fed their hunger (physical and spiritual), and called them to a more faithful life. If we wish to attract the same kind of crowds to our churches, perhaps we ought to be doing likewise. People don’t want a sound-and-light show, they want an authentic experience of the living God. They want the Word preached with authority and integrity, they want to be fed by the Sacraments, and they want to see the Spirit’s power at work. In short, they want to encounter Jesus. Let’s do what we can to arrange that meeting.