“[T]he people pressed upon him to hear the word of God”+
This was a not uncommon occurrence, especially in the earlier part of Jesus' ministry. Both Mark's and Luke's Gospels repeatedly report this pressing upon our Lord. In Mark 3:9 Jesus again takes refuge in a boat to teach the multitudes surrounding him, and this time we are told specifically it was to avoid being crushed by them. The word used by Luke for this crowding is επικείσθαι, and means to “lie upon”. It is the same word used in John's Gospel for the stone lying upon Christ's tomb, fish lying upon the coals of a fire, and by St Luke himself elsewhere for the crowds urgent demands to Pilate for Christ's crucifixion and the storm laying upon the ship in which St Paul experienced shipwreck. It is a word which communicates insistence, heavy pressure, close contact. It is an uncomfortable word in this context, you might say.
But it also a moving word in this context. I cannot help but think of what St Mark says of Jesus in the sixth chapter of his Gospel, verse 34: “[He] saw a great multitude, and he had compassion on them, because they were as sheep without a shepherd: and he began to teach them many things”. They are drawn to Christ and his teaching, despite their sinfulness and ignorance. They press upon him to hear God's word, and often receive it enthusiastically [cp. Mark 12:37], though Christ pronounces that they understand so little of it [Mt 13:13].
Of course, they are partly drawn to Christ through his healings [Mark 3:10, John 12:9] and other miracles, especially the feeding of the multitudes [John 6:26]. You might say that their love for him was largely “need-love”, and perhaps not particularly deep or reflective. But Jesus does not despise them, for all of that. No, he ministers to their needs as they are presented to him, and uses the opportunity to draw them towards spiritual healing and feeding, to help them see their truest need, their fundamental illness.
And it was not only his acts of power that drew them to him. At the end of St Matthew's 7th Chapter, we are told: “the multitudes were astonished at his teaching: for he taught them as one having authority”.
What, then, can it mean when people crowd and crush a teacher they hardly understand, but long to hear? Who often rebukes or challenges them? Who is so far above them he makes them realise their sinfulness by his presence, as happened to St Peter in today's Gospel (“Depart from me, for I am a sinful man”)?
It means that whatever the weakness of their moral commitments, whatever the follies they are taken in by, whatever sin they are addicted to and blinded by, they nevertheless feel their spiritual sickness, sense their guilt, know there is something better. And they are drawn to the Christ, even as their doubts and fears, desires and angers, their Fallen nature, would push him away.
What is this, that can both attract and repel the sheep without a shepherd? Yes, he is good and pure, but this to an extent that is almost incomprehensible as well as impressive, perhaps as irritating as it is beautiful. He shows great kindness with his actions, great wisdom with his words, and all backed up with supernatural authority and power. But his kindness is not returned, as the mob's cries before Pilate showed. His wisdom is so surprising, unnatural and unnerving, that it is often missed even by his closest friends. And his power is hidden at a key moment.
However, it cannot be denied that the people “pressed upon him to hear the word of God”, and “heard him gladly”. Though the Truth is beyond them, and even against them, in a sense, as it reveals their darkness by its light, by the grace of God they do recognise it for what it is. They also, at some level, desire it. This is because God has not left himself “without witness”, whether in Scripture, nature or conscience [Acts 14:17, cp. Romans 1 & 2], and because Christ's light “enlightens every man” [John 1:9].
But it is also because our Lord combines holiness and compassion, wisdom and strength, in his words and deeds. Holy compassion. Not mere pious disapproval. Not mere sentimentality which avoids hard words. Strong wisdom. Not mere eloquence or cleverness which leaves things just as they are. Not acts of overwhelming power that leave hearts untouched. We would do well to consider this example in our own lives, our own witness to others.
When the people came to Jesus, they came to a teacher who they knew loved them, and who they knew would do something about it. They came to a teacher who they knew, knew, even if they did not know how or why he knew. But he did know, with deepest understanding and assurance, that of which he did speak.
So, how does this relate to Jesus' statement: “When I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all men unto me” (John 12:32)? At the Cross, all these characteristics of Jesus and his teaching find what we may call their logical conclusion. But they also find their most perfect fulfilment and manifestation. As the Church imitates and presents this Christ, it will see that pressure upon, that drawing into, that urgent influx of the lost sheep towards Him. The word of God, the word of the Gospel will, in that way, do its glorious work. +