Jesus’ Teaching and the Crowds by Rebekah Eklund

They are everywhere Jesus goes. They are curious, desperate, hopeful, amazed. They seek out his healing powers. They gather to listen to his teaching and they bring him their sick, their demon-possessed, their lame, their blind. They listen in astonishment when Jesus tells them that the kingdom of God belongs to them (Luke 6:20).

Who are they? They are the crowds. Likely, they are peasants and farmers and fishermen—the poor, the lower classes of society, the “people of the land.” But they are also tax collectors (who were hated by some for collaborating with the occupying power, Rome), prostitutes, and those labeled “sinners” by the religious powers that be. Mostly nameless and faceless, they act as a single character in the unfolding drama of Jesus’ public ministry in Galilee. They are the people who are healed, forgiven, and freed from demonic powers. Occasionally, one of them will step forward and take shape as an individual character: a blind man named Bartimaeus sees for the first time (Mark 10:46-52); a paralyzed man picks up his mat and walks home (Mark 2:1-12); a woman who had been crippled for 18 years stands up straight (Luke 13:10-16).

Who are they? They are mostly Israelites, Galileans and Judeans, people who worship the God of Israel while under occupation by the Roman Empire. But some of them are Gentiles, non-Israelites. One of the individual characters who emerges from the crowd is a Gentile woman from Syria who engages in a verbal sparring match with Jesus until he grants her request and heals her daughter (Mark 7:25-30).

In many ways, the crowds are the flashpoint of the controversies swirling around Jesus. When he heals them on the Sabbath, he is accused of breaking the Jewish law. When he eats with them, he is accused of being a glutton and a drunkard (Matt 11:18-19). His retort to these accusations? It is written in the Scriptures that God desires mercy (Matt 9:10-13). When Jesus forgives the sins of people in the crowd, even before they ask, the scribes accuse him of blasphemy (Mark 2:16-17).

Jesus seems to love the crowds of Galilee. For the most part, he avoids Jerusalem and the larger cities and spends his time near the sea, in the farms and smaller villages. When he looks at thousands of them gathered on a hillside to hear him preach, he sees their hunger, and he feeds them (Mark 6:34-44). Sometimes the crowds press a little too close, and he escapes from them in a boat to the other side of the Sea of Galilee or slips away to spend time alone in prayer (Matt 14:22-23, Mark 3:7-10, Mark 6:45-46, John 6:15).

The crowds play an important symbolic role in the Gospels as well. They represent the common people of Israel in contrast to their religious leaders. Jesus describes them with compassion as sheep without a shepherd, harassed and helpless, and this is almost certainly a sharp criticism of the leaders of Israel, who ought to have been their shepherds (Mark 6:34, compare to Num 27:17 and Ezek 34:1-16). Jesus himself will be their shepherd, will seek them out, and won’t lose a single one (Luke 15:1-7).

The crowds also symbolize potential disciples. The ultimate question is this: will the crowds stay with Jesus and become his followers, or will they turn away and desert him in the end?

Rebekah Eklund, "Jesus’ Teaching and the Crowds", n.p. [cited 1 Oct 2022]. Online:


Rebekah Eklund

Rebekah Eklund
Associate Professor, Loyola University

Rebekah Eklund is associate professor of theology at Loyola University Maryland in Baltimore. She recently published Jesus Wept: The Significance of Jesus’ Laments in the New Testament (T&T Clark, 2014).

The application of critical models of scholarship to a text.

Supernatural, spiritual beings that appear in the traditions of many cultures. In the Hebew Bible, demons are often fallen angels; the New Testament makes mention of demon possession, where a demon inhabits a human body.

A broad, diverse group of nations ruled by the government of a single nation.

a person who is not Jewish

The people of the tribe of Judah or the southern kingdom of Judah/Judea.

Service or a religious vocation to help others.

Luke 6:20

Blessings and Woes
20Then he looked up at his disciples and said:
“Blessed are you who are poor,
for yours is the kingdom of God.

Mark 10:46-52

The Healing of Blind Bartimaeus
46They came to Jericho. As he and his disciples and a large crowd were leaving Jericho, Bartimaeus son of Timaeus, a blind begga ... View more

Mark 2:1-12

Jesus Heals a Paralytic
1When he returned to Capernaum after some days, it was reported that he was at home.2So many gathered around that there was no longer ro ... View more

Luke 13:10-16

Jesus Heals a Crippled Woman
10Now he was teaching in one of the synagogues on the sabbath.11And just then there appeared a woman with a spirit that had cripple ... View more

Mark 7:25-30

25but a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet.26Now the woman was a Gentile, of ... View more

Matt 11:18-19

18For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon’;19the Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drun ... View more

Matt 9:10-13

10And as he sat at dinner in the house, many tax collectors and sinners came and were sitting with him and his disciples.11When the Pharisees saw this, they sai ... View more

Mark 2:16-17

16When the scribes of the Pharisees saw that he was eating with sinners and tax collectors, they said to his disciples, “Why does he eat with tax collectors and ... View more

Mark 6:34-44

34As he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many thin ... View more

Matt 14:22-23

Jesus Walks on the Water
22Immediately he made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds.23And after he h ... View more

Mark 3:7-10

A Multitude at the Seaside
7Jesus departed with his disciples to the sea, and a great multitude from Galilee followed him;8hearing all that he was doing, they c ... View more

Mark 6:45-46

Jesus Walks on the Water
45Immediately he made his disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, to Bethsaida, while he dismissed the crowd.46A ... View more

John 6:15

15When Jesus realized that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, he withdrew again to the mountain by himself.

Mark 6:34

34As he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many thin ... View more

Num 27:17

17who shall go out before them and come in before them, who shall lead them out and bring them in, so that the congregation of the Lord may not be like sheep wi ... View more

Ezek 34:1-16

Israel's False Shepherds
1The word of the Lord came to me:2Mortal, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel: prophesy, and say to them—to the shepherds: Thus sa ... View more

Luke 15:1-7

The Parable of the Lost Sheep
1Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him.2And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and sa ... View more

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