I’ve talked about the Feeding of the Five Thousand here before, but there’s a line tucked away in John’s account of the story that casts a darker shadow across a story that I’ve always overlooked before.
Things play out in the familar way, but the crowd are so impressed with Jesus’s power that “they began to say, “Surely this is the Prophet who is to come into the world.”Jesus, knowing that they intended to come and make him kingby force, withdrew again to a mountain by himself.”
There’s a tension in the Gospels between the rule of God and the rule of the Romans and their supporters. This mirrors a belief in a coming Messiah who would be a military hero, swooping in, smashing the Roman occupiers and putting Israel back on top. There were plenty of candidates for this job – unfortunately for them, the Romans beat them all.
And then along comes Jesus, displaying power and saying things that could only be said and done by someone with the authority of God. And while he’s absolutely, posiitively, not a military leader, the crowd here starts getting excited anyway. Too excited.
“The intended to come and make him king by force.” We never end with that line in Sunday School. It’s actually frightening. Jesus has spent time teaching these people, and yet they seem to be stirring themselves up into something of a frenzy, to the extent that Jesus feels the need to get out of there. Things run the risk of getting out of control.
And maybe it’s bigger than even that, bigger than the possibility that a crowd is going to get worked up and do something stupid that could get people hurt. Jesus withdraws to a mountainside alone.
Maybe it’s because this is another temptation. We think of Jesus’s temptation in the wilderness and tend to think that the issue was dealt with, at least until he reaches his lowest ebb in the Garden of Gethsemene. But maybe these two little verses give an insight into the temptations Jesus had to fight every day.
Remember the temptations in the wilderness – “Turn stones to bread and feed yourself” (and, by extension, everyone else in a poverty-stricken society screwed over by crippling unjust taxes); well, Jesus has just performed a miracle involving bread. “Throw yourself off the Temple, get saved by angels, then everyone will follow you”; well, this might not be that extreme, but it was still a pretty spectacular miracle. The last temptation, bow down before Satan and get the world in return? Maybe that was something that Jesus remembered every time he had the opportunity to take a short cut. And let’s not kid ourselves, Jesus was fully human, and therefore moments like that would not have been a picnic. But he got through it by turning to God and the scriptures, and maybe that informs what Jesus does next.
I don’t know. Maybe I’m reading too much into things. But I think we do Jesus and his mission a disservice to take it for granted. This is a path that lead to crucifixion and we shouldn’t forget how difficult that was, not just in the week leading up to his death but in the three years preceeding that as well. Things were never going to end in a nice, pretty way – the path to resurrection was always going to go through the cross. Anything else would have been giving in to those early temptations. By not giving into them, Jesus sets the course for the next three years, and that course was not going to be easy. A crowd wanting to forcibly make him king was just a part of that.
And so Jesus goes to a mountain alone, to spend time with God and plan his next move and do the things that are difficult when you’ve got five thousand people clamouring for a piece of you. That alone-time with God is essential, fundamental. The path ahead is a tough one.
Don’t walk it alone.