One of the things that becomes evident when you spend time in a large urban environment is that there are a lot of people. But sometimes there aren’t a lot of “people.”
We walk through crowds on the way from Point A to Point B. We are surrounded by faces and bodies whose paths just happen to intersect with ours for a few seconds. We are usually oblivious aside from the fact that their presence is what we see as normal city life. If they weren’t there, we’d think something was wrong.
But unless something breaks us out of the routine, or someone does something unusual that catches our attention, we have to really work to make ourselves think of all those faces and bodies as being anything more than scenery and the subject of occasional casual observations.
Now imagine what it must have been like to follow Jesus during his three years on earth. When Jesus walked from Point A to Point B, the “urban environment” basically followed along behind. Thousands of people flocked to him when he taught in the temple, followed him out into the wilderness, even anticipated his travels and ran to meet wherever his boat was going to land.
Jesus looked at those crowds and saw individuals. He saw men and women who were lost, “like sheep without a shepherd” (Matthew 9:36). And even while seeing the crowds, he had a knack for finding the soul who had a need and responding to them as a unique individual. Sometimes they needed to be commended (Mark 12:34). Sometimes they needed to be challenged (Luke 18:22). Sometimes they needed to be corrected (Luke 7:40.).
Jesus heard the cry of the blind
In Luke 18, we see a couple of examples as Jesus walked toward Jericho on the way to Jerusalem in the final days of his life. Constantly followed by throngs of people, most of them likely shouting to him and asking him for something, Jesus stopped when he heard a man crying out “Jesus, son of David, have mercy on me (v. 38)!” (Mark calls the beggar by name: Bartimaeus.)
Jesus probably had a lot on his mind. He understood completely what awaited him at the end of this walk (Luke 18:31-33). But hearing this man cry out—along with the rebukes of those in the front who apparently didn’t think a blind man was worth the master’s time—Jesus stopped the procession and had Bartimaeus brought to him.
Calling Jesus the son of David was significant; it indicated that this man knew Jesus was the seed of the king, and probably that he knew Jesus to be the Messiah, the promised king who would sit on the throne of David according to prophecy (2 Samuel 7:12-16, Isaiah 11:1-5). Much as he does with us today, Jesus always seemed ready to recognize the cry of faith from someone who knew who he was and recognized him as the fulfilled promise of God. And so Jesus healed him.
Jesus saw the spiritually needy
Once Jesus was in the city, the crowds no doubt got even thicker. But one man was determined to see Jesus. Zacchaeus—the “wee little man” that so many of us sung about when we were children—was determined to see Jesus. We aren’t told why; we don’t even know if Zacchaeus knew anything about Jesus. The passage just says that he was trying to see who Jesus was (ch. 19:3).
We do know Zacchaeus was a tax collector, and he was rich, which probably means he was a cheat (v. 8). It’s very unlikely that Zacchaeus would have ever dreamed Jesus would regard him at all. The Jews hated tax collectors because they were traitors to Israel, collecting money for their captors and often doing it with an eye of enriching themselves in the process. He was beneath contempt; why would Jesus ever speak to him?
Why would Jesus speak to a leper? To an adulteress? To a condemned thief? The question answers itself when we know Jesus. Not only did he notice the man climbing up into a tree, but he called him by name and invited himself over to his house for dinner. And when Zacchaeus repented, Jesus summed it up well: “Today salvation has come to this house, since he is also a son of Abraham. For the son of Man came to seek and save the lost.”
Whether it was Nathaniel under the fig tree (John 1:48), the tax collector-turned-apostle (Mark 2:13), the woman at the well (John 4), Jesus was always looking for people who were looking for him.
Are we looking for those people as well? Do we notice when people around us are in need? Or do we become so absorbed in our own walk that we miss those who are stumbling around us?