Reflection of the Week (Matthew 14, ESV)
Matthew 14 begins with the grotesque and thankfully short story of the beheading of John the Baptizer and is quickly followed by the account of Jesus’ miraculous feeding of the five thousand. In between, however, a telling sentence bridges the two experiences: “Now when Jesus heard this [that John had been killed and buried], he withdrew from there in a boat to a desolate place by himself” (v 13). People trek after Jesus to gather along the shore, amassing in a “great crowd” that will soon grab his attention and elicit miraculous healing, followed by one of the most famous meals in biblical history (and there are several).
It’s easy to miss the moment of Jesus’ mourning wedged between these juxtaposed accounts of harrowing loss and astounding abundance. It’s easy to forget that John’s death was personal to Jesus. John had filled many important roles in the life of Christ: he was the first friend who, while still in the womb, had jumped for joy at the thought of Jesus’ arrival; the cousin who understood Jesus’ unique identity without having to be told; His spiritual forerunner and herald; the one who had baptized and helped usher Jesus into ministry; the faithful example of a truth-speaking prophet who had Jesus’ back no matter what. Like many details of Jesus’ first thirty years, the dynamics of His relationship with His cousin remain hidden. But the brief mention of Jesus’ reaction to his death here in Matthew reveals His grief and reminds us of how closely these two were connected, regardless of how frequently their paths crossed. The murder of this great leader and personal friend weighs heavily on Jesus and so he retreats, most likely to mourn and pray.
For those who have experienced the death of a loved one or other painful losses, there’s comfort enough in knowing that Jesus understands the anguish of the grieving process and makes a space for it. But beyond this, there’s comfort in knowing that, even in the midst of deep sorrow or a season of sadness, God can and wants to use us to bless others. Jesus is freshly grieving when he turns to the masses with “compassion” and “heal[s] their sick” (v.14) and multiplies food to feed them (vs. 17-21). Though he craves the refreshment of solitary prayer, he only returns to it once the crowds have been satisfied (vs 22-23). At a moment when, from a human perspective, He might have been most needy, Jesus extends himself to the public, to thousands of others with their thousands of needs.
Often God asks the same of us, calling us to give time, energy, and love to others when we feel as though a personal loss—large or small—has exhausted our capacity for generosity. Beyond a coping mechanism, compassionate giving in times when we feel most bankrupt, allows God to show His strength in our weakness. Losses are redeemed when we allow them to heighten our sensitivity to the private pain of others and, with the power and equipping of the Holy Spirit, perform self-sacrificial acts of love. We are redeemed from suffering through this process as well.
Although there were many moving and even controversial passages in this week’s readings, I kept getting drawn back to this idea of John the Baptizer’s death as a personal tragedy for Jesus. I have suffered few comparable losses, but know a little bit about heartache and its ensuing desire to retreat; of emptiness and the temptation to capitulate. I also, thankfully, know a little bit about how God can intervene and fill my emptiness with the overflow of His fullness, providing energy, love, patience, compassion, and even practical necessities just when I am most lacking. This is the power of Christ in me…and you!
Thank you that you are our source of comfort and power. Thank you that when we have lost it all (or feel like we have), you are our fullness. Thank you that you multiply the little we can give—in the midst of our grief, sadness, or exhaustion—and make it more than enough. Thank you that you give us moments of rest and quietness in your presence as well. Please redeem any losses I have had or will have in this life by using them to make me more aware of the needs of others. Please fill me with compassion and with the power of your Spirit so that I can always generously extend myself to others and share your endless love with them.