I am reading Matthew 14 today to the dim light of morning. There is a sliver of a moon rising with Venus guiding the way, and I am right here with Jesus in the fourth watch of the night. John has died, Jesus is heartbroken, and the crowds won’t leave him alone.
Kind of like my children.
When I became a mother this story of Jesus became my favorite.
And [John’s] disciples came and took the body [of John] and buried it, and they went and told Jesus.
(John’s disciples trusted that Jesus would care.)
Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a desolate place by himself. But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns.
I JUST WANT TO BE ALONE
It was on a desperate afternoon of very early motherhood when this passage took on new meaning. Stabbing the words on the page with my finger I shouted over the screams of a colicky baby, “yes, me too! I just want to be alone!” And I did; I just wanted to be alone, to have the screaming stop, to have my small crowd of one tiny human leave my body be, get off of my time, stop needing me for a few blessed hours, thank you Jesus, amen. The brutal reality of motherhood – the 24 hour caregiving, the putting of another human’s needs before my own for, oh, 20 years or so (now with six kids I’m up at least to 30) was a cruel shock. I’d never needed to sacrifice myself to such an extent before, and for all the love in my heart, I was still angry, confused, and heartbroken. No John had died, no beloved cousin and friend, no such foreshowing of my own suffering as Jesus was in this moment experiencing. But somehow, I had died. Somehow I had died drastically, a beheading of my old self-driven life, a foreshadowing of the long struggle to come, and in this loss I felt kindred to Jesus. I could see my Savior, wounded in spirit and desirous of sacred time to himself, even in his God-ness feeling the distinct emotions of the flesh, so human like me, wanting to be with his Father, alone. I understood that he understands.
BUT THE PEOPLE – THE NEEDY, SOUL-HUNGRY PEOPLE
When he went ashore he saw a great crowd, and he had compassion on them and healed their sick.
Jesus didn’t get what he wanted. Not right away. I imagine him with his whole heart yearning to be alone. After all, we see him manning a boat across the see of Galilee by himself, as if sneaking away to “the desolate place” where he would be least likely to be observed. But as this One Who Mourned inched toward land, inched toward Comfort, he discovered that his desire was not to be met. The pesky crowd had circled the small sea on foot, watching his boat to guess where he would land. The people – the needy, soul-hungry people, the very ones he was attempting to evade – were waiting for him on the shore.
What did he feel? What emotions rolled through his body? My own emotions betray me even this morning as I read the passage again. I know what I would feel: acute disappointment, discouragement, anger, fear. “Oh God,” I would cry, “I can’t see these needy people right now! I must be alone! I need a break! I am not going to be okay unless I get this time to myself!”
THE LIE AND THE TRUTH
Do you see that last line? It’s a lie. It is a lie that I’ve been untangling and bending out of now for years. It’s not the need for solitude that is a lie, but the agreement that “I won’t be okay unless–“
Follow me here: one only has to look at Jesus to see the validity of a need for solitude, for refreshment, for renewal. Every few chapters in the Gospel of Matthew this Perfect Image of the Father is slipping away to a quiet place to pray and commune, alone. Self-care (having rhythm and respite that nourishes our souls; having practices, time and space through which we can be renewed and refilled so we can remember ourselves loved; so that we can regain perspective of God’s purposes and plans in the world; so that we can be built up in order to once again pour ourselves out) is good stewardship and very much an imitation of Jesus. But self-care cannot be regarded as the healer of our souls, a weak thing cannot be substituted for the Living God, and in this passage we see Jesus laying down his life and laying it down well.
Jesus was able to set aside a legitimate personal need, he was able to fulfill the possibility that resides within each of us – the possibility of putting others first, of doing a duty against our own desires, and of having compassion while doing so. The needs of those who looked to him for care trumped his own.
HIS TRUST WAS SECURELY IN HIS FATHER
He had compassion. I don’t know how he did it, but that his trust was so securely in his Father – the Father who clothed the lilies and cared for the birds and how much more so would care for him? – that he was able to take the next thing that came to him with patience, trusting that his needs would be met as well.
He had compassion, and giving himself to the crowd he healed their sick, fed them a meal, tended to all their emotional and physical needs until “they had eaten and were satisfied.” And when they were satisfied, he sent them away.
Immediately he made the disciples get into the boat and go before him to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up on the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came he was there alone.
Finally. Finally, and with a heart full. Whatever discouragement he might have felt at the news of John’s murder probably had abated. The sadness lingered, I imagine, the sorrow, the grief. But between the moment of learning of John’s death and the moment alone now on the mountain, hours of God’s miracles, mercy, and compassion had flowed through his body. He had witnessed the kindness, nearness, power, and purpose of God. So with his soul memory pregnant with the fresh reminder of God’s intention toward the world and his protectiveness of his people, with a fresh reminder of the good character and faithfulness of his Father, perhaps temptation had been conquered. Perhaps he could grieve purely, without temptation toward despair. Perhaps this had been the Father’s intention all along.
I don’t know of course. But I do know that on an Autumn afternoon as a brand new mother, immense hope filled me when I recognized that God’s intention toward Jesus had been good, and that even though there had been a delay in the satisfaction of Jesus’ need, Jesus’ need was met, completely. My faith was shaky, but still it quietly said: God could meet all of my needs, as well.