John the Baptist was a great man. So great, Jesus said, that up until his day, no one born of a woman was greater than John. Yet in Matthew’s gospel (chapter 14) we read of his death: a death so random, unfortunate and petty we could be excused for looking up from the pages to ask, “Father, how could you let this happen?” I wonder if Jesus had the same question. In the verses that follow the news of John’s death we are given a window into how Jesus handled grief. There are at least five meditations on how to process the senseless sadness we sometimes encounter.
1. Jesus had the experience of receiving unexpected bad news (v13). We are not alone in our surprise and grief: Our Lord himself lived through events unforeseen and had to deal with shock and sadness. When we are overcome with senseless suffering we will find Jesus there with us.
2. Jesus needed space and time to process: “When Jesus heard what had happened, he withdrew by boat privately to a solitary place” (v13). This was his way. Time and again the gospels share one of the primary sources of the Lord’s strength—he took measures to be alone with the Father. The solitary place need not be the place of grief, it can also be the place of comfort.
3. Sometimes events overtake our personal needs: “Hearing of this, the crowds followed him on foot from the towns. When Jesus landed and saw a large crowd, he had compassion on them and healed their sick” (vs 13-14). Most people knew nothing or cared little for Jesus’ sadness. They had their own sadness, and they looked to him for relief. Amazingly, Jesus didn’t hang “Do Not Disturb” on the doorknob. He was filled with compassion for them and took action. Setting aside his own need, he modeled for us again that the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve others.
4. Jesus taught the disciples to follow his example: “They do not need to go away. You give them something to eat” (v16). At least two of Jesus’ disciples had been with John the Baptist previously. The Lord wanted them to focus on the needs of others as those needs presented themselves. Five thousand people were fed, even as Jesus and his disciples wrestled with their own pain. It’s a parable: When we are weak, he is strong. Miraculously strong on behalf of others.
5. Still, Jesus needed time alone: “After he had dismissed them, he went up on a mountainside by himself to pray. Later that night, he was there alone” (v23). Events had overtaken Jesus’ original plan. The narrative starts with him slipping away in a boat for some down time. He remembered his initial purpose and took the opportunity to see it through. Jesus demonstrates the balance between his own need and the needs of others.
Even while he displayed compassion he did not lose sight of his deep need to process with the Father. Eventually he got there. With some intentionality we can, too. These five meditations are ours for the taking. The life Jesus lived was a life just like ours. He modeled the way of peace, both for himself and others.