Jesus, John, and Grace
Jesus’ most extravagant miracle happened when he should have been retreating, or fighting back. I read about it this morning in Matthew 14. The chapter opens with a bit of backstory that leads to Herod Antipas beheading John the Baptist. John was Jesus’ cousin, friend, and fellow worker in the ministry. John was important to Jesus. Matthew records that when Jesus heard the news about John’s unjust beheading, he "withdrew by boat privately to a solitary place.” Of course he did. He needed to cry, pray, process, and be alone. His cousin had just been unjustly executed in a Roman dungeon. His ministry had just suffered a major setback. Anyone in Jesus’ sandals would have been confused, angry, vulnerable, despairing. I imagine him patting Peter on the shoulder as they got out of the boat and saying, “I’m gonna go up the hill and be alone for a while. I just need some time."
But Jesus didn’t get what he wanted. Instead, he was hounded by followers. The crowds that had been following him found him and interrupted his private retreat. He would have looked down the hill at the stream of people walking toward his quiet prayer spot, and he would have seen their motives. Many of them wanted something from him — a healing or a blessing. Many were likely just along for the ride; Jesus was exciting news — a hot new tend — and they wanted to get a place along the velvet ropes so they could brag about it later. Many were self-appointed defenders of doctrine, following the controversial young rabbi in order to keep an eye on him, maybe even trip him up. Some were loyal to Herod Antipas who had murdered John. Herod may have been too ruthless to have many friends or admirers, but he was certainly powerful enough to have lackeys and spies. And some in the crowd were following Jesus from purer motives; they believed in him. They suspected that he just might be the long-awaited Messiah. Jesus would have looked out on the crowd interrupting him and seen all of these motivations.
What would you have done?
I think I would have given those people a piece of my mind. I would have told them to leave me the hell alone. I would have found a way to retreat to my Fortress Of Solitude. Maybe even hire those people celebrities use to keep the paparazzi at bay.
What did Jesus do?
He fed them. He blessed them with some of the most beautiful teaching in human history, healed their diseases, and then worried about where they would get supper. Matthew’s history records that "The number of those who ate was about five thousand men, besides women and children.” Some estimates put the total number of people Jesus fed that day as high as 15,000. And there were a dozen baskets full of leftovers. On the day when Jesus’ cause had suffered its greatest defeat yet, Jesus conjured his most lavish blessing. On the day when Jesus suffered most, he gave most. He showed grace and gave help to impertinent people with improper motives at the most inconvenient time.
Modern Christians know a little of what Jesus must have been feeling that day. We have suffered setbacks lately. Our brothers in the faith have been beheaded. Our cause has been mocked. Our power is slipping away. Our best leaders are falling. And we suspect that many of the people in the game with us are more like paparazzi than penitents. Some days all we want is a break from the brokenness.
In this moment, in the face of bad news, let’s follow Jesus up that hillside and watch how he responds. Let’s avoid the temptation to lash out, push back, or rally the troops. And let’s refuse to abandon our faith or squelch the truth. Let’s take this opportunity to die. Let’s embody salt and light, grace and truth. If we can do that when the chips are down, there’s a chance that people around us might get a glimpse of a gospel that is stronger than death and more extravagant than fairness. There’s a chance they might see Jesus.