Over the course of the COVID pandemic, I have taken on the discipline of a careful reading and reflection of the Gospel of Matthew. Knowing that the Word of God is both “living and active,” I thought such a discipline might allow The Word to speak to me in fresh ways as I examined the text in the midst of this season of challenge. I have slowly poured my way through the Gospel, line-by-line, making notes, recording insights, and listening for the whisper of the Spirit to speak with new insight into my heart and mind.
In Matthew’s telling of the Gospel, Chapter 14 begins with the account of John the Baptist’s death. Herod had John imprisoned because of John’s forthright preaching about Herod’s relationship with his brother’s wife. Because of a foolish promise made during a poignant moment at a party, John is beheaded and his head is presented to the party guests as a gruesome trophy. The disciples of John take his body and bury it, offering a meager sense of dignity in the midst of a horrific moment.
Coming on the heels of that story, Matthew offers his version of the Feeding of the 5000 (the only miracle recorded by all four Gospel writers). It begins with the simple phrase, “Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a desolate place by himself.” (Matthew 14:13). The antecedent of the word “this” refers to the death of John. Jesus, feeling the weight of his own sorrow, goes to a distant place to grieve, ponder, pray, fortify, and rest. He needs a moment of respite and reflection. Matthew then tells of the response of the crowds… “But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns.” Mostly, as we read this passage, we assume that when Matthew says “when the crowds heard it,” we think that the crowds are responding to the news that Jesus has departed the region. But what if they too, are responding to the news that John is dead? What if that’s the “it” to which Matthew is referring?
Suddenly their pursuit of Jesus is seen in a different light. Their pursuit is that of seeking solace, answers, hope, and relief from their own sorrow. The death of John the Baptist would have been a devastating loss. His preaching, his powerful presence, his prophetic shining of truth into the political space of his day would have been so powerful, so hopeful, so meaning to his generation… and suddenly his life is snuffed out. Perhaps Jesus feels the weight of their sorrow and bewilderment and that is the reason why he leaves the solitude of his boat and steps out onto the land to engage these desolate people. In fact, maybe it is not the place that seems so desolate, as much as it is the hearts of the people who are so much at loss. As you would expect, Jesus gives himself away in that moment. He preaches, he touches, he heals the broken… both those who are broken emotionally and those who are broken physically. And then, of course, he feeds them with the miracle of the fish and the loaves. They leave with hearts and bellies full. They leave with a renewed hope, a reclaimed faith, and a restored joy.
Understand that John’s death was not forgotten on that single day. The pain and sorrow were still felt by Jesus. But his grief was lessened through a sense of community, a sharing of a meal, and willingness to serve the needs of others. Jesus found his footing again, not simply in the solitude of a quiet moment, but also in the company of his trusted followers and in the act of meeting the needs of hurting people.
Read in the context of this COVID moment, perhaps there is a word for all of us. Like Christ, we find ourselves a little bewildered, a little stressed, a little “struck down” by the weariness of protocols, the ever-increasing numbers, and the grief of things taken from us… not just lives, but moments… moments that we long to share with loved ones and friends. How do we regain our footing? How do we step out onto the shore once again and face the challenges of each day?
First, we must seek the distant place of reflection. We need to sit quietly and reflect on our confusion, our angst, our anger, and our need for renewed hope. Most of us have churned our way through endless months of work and worry, trying to stay ahead of the virus and its impositions on our lives. We all need a little rest… a little break from time to time. It’s okay to step away for a moment and catch your breath.
Second, we need the comfort of community. Obviously finding community is challenging in the midst of social distancing. Finding community is hard, but it is not impossible. Phone calls can still be made. Letters can still be written. Stories can still be told. Laughter can still be shared. If nothing else, the pandemic has reminded us of how important it is to be in community with others. Though it may not be as easy to create community these days, it is still vitally important.
Third, share a meal. There is something mystical, special, and even healing that comes when we sit together at a table. We feed both body and soul. Please do not miss understand… I am not advocating in-person dining in a closed-in space. It’s not safe. But maybe a socially distanced picnic, or backyard cookout, or a delivered pizza you share with someone 500 miles away as you meet on Zoom, can provide a chance to kick back, talk, and find solace.
Fourth, remember that Jesus found strength and renewal in meeting the needs of hurting people. There is great healing when we are able to focus on the needs of others and act on their behalf. Maybe this is a season to practice generosity… a generosity of wealth, of resources, of time, of patience, of kindness.
For most of us, it’s not a question of “if” we will live through the pandemic… it’s a question of how well we will survive. May we find strength, hope, and renewal for the facing of this hour.