Even as the world unites in grief over the death of former South African President, Nelson Mandela, we would like to take a compassionate look at death and what it means to grieve. How do you grieve? Is there a good way and a wrong way? Can you grieve too much? And is there a day when it’s necessary to dry your eyes and face again the life that has brought on so much hardship and pain?
In the gospel of Matthew we see Jesus’ reaction to pain in Chapter 14 verse 13. We’re told in the preceding verses that Herod had beheaded John the Baptist to please his guests after his step-daughter, prompted by her mother Herodias, asked for the prophet’s head on a platter. Verse 12 says that afterwards John’s disciples went and took his body to be buried, “then they went and told Jesus.”
Jesus’ reaction on hearing of the death of his cousin John is to withdraw from everything and everyone. We don’t know what he was thinking, because we aren’t told. We can, however, infer a few things from a study of his life: that he was a man unashamed of showing and expressing deep emotions. For instance when his friend Lazarus died. Even though the Lord knew he’d raise him up, as he had mentioned in private to his disciples, his soul was still grievously distressed when he saw the grief in others at Lazarus’ death.
Then there’s also the example of Gethsemane. Jesus, within full view of his disciples, says to them, “sit here while I go over there and pray.” They saw him “sorrowful unto death” and they saw him pray so passionately and fervently that his sweat turned to blood (a condition known as Hematidrosis).
And so here is a man who isn’t afraid of showing his emotions to his friends, isn’t afraid of the compassion he feels and shows for others, and yet when he hears of his cousin’s death, and in what manner John had died, he doesn’t discuss with anyone, and instead withdraws from everyone – to a solitary place.
This is a good indication of the proper reaction to the feelings of desolation that can be felt when a tragedy such as the death of a loved one occurs. Jesus withdraws to gather his thoughts and to pray. Often in such a situation one can’t trust one’s first reactions. You may say the wrong thing or you may do something unwise. We can learn from Jesus by knowing when to call a time out. Leave the stage – even though you may be slap-bang at the centre of every thing as he was – and go to a private place to collect your thoughts.
Next came an indication to how the news changed him. After hearing of John’s death he could have been filled with resentment – that a prophet the people apparently idolized was allowed to be killed with little or no reaction from the general public could easily have put Jesus in a state of bitterness. He, however, doesn’t allow his grief to affect his destiny and his calling, for we see in verse 13 and 14:
13 When Jesus heard what had happened, he withdrew by boat privately to a solitary place. Hearing of this, the crowds followed him on foot from the towns. 14 When Jesus landed and saw a large crowd, he had compassion on them and healed their sick.
Jesus continues where he left off, not allowing a personal tragedy to change him for the worse. And not only did he feed the people, it was the manner in which it was done. With the miracle of the 5 loves and 2 fishes he was telling his disciples that life goes on, and their heavenly father was still actively involved in their everyday lives, even to the point of providing daily sustenance.
This attitude is important after losing someone, because a feeling of having been abandoned can easily fill us and manifest itself in many ways, either through a bitter and angry spirit or a grudging self-pity and unwillingness to take responsibility for future events, where a person effectively stops pushing back at life and instead goes with the flow, allowing everything to influence him without resistance.
Finally, verse 22 says:
“Immediately Jesus made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead of him to the other side, while he dismissed the crowd.”
We’re told that later on that night the disciples, while on the boat, would encounter a storm. But it was Jesus who put them on the boat. Did he know that they would have to go through this, and why? Can it be that a tragedy, dealing with death, can distort the view we have of God? That suddenly the world seems a much bigger and scarier place? And just where does God and religion fit into that? Christ shows us how with his next miracle. He walks on water!
So through his personal grief we learn through Christ that it’s OK to retreat from the crowd for some time alone. But that this time alone shouldn’t be spent in moody contemplation to the extent that it changes you into a less compassionate being. And that through our grief we should never lose sight of the power of God and never forget his love. He went out to get his disciples safely back to land. He’ll do the same for you. If you’ve lost a loved one recently, or maybe it isn’t so recent and you still feel the pain of it, Christ cares. So share your thoughts and you anger and your questions with him. Withdraw to a lonely place and pray, then make sure you get back on your feet and back to your loved ones who are still alive by showing compassion as he did.