13Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself. But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns.
“When the crowds heard it.” The ‘this’ Jesus heard was the beheading of John, but what is this ‘it’ that the crowds heard? Does Matthew have in mind that the crowds have also heard about John? Or does Matthew have in mind that the crowds heard have that Jesus has gone to a deserted place?
Translating is tricky work. It would be nice to have the translator before us to ask why he or she translated the Greek word ‘and’ with a ‘but’. The ‘and’ seems to suggest that we are extending the thought – Jesus withdrew and the crowd went after him. The ‘but’ raises the possibility that Jesus’ response to John’s death was to withdraw, but the crowds’ response was to follow Jesus. ‘Follow’ is a big word in the Gospels. It is what disciples do. Is Matthew suggesting that the crowds that had looked to John now look to Jesus? That the mantle of John has fallen on Jesus? It’s not uncommon when we lose one hero to look for another.
So are the people looking for a hero, any hero, or are they looking for Jesus? Are they turning to Jesus out of desperation or have they found the one and don’t want to let him out of their sight?
Do you see the question that is homing in on us? Are we people who turn to Jesus in moments of crisis, or have we found in him the word of life and want always to be in his presence?
Are we following him or leaning on him?
Is he the plumber we call in an emergency or the master to whom we have apprenticed ourselves?
It is an important question for our self-reflection. Are we dilettantes or disciples?
The sweetness in the text is that it doesn’t matter to Jesus. When he sees the crowd, he has compassion. He does not ask if those who have come with their sick are there just for the healing or for the whole journey of faith. He heals. He nourishes. He sets before them the great banquet of heaven.
Not too far down the line, one of Jesus’ closest disciples will betray him and the rest will run away. Peter, too, will choose his own skin – thought none of us can honestly blame him considering what happens to those who would suggest there is some other rule on earth than Rome. But the question whether Jesus is a vocation or an avocation will haunt Peter until Jesus walks him back through his three-fold denial with a three-fold declaration: “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” But even that morning, on the shore of Galilee, began with a meal.
Jesus will indeed talk to us about the necessity of discipleship. But first there is compassion. First he heals. First he sets before us the great banquet of heaven.