While reading through Matthew, Mark, and Luke lately I’ve been struck by how lonely Jesus was.
By “lonely” I don’t mean primarily that Jesus was alone, though at times he was: he did have a pattern of withdrawing to pray–“he would slip away to uninhabited [NIV: lonely] places and pray” (Luke 5.16; Luke especially emphasizes Jesus’ prayer life). Or while in Capernaum, he arose early one morning and “went off to a solitary place, where he prayed” (Mark 1.35; or see 6.45-56).
Most striking of all is the extraordinary event at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry when, just after his baptism, the Holy Spirit, says Mark, “thrust him into the wilderness” (1.12), where he was alone for forty days.
Forty days. Alone. Then all-out temptation on a cosmic level: “Since you are the son of God, you should never have to go without physical sustenance, social status and political sway, or having any say in God’s plan for your life.”
So, yes, Jesus was alone. But I’m inclined to say that the Gospels betray Jesus at his most lonely when in the company of others–certainly with the crowds but even more with his own followers….
Mark records the nearly crushing persistence of the masses, who always want something from Jesus: “A large multitude from Galilee, Judea, Idumea, and beyond the Jordan, Tyre and Sidon heard all that Jesus was doing. Because of the crowd, he told his disciples to have a boat ready for him, so that the crowd wouldn’t crush him” (3.9; see 4.1; 5.31).
Are you kidding me?
Other passages record the sheer mayhem of the crowds (e.g., Mark 1.32-34; 6.53-56). Imagine Jesus arriving in your small town or village. He is immediately recognized, and word spreads like wildfire. You realize that this may be your one chance to have your dying parent or diseased child fully healed. With what urgency, with what persistence would you seek audience with Jesus? “They begged him to let them touch even the edge of his cloak, and all who touched it were healed.”
In all of this, the crowds are, on the whole, not wanting Jesus. They are wanting something from Jesus. And there is a deep, if perhaps subtle loneliness to always being merely useful to (or used by?) others: the utter lack of concern; the raw disregard; the insatiable expectation; indeed, the impatient sense of entitlement and even brazen disappointment with Jesus:
“Teacher, I brought to you my demon-possessed son, but your disciples couldn’t heal him….But if you can do anything, have some compassion, for goodness’ sake, and help us out here.”
In response to these particular words, Jesus offers us a rare, yet very real window into the distance that he felt from the crowds: “O faithless generation, how long shall I stay with you? How long shall I put up with you?” His parroting of the man’s words (“‘If you can’?”) is scathing. This is righteous prophetic exasperation intended to sober up a generation from its stupor of self-entitlement.
Similarly, in John’s account of the feeding of the 5,000, the satiated crowds conclude that Jesus is “the prophet who is to come.” John writes, “Jesus, knowing that they intended to come and make him king by force, withdrew again to a mountain by himself.” When the crowds do find him, he states, with the same prophetic exasperation, “You are looking for me…because you ate the loaves and had your fill.”
But along with–and far overshadowing–this exasperation is Jesus’ seemingly inexhaustible compassion for the very crowds that are endlessly alienating him: they are harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.
Why this inexhaustible compassion? Because he loved them.
And this is why I worship Jesus: he loved the very people who made him lonely.
He knew that in this world loving often means loneliness.
Mark’s account of Jesus’ encounter with a rich man portrays Jesus as one whose love leads to loss. When the man earnestly inquires about how to gain eternal life and tells Jesus of his faithfulness to the commandments since childhood, Mark tells us:
“Jesus looked at him and loved him.”
He valued this man deeply. He wanted the best for him. And so in love Jesus puts his finger on the very thing that is killing him, the very thing that is waging war against his soul, the thing that gives him identity and invincibility. He says the hardest thing: “One thing you lack; go, sell all, give to the poor, have true riches; come, follow me.”
And this man, who just moments earlier had eagerly run up to Jesus, just walks away, consumed with self-pity at how shockingly unaffordable eternal life is. He washes his hands of Jesus forever.
But one should perhaps expect the crowds to be fickle, even as one should expect enemies to be hostile. But what about one’s friends and supporters? What about one’s self-professed followers and “disciples”?
I think one could make a good case that in the Gospels Jesus is both the most lonely and the most loving among them. Why? For two reasons.
First, not unlike the crowds, Jesus’ self-professed followers often have expectations of him; they have a wonderful plan for his life. They know better than he does what his agenda should be (I sure do).
When the disciples finally grasp that Jesus is “the Messiah, the Son of the Living God,” Jesus immediately begins to show them what that will mean for his life: Jerusalem, rejection by the authorities, public humiliation, and death–and something about “being raised three days later.”
In the famous exchange that follows—i.e., Peter’s self-assured, even indignant rebuke of Jesus, and Jesus’ hair-raising counter-rebuke–one cannot but feel the miles between the Master and his servants, between the Teacher and his disciples. Jesus recounts to his disciples the bitter, yet beautiful cost of world-changing love, only for Peter to inform him that it’s both unnecessary and embarrassing (“I’ve got good news–we won’t be needing any of that”). Let’s put our heads together, says Peter; surely there are better ways of saving the world than having to be completely rejected by it.
This is loneliness. And it is, undoubtedly, also love.
So Jesus’ profound loneliness among his own followers is found, first, in the distance between their deeply conflicting agendas for him. But Jesus’ loneliness is even more profound in the inestimable distance between the allegiance his followers declare and the allegiance they actually display.
I have at times thought the Last Supper was quite simply the worst meal ever: an actual argument over who is greatest; still further misunderstanding of his teaching; Jesus’ devastating announcement of a traitor in their midst–none of these makes for enjoyable dinnertime conversation. But the worst part comes at the end, when Jesus tells them:
“You will all fall away on account of me.”
He then cites Scripture to establish the statement. They will all leave him all alone.
Once again Peter feels the need to defy his Savior (and Scripture as well this time), for Jesus is clueless about the sincerity of his allegiance:
“Even if all fall away on account of you, I never will.”
Jesus may be right about the others (notice how Peter not so subtly throws his fellow followers under the bus); but Jesus is surely wrong about him. “Even if I have to die with you, I will never disown you.”
And to underscore how completely alone Jesus was, Mark adds, “And all the others said the same.”
Just as Jesus was wrong about his own messianic agenda, he was also wrong about the fidelity of his followers. His rejection would be unnecessary, and their devotion would be unwavering. Jesus may think he’s going to be alone, but we all know he’s wrong.
Surrounded by his followers, could he be any more alone?
But with this crushing loneliness is found yet again incredible love. He promises:
“But after I have risen, I will go ahead of you into Galilee.”
I love those words. Jesus says to his followers: “I know you don’t know why I’m going to Jerusalem to die; I know you don’t begin to know how fickle and faithless you are. But after I have been left alone by you, by the world, by my Father, after I have risen, I will go ahead of you back to our old stomping grounds, and make no mistake: there I will be eagerly waiting to welcome you with arms wide open.”
Jesus knew that love often means loneliness.
May we flee for refuge in the One who became Loneliness for us. May we renew our allegiance to Him who alone deserves it, daily realigning our agenda with his–an agenda of love that is willing to risk loneliness.