For the last three weeks the Revised Common Lectionary had us moving systematically through Matthew chapter 10. This week we hop and skip through Matthew 11. The text is Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30, including the lovely words about Jesus yoke being easy and his burden being light — which must have sounded good to anyone who carried water home from a village well.
We fly right over Matthew 11:1-15, presumably because we already heard most of it in Advent. That’s John the Baptist’s soulful, if not depressed, question from prison (“Are you the one who is to come? Or shall we look for another?”), and Jesus’ praise of John the Baptist before the crowd.
Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30
The text we get is Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30, two pieces of a longer scene.
Between the two sections we take one giant step past something I think is rather interesting: Jesus’ condemnation of the “cities” (villages really) of Chorazin, Bethsaida, and Capernaum,
in which most of his deeds of power had been done.”
Matthew 11:20 NRSV
Isn’t there a world of meditation to be done on the fact that the places Jesus did most of his miracles didn’t repent to his satisfaction?
Shouldn’t we ponder what this says about what motivates people to repent? Maybe even if we had miraculous gifts it wouldn’t convince those around us to turn and live in harmony with Christ.
Hey, it didn’t work that way for Jesus, so why should it work that way for us?
If we don’t have miraculous gifts, maybe we should not expect that our acts of kindness and our labors for justice will convince anyone to turn and live in harmony with Christ either.
Maybe what really motivates people to change their minds and turn toward Jesus is actually the Holy Spirit. That’s what Jesus seems to indicate from time to time.
Then maybe we should ponder what this says about why Jesus did miracles. If it wasn’t going to help him build his organization, why spend so much effort on healing the sick, casting out demons, feeding the hungry, and so on?
Maybe it was because of love.
Maybe Jesus looked at people in love and wanted to help, regardless of whether they turned, believed, changed, joined up, or followed.
Love, after all, is who he is.
So maybe for us, feeding the hungry, and tending to the sick, and welcoming the refugee, and working for justice should not be an evangelistic strategy. Maybe, if we belong to Jesus, if we are connected to him like branches on the Vine, like parts of his Body, then love should just be what we do.
More and more, love should be who we are, too.
But the lectionary skips that bit.
The first part of the reading (Matthew 11:16-19) grows out of Jesus’ discussion of John the Baptist.
He complains to his listeners about the way the people as a whole have responded to the two of them. He makes them sound awfully fickle.
For John came neither eating nor drinking,
and they say,
‘He has a demon’;
the Son of Man came eating and drinking,
and they say,
‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard,
a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’
Matthew 11:18-19 NRSV
I suppose any leader would have the same complaint from time to time. This week I was reading St. John Chrysostom’s treatise Six Books on the Priesthood, (I highly recommend it) and he was kvetching about how everybody is happy to judge the pastor, whether because of who he visits or who he doesn’t visit, who he jokes around casually with and who he treats formally.
You can’t actually please all the people — and the ones who are displeased will be most likely to speak up.
Jesus may have been talking about different sets of people, right?
Some really liked John’s asceticism — while others might call it peculiarity, what with living in the desert, the camel’s hair jacket out in the hot sun, and his insect-forward cuisine.
The ones who like John might have thought Jesus was too worldly, what with living in town, feasting both with respectable Pharisees and with riff-raff like tax-collectors. He drank wine — and if there wasn’t any on hand he made it himself. He was willing to socialize with foreigners, and women, and even women foreigners.
And of course some people really liked Jesus’ counter-cultural worldliness. They felt welcome, relaxed, able to be themselves. Suddenly being created in the image of God was enough to be accepted.
When you are trying to figure out what you, someone who belongs to Jesus, ought to do, trying to keep everybody happy isn’t going to keep you sane.
Better to know who you are, as both John the Baptist and Jesus did, and live truly.
Some people won’t like it. Whatever.
Of Yokes and Burdens
In the second section of the reading (Matthew 11:25-30) Jesus begins by tying together both the stuff our reading included (the fickleness of people’s responses) and the stuff we skipped (the woes on the towns for not repenting).
Behind all of our human wavering and inadequate responses to Jesus, our half-hearted repentance and our on-again/off-again faith, is… God. God who chooses to reveal himself to whomever he chooses for whatever inscrutable reason he has.
At that time Jesus said,
‘I thank you, Father,
Lord of heaven and earth,
because you have hidden these things
from the wise and the intelligent
and have revealed them to infants;
yes, Father, for such was your gracious will.
All things have been handed over to me by my Father;
and no one knows the Son except the Father,
and no one knows the Father except the Son
and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.’”
Matthew 11:25-27 NRSV
Paul, and Augustine, and Calvin had a special word for this issue of God’s choice in revealing to some but not to others. You know what it is. I’m not going to mention it because if I do you’ll probably click away from my post in a huff.
But let’s just say that for Jesus it was good news that God decided who would hear the Good News, know God and his amazing grace, change their way of thinking, and follow in faith.
And to you and me it is good news too: you wouldn’t be pondering the question if you hadn’t been given that bit of revelation, that inner knowledge of Jesus and his love.
Really this question is always something we ask from inside the life of faith:
How did I possibly get such a gift? Why on earth was I ever allowed to know this Jesus, this God, who gives me new life?
Well, the God of grace decided to give you this gift, to let you know, to invite you in, and to hold you close.
His gift. His reasons.
Don’t squander it. Live in gratitude.
The passage closes with some of Jesus’ most beautiful words.
Come to me,
all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens,
and I will give you rest.
Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me;
for I am gentle and humble in heart,
and you will find rest for your souls.
For my yoke is easy,
and my burden is light.”
Matthew 11:28-30 NRSV
Has he just switched topics? It seems like a non-sequitur at first glance.
And at second glance it seems far from the truth. Jesus’ yoke was a cross, his burden the sin of the world. He bore that yoke and burden on the journey to his death.
But really he hasn’t changed topics. When we look at Jesus from inside the life of faith, as branches on his vine, members of his own Body, we find him gentle. We find his burden light, even when life is heavy.
We draw close, giving up the tattered rags we thought were so stylish, and find him clothing us in his own glorious robes.
We give up going to worldly wells to pull up one more bucket of water, and find that he gives us living water springing up from within.
It is of a piece with his paradoxical teaching a few chapters later,
For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”
Matthew 16:25 NRSV
May it be so for you, my friend, in this hard pandemic days.
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