Sermon Commentary for Sunday, July 9, 2017
Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30 Commentary
I’m sure they had their reasons. I refer to the folks who put together the readings for the Revised Common Lectionary. I’m sure they had their reasons to leap-frog over verses 20-24 but in so doing, they created something of an irony (if not something of an exegetical faux pas).
Granted, Jesus’ rant against various cities in the deleted/skipped verses here are difficult to read. They also seem to come from out of nowhere, nestled in between some nice musings about John the Baptist and some lovely words about rest for the weary. I imagine that if today one of us preachers suddenly interrupted one of our own sermons for a turn-the-air-blue diatribe, our congregations would arch a collective eyebrow and wonder if we’d had a bad burrito the night prior. Most of our congregants would also doubtless do their best to ignore what had just happened (and hope it did not happen again anytime soon!).
So maybe the Lectionary folks thought that, too. This does not fit here. Maybe it’s even a textual mistake, a wrong insertion. Who knows? In any event, it’s easier to skip these judgments than engage them.
But on that point I must hasten to demur. Because the skipped verses are framed by other verses that pretty much tell us we are making a mistake to pretend Jesus did not speak the words he did about Korazin and Bethsaida and Capernaum. In verses 16-19 Jesus pretty much says that it is a theological error to look at who Jesus is and what he does and then choose to deride Jesus for those words and actions.
“The problem with you people,” Jesus says, “is that you want to call all the shots, force every prophet into your own pre-conceived mold. If you don’t like the message, you pick up on some aspect of the messenger as an excuse to reject him entirely. John never eats and you say that’s just nuts. I do enjoy eating and drinking and you say I’m an epicurean liberal. It’s high time you listen to what God’s prophets say and stop looking for excuses for the fingers you keep sticking in your ears to block out God’s truth.”
That’s what Jesus says. So how ironic that the Lectionary then turns right around and edits Jesus by having us ignore something he then went on to say! What’s more, Jesus then goes on to comment in verses 25-27 that everything he says comes straight from the Father and that to know the Father, you need to know and embrace the Son who reveals the Father.
All in all, then, this may not be a good juncture in Scripture to skip over certain words spoken by Jesus! We may not like hearing Jesus in imprecatory mode. We may not enjoy the specter of judgment on those who refused to recognize Jesus through his miracles, but it’s not up to us to edit the divine discourse.
Each preacher can and must make up his/her mind on this issue but my recommendation would be to include Jesus’ tough talk in verses 20-24 and use it as a way to understand this larger passage. In what follows, I will assume that we will not quietly bracket Jesus’ speech on the unrepentant cities.
That said . . . what is there to observe in Matthew 11? First, it is important to remember that all these words flow out of the scandalous and shocking fact that as Matthew 11 opens, no less than the imprisoned John the Baptist has sent some emissaries to Jesus to inquire if Jesus really was The One or if they should go back to waiting for the promised Messiah after all. Can it really be that the one sent to prepare the way for the Christ got to a point so desperate that he began to doubt the identity of Jesus? Or was John still pretty sure that Jesus was The One but had his disciples ask Jesus this question as a subtle rebuke over what John regarded as the too-slow pace of Jesus’ ministry to date? In that case, John’s question would have been almost a cheeky form of the question we sometimes rhetorically ask to motivate someone to greater courage and action: “Are you a man or a mouse!?”
That was the set up for Jesus not only to send word back to John that more was going on than he maybe knew but also to point out that as it turned out, neither John nor Jesus was exactly what anyone expected. Both were easily caricatured by opponents looking to impugn their characters. John was an abstemious sort who dressed weirdly, talked weirdly, and was given to many a rhetorical excess. So those who wanted to dismiss John as being of no importance in God’s grand scheme of things said, “He’s nuts. He’s got a demon in him. He’s a few garbanzo beans short of a good hummus.”
Jesus, on the other hand, appears to have been anything but abstemious. When people threw weddings, they wanted Jesus at the party (and according to John’s gospel, Jesus was even good at providing a whole winery’s worth of vino for folks who were already three sheets to the wind). When people threw dinner parties, they invited Jesus and at those gatherings, Jesus was not averse to asking for a second helping of the lamb stew. So those who wanted to dismiss Jesus as being a good non-candidate for Messiah said, “That wine-bibbing and cheeseburger-consuming fellow doesn’t look a thing like God and so can’t possibly be God’s Christ.”
In other words, “We’ll know God’s servants when we see them and these two ain’t it.”
But the God of Scripture is consistent in his ability to surprise and to startle. Indeed, a good bit of divine revelation happens precisely through just those surprises. We learn the most about God’s nature and plans not when God puts in some appearance that accords pretty much with what we expect of a deity in the first place but when God shows up in the least likely of guises and in the least likely of places.
Who would have guessed that God would have decided to start a mighty nation by approaching a wrinkled old couple in the retirement home—two people who had not managed to generate children even when they were young and virile? Who would have guessed that God’s favorites would always been the less likely of the possible candidates: crafty and wily old Jacob is favored over his more staid brother Esau; the young braggart Joseph is chosen over his more stable and hard-working brothers; Moses the stutterer becomes God’s mouthpiece instead of his more golden-tongued brother Aaron; the family runt David gets elevated over all the other sons of Jesse.
God always chooses the less likely of the options. And he shows up in other surprising places. The Israelite spies who visit Jericho make a beeline for a brothel. Who knows why they went there first but at the end of the day, God preached a sermon to them from the lips of no less than the establishment’s madam, Rahab herself. God delivers the Ninevites from certain doom by pressing into service the reluctant and truculent figure of Jonah (a man whose personality could have curdled milk, as Frederick Buechner once put it). God frees the Israelites from their long captivity by turning the Persian (and pagan) King Cyrus into a messiah.
And lest we think that these surprises were limited to the Old Testament, God starts out the New Testament with its own surprise BANG by implanting his Son into the uterus of an unsuspecting virgin named Mary and having him delivered into a donkey’s feed bunk.
John the Baptist looked at the shape and content of Jesus’ ministry and said, “This can’t be. He can’t be the one.” But John should have just looked in the mirror. Because if God could use the zany son of Zechariah and Elizabeth . . . well, there was just no telling what God might do next! Small wonder that Jesus ends up saying in verse 25 that praise is to be given to God for revealing the deep truths of salvation not to the wise and learned but to “little children.”
Children, after all, have a vast capacity to be surprised!
Jesus’ words in Matthew 11 about his “easy” yoke and his “light” burden are among the best-known in the New Testament. The word usually translated as “light” is accurately rendered as meaning something that is light in terms of weight. But the other word associated with Jesus’ yoke—the Greek word chrestos—means something more than “easy.” Chrestos carries with it more of a ring of “kindness” and of “pleasantness.” Apparently, Jesus’ yoke is the opposite of what we’d usually associate with yokes. A yoke seems like something you’d impose, something you’d just as soon not have laid over your shoulders at all. Yet Jesus’ yoke is a kind and pleasant phenomenon. It is not a despised thing but is as gentle and kind as when someone you love lays his or her hand on you to encourage you, to love you, to lead you gently and lovingly where you should go and to that place where you can flourish.
One of the more pernicious examples of sin is on display when a clever person finds a devious way to turn another person’s virtue into a liability. The idea is that you zero in on a good character trait that someone clearly and undeniably has and then turn it into something that will get that person into trouble.
For example, during the 1948 Texas campaign for the U.S. Senate, Congressman Lyndon B. Johnson ran against a highly popular former governor of Texas, Coke Stevenson. Johnson knew that Stevenson had a high respect for people’s intelligence. Stevenson believed that people would recognize a blatant lie when they saw one such that there was no need to refute such a lie publicly. The good folks of Texas would figure this out for themselves. So Johnson put out a blatant lie about Stevenson’s stance on a trade issue. Johnson knew Stevenson would not lower himself to attempt to refute this charge. People would know the truth.
Except that after Johnson hammered away at the lie long enough, folks did start to believe it. By the time Stevenson realized this and finally spoke up publicly, it was too late. Johnson pounced on Stevenson for his way-too-late feeble defense. “Sure, NOW he speaks up . . .”
Stevenson was a man of integrity and he believed in the integrity of others. Johnson took this virtuous trait and made it a liability for Stevenson. This is not unlike the people in Jesus’ and John the Baptist’s day who took what was good and virtuous about both men and turned it into an accusation, turning virtue into a liability by twisting the words and actions of John and Jesus. They took good things and made them bad. And that is a pretty evil thing to do.
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