Sermon Commentary for Sunday, July 9, 2023
Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30 Commentary
What will Jesus call our generation? Do we run the same risk of refusing to join Jesus? Of rejecting the ways of God and God’s agents (like John the Baptist)? Does the Triune God look upon us and sigh, frustrated that we keep refusing to truly see and welcome wisdom, kindness, grace, and compassion for ourselves and others?
Jesus is clearly frustrated by the stubbornness of the people. Like a Goldilocks judging spiritual lifestyles, the people said that John’s way was too hard and Jesus’s way was too soft. The people still hadn’t found their just right, so they refused to join in whatever it was that either of God’s messengers were offering.
Then Jesus speaks some powerful truth for those who have ears to hear: “Yet wisdom is vindicated by her deeds.” (v 19) Some texts have “children” instead of deeds. I like to consider this variation because it grounds wisdom in people (versus some thought experiment or some image of a wise sage who is “above it all,” disconnected from everyday life). Either way, the sense of the meaning is that true wisdom is proven by what the person does with their life—not their ideas, not their opinions, not their twitter threads or TikTok videos, not their Instagram inspirational photos and captions or Facebook comment diatribes. Do they join in to whatever it is that God is doing, or do they sit out and curmudgeonly pout about what God is doing? (Remember our old friend, Jonah?)
Jesus’s first response to being frustrated is to pray. (It’s a good reminder for us about pausing when we’re angry!) It is in his prayer that we hear what God is doing. God is graciously giving wisdom to those who are not “wise.” If italics existed for koine Greek, “the wise and intelligent” would be in them because Jesus is referring to those who are considered wise and intelligent by people standards, not God standards. This usually means successful, wealthy, erudite, elite, impressive, powerful, or commanding people. And usually, these traits aren’t considered in balance with the person’s greed, lust, envy, selfishness, compassion or empathy. In turns out that we’re usually measuring “wisdom” and “intelligence” by the wrongs things.
In God standards, the wise are the infants: the trusters, the ones who are excitedly fed by and lovingly attached to their parent. This is whom God chooses to give wisdom to, whom God chooses to reveal the Son to. Of course, Jesus isn’t describing literal infants. He’s making his point by contrasting the identity of an infant with that of humanity’s preference to blindly and without discretion give power to the wise and intelligent and to follow their lead.
But these “infants” are also the ones who are often beat down, kicked out, and suffer under the oppression of the wise and intelligent. Those who choose to trust in Jesus in ways that others have rejected as false, unholy and unacceptable, have the additional hardship of not being accepted and supported in the very space created for that purpose, the church. The people in charge there don’t like the way God’s “game” is being played—it’s too soft!
We are surrounded by these stories and real-life experiences. Of men and women who are beat down by fellow Christians who don’t agree with what their Christianity looks and acts like. Like Jesus and John the Baptist, they can’t win; the goal posts of acceptability keep moving.
There are so many Christians who are working for good, following the wisdom of God and God’s will for his people, who are then punished for that good work because it does not toe a particular line.
It is to these faithful disciples that Jesus invites to join him in his prayerful pause. “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” It is to these “infants” that Jesus invites to lay down like a little baby. Picture the sleeping child on the chest of one of their parents. Calm, safe, resting in a way that fosters growth and health and well-being and an innate grounding of being loved and cared for.
And then Jesus says to them, “You can exchange your heavy burdens of the expectations and anger and prejudice and rejection of others and take my yoke instead.” He invites them to further grow in God’s wisdom by learning from him how to live in a world that rejects you, rejects truth, rejects beauty, rejects goodness and compassion. Jesus invites them (and us) to learn from him, who is so wise and emotionally and spiritually mature that he is able to stay gentle and humble in heart.
And Jesus promises what he knows will result: true rest for weary souls. Notice that this rest is an active rest—the burden just happens to be light and the yoke easy in comparison to the struggled existence we have when try to live up to the pressures and demands of this world (and other people). What Jesus is describing here is the freedom that comes from being differentiated—of knowing what matters most is what the Triune God thinks and feels about us.
In his Good and Beautiful book series, James Bryan Smith reminds disciples of Jesus of this very yoke: we are “ones in whom Christ dwells.” When I was in parish ministry, I used to give this out on little business cards to people during pastoral care sessions and discipleship groups. I still give them out to friends and colleagues when I sense the need to share God’s wisdom. Smith writes,
Being ‘one in whom Christ dwells’ is a sign of sacredness, a reminder of how special we are. It is not a threat to do better, or a heavy obligation. We can rest in this beautiful phrase because we did nothing to earn it and therefore we can’t lose it. We just receive it and rejoice in it! It is WHO we are and it tells us WHOSE we are!
This is the graceful wisdom of God we can trust like hungry infants, being fed and held by a loving, benevolent parent who only wants our good. Amen.
The lectionary selection has us skip over the “woes” Jesus proclaims to Chorazin, Bethsaida, and Capernaum. If you care to acknowledge them in the sermon without making them the central focus, you might do so in the interpretative framework of the image Jesus gives in verses 16-19. Jesus did many deeds of power and goodness in their midst, but many people in them refused to engage and remained unrepentant. In other words, Jesus “played the flute” and they “did not dance,” and he “wailed” but they “did not mourn.”
In verses 16-19, Jesus uses the example of children playing “pretend” in the street to make his point. He describes a group of children complaining about another group who refuse to play with them: you didn’t want to play the fun game, so we tried the sad game and you’re still refusing to join. The sulking child—or even more pathetic, the sulking adult—who pouts and complains on that nothing is good enough unless it’s the thing THEY want, doesn’t even do us the common courtesy of “taking their ball and go home.” Jesus understands that it’s a zero-sum game until there’s a change within them; until then, he’s going to keep being himself and he’s going to keep celebrating who John the Baptists was and represents. In other words, he’s going to keep playing the game/role/purpose that God gave him with joy and delight in spite of the sourpusses. Hopefully, eventually, like many children finally come around to playing, those who are offended by the “wild” ways of Jesus will also join him in the divine fun.
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