Note: It’s been a few weeks since I have updated, and I’m so sorry! Life seems to have gotten busy, and I had been traveling a lot. Home now, enjoying the slow(er) days of summer. Grace and peace, ~k
Last weekend our family had the chance to be all together for the first time since Christmas: my parents, E and me with A, my brother, his wife, and their son, and my sister. It was a wonderful weekend of enjoying the beauty of the Adirondack Mountains, lots of laughter, and way too much good food.
My nephew, R, is just about ten and a half months older than A. He will be two years old this September, and I must say that it is both terrifying and amusing to be able to see dimly into the future what life with A holds for us. Amusing because, to be honest, it’s rather enjoyable to see my younger brother suffer through the pains of parenthood. Terrifying because, well, that pain will be mine!
One day during the weekend, my brother and his wife put R into the toddler life jacket my Dad purchased for his grandsons, and they went out for a ride on Joe Indian Pond, a shallow little lake near Canton on the north edge of Adirondack Park. R loves being out on the water, and he loves watching his Dad fish for bass.
After a while, they came back in, and once back on dry land, my sister-in-law went to take off R’s life jacket. He twisted away from her, a sour look coming onto his face, as he yelled, “No!” My brother, in his calm, high school history teacher voice said, “R, do you want your life jacket off?” A loud, determined, “No!” was the response. “R, do you want to leave your life jacket on?” Another “No!” My brother shook his head and said, “Ah, the logic of a one and a half-year-old…”
There is a bit of this illogical child in the children of the marketplace that Jesus refers to in our text this morning. They are children who sulk, mutter and grumble when they don’t get their way. They are children who say, “No!” vehemently to all questions. They are like little children who, when they are tired and cranky, are unable to be pleased whatever we do to appease them. Everything leads to temper tantrums and hot tears on the face.
Jesus compares the people of his generation to these petulant children. “The problem… Jesus says, is that they listen neither to John nor to Jesus. John’s austere lifestyle led people to accuse him of having a demon, while Jesus’ habit of eating and drinking with sinners earned him a bad reputation (11:18-19). This generation finds reason to take offense at both John and Jesus and thus to evade the call of both. They are like children in the marketplace who cannot decide whether they want to play wedding games or funeral games and end up laying neither (11:16-17)” (Johnson).
Basically what we have here is a culture of people who, whether they realize it or not, are seeking any possible way to avoid doing the real work of God’s kingdom by being offended (maybe genuinely, but probably not) at invented things in their minds. John’s way is much too sacrificial, so he must have a demon… Jesus’ way is much too permissive, so he is clearly a sinner. Conveniently, that means they get to follow their own way.
Our reading from Matthew’s Gospel this morning is, at its core, really about one thing: how discipleship plays out in community.
First, let’s take a look at what Jesus is saying about discipleship. In the previous chapter, Jesus calls the Apostles to himself and instructs them as to what their mission will be. At the opening of chapter 11, John’s followers have come to Jesus, asking if he is “the one who is to come.” John the Baptist, who we find imprisoned at this time, “so clearly recognized who Jesus was when he baptized him, is now having doubts. Who can blame him? The great judgment John announced has not materialized, the corrupt are still in power, and John is languishing in Herod’s prison” (Johnson). Things haven’t changed; if anything, they’ve gotten worse. But “Jesus tells John’s disciples to tell John what they have heard and seen- the blind receiving sight, the lame walking, the lepers cleansed, the deaf hearing, the dead raised, and the poor receiving good news… these are surely signs of God’s kingdom drawing near” (Johnson).
And then we come to the heart of the matter in verses 25-30, where Jesus’ prays to God,
“thanking his Father because he has ‘hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and revealed them to infants.’ The ‘wise and intelligent’ may refer to any who reject Jesus and his message, but perhaps especially to the religious leaders, whom Jesus often rebukes for their self-importance and hypocrisy. The scribes and Pharisees pride themselves on being learned in the law yet fail to understand the basics of justice, mercy, and faith (23:23). They repeatedly reject Jesus and conspire against him, thus conspiring against the very purposes of God.
“The ‘infants,’ on the other hand, are not regarded as wise or important. They are the poor in spirit, the meek, the merciful, the persecuted, all whom Jesus calls blessed (5:3-12). They are the sick and the lame, the lepers and demon-possessed, the tax collectors and sinners, who come to Jesus for healing of body and spirit. It is God’s gracious will to act in ways that confound human wisdom (11:26), and so these ‘infants’ see what the ‘wise’ cannot- that Jesus is sent by the Father and reveals the Father (11:27)” (Johnson).
On more than one occasion, Jesus teaches his disciples that, to be great in the kingdom, we must be humble; that we should seek not to be served, but to serve. Gene Beerens points out in a reflection, that “one biblical word for the poor- ani– seems very applicable here. It means the bent over one, the one laboring under a weight, the one not in possession of his or her whole strength and vigor, the humiliated one.” This Hebrew word can be translated as “poor,” “afflicted,” and, interestingly enough, “humble.”
Discipleship demands that we humble ourselves, and Jesus exhorts us, time and time again, to identify with the poor. This doesn’t mean we pity the poor, as happens so often in our culture today, when we aren’t blithely ignoring them. It doesn’t mean that we empathize with them, though that’s closer. No, it means that take into ourselves the very experience of poverty both in ourselves and in our society. It means we take on the yoke of both physical and spiritual poverty; it means that we experience the poverty of our neighbors local and global; it means sacrificing some of our comfort and power that others may share in it.
Beerens explains that,
“This experience of poverty and littleness has many dimensions. Some of the more personal ones are in spiritual, emotional, physical, and relational areas. However, such poverty is not limited to the personal: the concrete choices the gospel calls us to make bring us into direct conflict with the wealth and power of our society, and when we refuse to go along with these forces we become their victims. God calls us to let go of more and more of our North American options that ensure us ready access to power, prestige, education, financial security, and other social advantages. As we respond to this call we begin to experience the oppression, the discrimination, and the violence that are so much a part of the daily lives of the poor. We feel more and more of the tyranny of our own nation and culture as we draw closer to the poor and oppressed, as their struggle becomes ours.”
But this is where our call to discipleship, as difficult as it may be, is itself the good news of Jesus Christ. “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.”
At first glance, this is as much a paradox as my nephew wanting to take off and keep on his lifejacket both at the same time. The yoke is a wooden crosspiece that is fastened over the necks of two animals, in this context oxen would be the animal that springs to mind and attached to the plow or cart that they are to pull. This denotes an incredible weight around the neck of someone. So a light yoke is a bit incongruous.
Yet if we think about what Jesus is saying, two things spring to mind. First, a yoke is always shared, at least between two. Second, Jesus is not talking about us as individuals here; he is talking about community. “The religious leaders in Matthew’s story are also complicit with the Roman rulers in maintaining the imperial system. The common people labor wearily under Roman occupation, in which the ruling elite secure wealth, status, and power at the expense of the lowly” (Johnson). The religious leaders Jesus was pushing back against were interested in maintaining power for only themselves, and that meant continuing to oppress and control the masses.
“Jesus rejects this social order as contrary to God’s will: ‘You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. It will not be so among you; but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave; just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many’ (20:25-28). To all those laboring under harsh religious and political systems, Jesus says, ‘Come to me…and I will give you rest’” (Johnson).
In God’s community, we bear the weight of one another’s burdens, whatever they may be. One way of thinking of this is a bed of nails. If you step on one solitary nail, the weight of your foot will come down on it, and it will pierce your skin. However, when a person goes to lie down on a bed of nails, because there are so many nails, the weight of the person is evenly distributed over all of them, and the skin is not pierced.
This means we take up our neighbor’s burdens with them; it does not mean we carry it for them. It means we must worry about others because that is the essence of what it means to be in a relationship of love.
It means we link our arms with our brothers and sisters in the African-American community when their lives are treated as disposable by systemic injustice; it means we open our arms to all people fleeing war and violence in their homelands, with no consideration of where that is; it means we demand a health care system that works for all people regardless of how much money they have in the bank; it means we use our voices to speak up and out for the poor, who have been so callously tossed aside and ignored by both political parties in this country who have failed miserably to work for their welfare.
It means, and this is the toughest part, that even when the weights we carry are relatively light, we take on more so that others loads might be lightened. Because the good news of Jesus Christ means that when the burden is carried by the community, it is a joyful burden, a blessed burden, one that we sing and dance while carrying, because with Jesus it is no burden at all. Because when we don’t, we are the child who wants to keep the lifejacket on and take it off!
Jesus does not invite “us to a life of ease. Following him will be full of risks and challenges, as he has made abundantly clear. He calls us to a life of humble service,” an ani service, “but it is a life of freedom and joy instead of slavery” (Johnson). Come, share your burdens, and here you will find rest in God’s grace. Amen.
Beerens, Gene. “Blessed Littleness.” Annual Gathering. Community of Communities, Cincinnati. 7 July 2017. Sojourners. Web. 7 July 2017.
Johnson, Elisabeth. “Commentary on Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30.” Working Preacher. Luther Seminary, 3 July 2011. Web. 7 July 2017.