The Reverend Kathleen Killian
Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30
July 9th 2023
The Big Picture
Our gospel passage from Matthew this morning is overflowing with primary yet disparate images; that of little children playing games in the marketplace; John the Baptist, the Son of Man, eating and drinking, a demon, a drunkard; Wisdom herself; the Father, Lord of heaven and earth; infants; heavy burdens; Jesus’ heart, and his yoke of rest for weary souls.
My goodness, I wondered as I was preparing the sermon: how do all of these various pieces puzzle together? When I do a puzzle, I find it’s helpful to first put the edges together, build the frame, and fill in from there. So that’s what I began to do with all of these images, to work from the outside in and give myself, and then you, some context or frame of reference.
To find the straight-edged pieces, let’s look back and remember, that over the last several weeks, Jesus has been instructing his twelve disciples about their mission and the high cost of their discipleship (Matthew 10:1-42). He then moved on to the surrounding towns and villages to teach and preach, which is where we find him today, speaking to a large crowd and the increasing number of opponents to his ministry. But they are not the only ones who are having doubts.
John the Baptist, who so clearly recognized Jesus as the Lamb of God (John 1:29) is having doubts too. He’s been arrested and jailed by King Herod and sends for his own disciples. Go ask Jesus, he tells them: are you really the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another? (Matthew 11:2-3).
In answer to the question, Jesus tells John’s disciples to go back and tell him what they have seen and heard; that the blind see again, and the lame walk; the lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear; the dead are raised to life, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor (Matthew 11: 4-5). Turning to the crowd then, he lauds John the Baptist and commends with the highest of praise (Matthew 11:9-14) but then asks of them a rhetorical question: to what will I compare this generation? Jesus goes on to compare the crowd or “this generation” with children in the marketplace; some want to play “wedding” but can’t get the others to dance when flute is piped, while some want to play “funeral” but can’t get the others to wail with them.
Mourning and dancing are a metaphor which Jesus uses to highlight the differing nature of his and John’s ministries, both of which “the children in the marketplace” are rejecting of and offended by. He tells the crowd: John the old-school ascetic Baptist came neither eating or drinking but this generation says, he has a demon! But then comes the all-embracing Son of Man who loves to eat and drink—with anyone—and this generation says, look, a glutton and a drunkard!—and a friend to those very same.
When Jesus speaks to the crowd before him—to “this generation”—he is also speaking to Matthew’s generation some 50 years later of the late first century (80-85 CE), and to any present generation reading the text. We ourselves are the crowd of “this generation,” and the children in the marketplace. And so I think it’s fair to ask: which game, if any, do we want to play? Does God’s divine play through the Baptist require too much self-examination and repentance? Or does God’s divine play through Jesus require too little discrimination and boundary? Like Goldilocks in the Three Little Bears, we like our God to be “just right”—not too big or too small, too hot or too cold, too hard or too soft. And so we change up the game to our liking.
An early memory of mine was of something like this. My little friends and I were playing on a whirligig that spins around faster and faster the more you push it, after which you hop on for the dizzying ride. If it was going too fast you shouted “stop! Or if you wanted it to go faster, you shouted “go!” But that day the rules kept changing; stop meant go, and go meant stop, and fast meant slow and slow meant fast. So when I shouted “stop!” because it was spinning too fast for me to hold on, it whirled around yet faster and off I flew off, hitting the ground and cracking open my head.
Such is our prerogative to play and live how we want—we get to choose on a whim—though as Jesus tells us, and I learned, this is not without consequence.
Jesus then declares to his listeners: wisdom is vindicated by her deeds. Not only does he lift up a vital aspect of his Jewish heritage, the wisdom tradition, I think too he is identifying here with Wisdom herself. Jesus’ own deeds of healing, cleansing, raising, and proclaiming are evidence or vindication of himself, he who embodies the wisdom of God and is “the one to come” as he told John the Baptist. To live without wisdom—like children in the marketplace, cogs in an imperial or capitalistic system—is to risk the clarity and sturdiness of our conscience. But to live with wisdom and a fuller, deeper understanding of God’s creative kingdom—and the foolishness and hiddenness of it— is also a risk to the status quo.
After saying all of this Jesus begins to pray aloud. He thanks his Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that things aren’t going so well; that he’s opposed more than accepted; that very few have ears to hear, he who is the truth. He gives thanks that the transformative subversive work of the kingdom is revealed to infants—the innocent, the disenfranchised, the people pushed out to the edge. Then as now, Jesus’ prayer is not easy to hear; that God reveals wisdom and understanding to those who have the least illusion about their own power.
Hidden inside of humanity is our common poverty and innate vulnerability—the infant that we ever are—no matter our age. Yet we who are the world run around in circles going faster and faster to try and escape the “trap door” of dependency and “end game” of vulnerability that so frightens us. We have only to be still—free of striving—and emptied of the self-imposed burden that we are liberated by our beauty or charm, accomplishment or intellectual prowess, a nicely padded bank account, political power or military might. Our souls come home with humility and by grace.
Jesus’ words and prayer have thus been prophetically pointed, and unsettling. But now he extends his hand and his heart to us, his obstinate children in the much beloved scripture unique to Matthew’s gospel:
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.
A yoke is meant to join two plowing animals: one more experienced, and the other less so. By way of this relationship and partnership, the heavy load is made easier and possible to bear. For us, the arduous and lonely effort of illness and suffering, the great weight of uncertainty and weariness, and the millstone of sin, shame, and guilt, all becomes shared, connected, and held up with a power so much greater than our own.
The words that Jesus speaks—yoke, labor, counsel, and rest—are found in the mouth of Wisdom herself, in the book of Ecclesiasticus (51: 26-27 ), in which God’s Wisdom is personified as a female figure of great gentleness and strength, offering nourishment, shelter and instruction. Here again, Jesus identifies himself with the Wisdom of God in whom is revealed the fullness of life. Jesus offers respite for our weary bodies and souls—but he also wants us to learn from him and his counsel—take my yolk upon you and learn from me—that we grow in wisdom and receive what God has to give us.
In our becoming an “ox with Christ,” and undertaking the work of the kingdom with Christ, we are given and find new purpose and meaning. Each of our “puzzles” will be both different and the same. Each of us will work at our speed, and in our own way to put the pieces together and reveal the kingdom of God that comes in an array of sizes, shapes, and colors. Yet the bigger picture and greater design of the Holy One is also ever the same; that of mercy and grace and love; one love, then, now, and forever.