The gospel lectionary reading for Trinity 5 in this Year A is another odd selection of verses, Matthew 11.16–19 and 25–30. It is yet one more occasion where we could really do with a lectionary commentary which explains the rationale for this choice. Although it might appear to be irritating, it actually illustrates a far more serious issue.
The passage as a whole comprises: Jesus rather taunting comparison of himself with John the Baptist, and the response to them both (Matt 11.16–19); Jesus condemnatory words to the towns that had not received him (Matt 11.20–24); and Jesus’ invitation to ‘rest’ and ‘take my yoke upon you’ (Matt 11.25–30). The lectionary cut out the middle section, so that instead of us hearing both the challenge and the comfort of Jesus’ teaching, we are focussed on the comfort only. Is it any wonder, then, that so many find it easy to make Jesus in their own image, as one who offers words of solace only without confronting us with the challenge and consequences of decision?
This is a good reason for taking the lectionary as guidance only, and reading the whole text from v 16 to v 30—though if we do, we will find it is jam-packed with theological and pastoral ideas and challenges.
We saw in our previous reading that chapter 10 was one of the five blocks of Jesus’ teaching organised by Matthew, ending with his summary formula in Matt 11.1 ‘When Jesus had finished instructing…’ So we might expect that the following chapters focus on the dynamic of Jesus’ own ministry and response to it. Yet my red-letter text shows that most of chapter 11 consists of Jesus’ speaking, though plenty of reference is made to the nature of his ministry.
The sections leading up to our reading include some fascinating insights into the dynamic of Jesus’ ministry and how it has been interpreted. John the Baptist has been told, whilst imprisoned by Herod Antipas, about Jesus’ ministry—and yet he is either puzzled or disappointed by it. This demonstrates that Jesus has been understood to be making significant claims about who he is—’are you the One who was to come?’—and yet he has not fulfilled such hopes in the way many Jews expected, not least in failing to be a political and military leader who would both reform and liberate the nation. It is no trivial matter that people might find Jesus a ‘stumbling block’ (skandalon, from the verb in Matt 11.6 skandalizo) because he does not fulfil their expectations in the way they want him too.
Jesus’ comment to the crowds about John includes strong allusions to John’s own criticisms of Herod Antipas.The metaphor of a ‘reed swaying in the wind’ is a natural metaphor to use, since reeds would grow in the marshy banks of the Jordan, and John’s uncompromising message of repentance and judgement contrasted starkly with reeds flexing and giving way to each changing breeze—and the reed was a symbol of Herod, included on his coins. The language of ‘soft’ clothing uses the adjective malakos which we also find in 1 Cor 6.9; it suggests not just softness to the touch of clothing, but moral indulgence and compromise, with overtones of sexual immorality. The supreme irony here is that John sits in the dungeon beneath a palace where (morally) soft men wear (physically) soft clothing, whilst John contrasts in both his character and his attire.
By quoting Mal 3.1 in Matt 11.10, Jesus not only makes Christological claims about himself (since the messenger is preparing the way for God to visit his people), but also about John the Baptist as the harbinger of the turning of the ages. This is confirmed by his theological description of John as ‘Elijah’ (note that the apparent contradiction in John 1.21–23 is precisely about this sense of wrong expectations) and the remarkable comment that anyone in the kingdom is ‘greater’ than John, since they are now citizens of the new age to come, which at the time John was not.
Because of this context, our lectionary reading rather strangely begins with a ‘But…’! The reason for this is the change of focus: we have heard about John’s evaluation of Jesus; then Jesus’ evaluation of John; now we turn to Jesus evaluation of the people’s response to both.
The language of ‘compare’ (the verb homoioo and the noun homoios) are Matthew’s characteristic way of recording Jesus introducing parables. There is no need to identify specific elements of the short parabolic scene with specific referents; the whole tenor of the story makes the point. The dancing and mourning referred to would be well known in context. At weddings in Second Temple Judaism, it was the role of men to dance, and at funerals it was the role of women to lead the mourning. Some have therefore taken the pair of sayings as each group criticising the other—but this is not necessary for the sense of what Jesus is saying.
‘This generation’ is also characteristic language of Jesus, usually used in the context of rebuke or judgement, to refer to Jesus’ contemporaries and their lack of response to his message. Note that it is use in the way we would use the English term, and cannot mean ‘a people’ or ‘a race’ (ie the Jewish people), so that Matt 24.34 is indeed a temporal reference to the immediacy of the events that will come, and not a prediction about the Jewish people.
The pattern in the mini-parable, of the invitation both to rejoice and to mourn, occurs all through the gospels. The tension between the two has been explored in chapter 9, where Jesus responds to criticism by followers of John the Baptist about his lack of fasting. Jesus replies using the language of the (eschatological) bridegroom (whom we meet again in the parable of the virgins in Matt 25), giving a theological basis in the tension of living both in this (old, passing) age and the age to come. This is central idea in Christian theology, and accounts for why we find this life a mix of joy and woe, victory and suffering. Jesus is the one who brings in the new age to come, but it is not yet fully realised. Thus John’s ministry (of asceticism and the proclamation of judgement) will always have a place alongside the ministry of Jesus (of blessing and the proclamation of hope).
Ironically, this juxtaposition of the two is reflected in the shape of the passage as constructed by Matthew (note the quite different composition following the parallel in Luke 7.31–35), putting Jesus’ oracle of judgement over the cities alongside his invitation to the weary—and is completely undone by the lectionary selection of verses!
The final saying in this section seems quite unexpected, and rather enigmatic, though it uses typically Matthean language. It is going too far to suggest that Jesus is identifying himself with incarnate Wisdom from the tradition of the wisdom literature (especially the personification of wisdom in Proverbs 8). The language of ‘justify’ or ‘proved right’ has a practical sense in Matthew, in contrast to its use in Paul, and runs parallel with Matthew’s distinctive seven-fold mention of ‘righteousness’ (the cognate dikaiosune) in Matt 3.15, 5.6, 5.10, 5.20, 6.1, 6.33 and 21.32. The demonstration of wisdom is in what it produces—for Matthew, right actions (‘deeds’), and in Luke’s parallel ‘her children’. Even without getting our theology right, where we stand is demonstrated by our response to the ministries of both John and Jesus.
‘Then he began…’ indicates a change of focus, and we can see Matthew’s compositional hand at work here, putting together aspects of Jesus’ teaching that fit. Matthew uses the term ‘city’ for anything from the small and insignificant village of Nazareth to Jerusalem itself, and here it refers to settlements in between; archaeological remains indicate that Chorazin, Bethsaida, and Capernaum were significant settlements in the first century, though nothing in comparison with the major Greek cities in the region. As is typical, Jesus here speaks in a pair of parallels, addressing Chorazin and Bethsaida first, and Capernaum second. It might seem odd to hear Jesus’ denunciation, since Matthew has emphasised the widespread response to Jesus in Galilee in the earlier chapters—but we should perhaps infer that the large crowds were nonetheless not the majority.
The first two are mentioned nowhere else in this gospel, but Chorazin is a day’s walk from Jesus’ ministry base in Capernaum, and Matthew has included general statements about Jesus’ ministry in the area, so we should not be surprised by its mention. Bethsaida is just across the Jordan to the east, and so outside Jewish territory, and thus is part of the counter-note of ministry to the Gentiles included alongside the main theme of ministry to Israel in Matthew. It is mention in both Mark and Luke, and John 1.44 and 12.21 tell us that Peter, Andrew, and Philip hail from there.
Tyre and Sidon were the proverbial enemies of Israel, the leading cities of Phoenicia on the coast to the north and west of Israel. They were subject to judgement oracles, particularly in Is 23 and Ezek 26–27, and the language of Ezekiel is redeployed in the Book of Revelation in the judgement oracles (often including ‘woe’) against ‘Babylon’. It is striking that the indifference to the ministry of Jesus is judged more severely than outright rejection, which could be reversed by a response of repentance.
The language against Capernaum is even more dramatic, with Matt 11.23 a striking parallel to Isaiah’s denunciation of the king of Babylon in Is 14.13. Sodom was of course a by-word for immorality and rebellion in the OT, and unlike Tyre and Sidon experienced permanent destruction. All this language does not sit well with a construal of ‘gentle Jesus, meek and mild’—which make the transition to our final section all the more startling.
‘At that time’ is another general reference, indicating once more a change in focus, and points again to Matthew bringing together thematically related teaching. This final section is in three parts, the first addressed to God and paralleled in Luke 10.21–22 where it also closely follows the judgement woes, the second as a general declaration, also paralleled in Luke, and the third addressed to his audience, unique to Matthew.
The very Jewish tone of Jesus’ language here is shown by the use of exomologeo, elsewhere referring to confession of sins, but here paralleling its use in the Greek OT (the Septuagint, LXX) where it translates the Hebrew yada to ‘declare’ the praises of God. Jesus’ use of the term ‘Father’ to describe God is not without precedent in the OT and Second Temple Judaism, where God is the father of Israel. But as a direct term of address it is unprecedented—yet clearly distinctively characteristic of Jesus, as shown by the preservation of the Aramaic term in Mark 14.36, Romans 8.15 and Galatians 4.6. What is striking here is the juxtaposition of this term of intimacy and knowledge with the phrase ‘Lord of heaven and earth’, again language not unknown in the OT but unique here in the whole NT.
The familial tone of the simple “Father” in combination with the reverential “Lord of heaven and earth” provides a telling insight into the nature of prayer for Jesus. (R T France, NICNT, p 444)
The language of God ‘hiding’ these things does not suggest some sort of arbitrary determination by God of who is saved and who is not, but continues the very Jewish register of this language by attributing all actions to God without reference to any intermediary mechanisms. Jesus has made it plain the previous verses that human volition plays a key part in response to the gospel—but those who are ‘wise and understanding’ in human terms (compare 1 Cor 1.26) are precisely those who are closed or indifferent to their need of the gospel. It is the disciples as ‘little children’, those who are completely dependent, and know their need of God, who are open to the revelation that Jesus brings. The sentiment here echoes closely the language of the Beatitudes in Matt 5. The gift of life and truth being given simply on the basis of whoever is open to receive it, rather than on the basis of any perceived or actual merit, is the ‘Father’s gracious and good will’.
In verse 27, we encounter what has often been called ‘the Johannine bolt from the Synoptic blue’, in that the language of the exclusive mutual knowledge between Father and Son seems very Johannine, being the closest in the Synoptics to the statement of Jesus in John 14.6: ‘I am the way, the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father except through me.’ Yet this phrase makes the mistake of supposing that the different narrative form of the Fourth Gospel should be interpreted as indicating theological distance. Matthew records Jesus describing God as ‘Father’ 55 times, and the giving of ‘all things’ to Jesus by the Father anticipates Jesus post-resurrection claim in Matt 28.18.
The invitation continues this theme. Though rest is the gift of God in creation, God now gives this gift in and through Jesus (Heb 4), and so if we want to know the rest of the Father we must come to the Son. The language of ‘to me’, toil, yoke, rest, find and soul are all precise echoes of the invitation of Wisdom in Ben Sirach (Ecclesiasticus) 51.23–27. The difference, though, is that where Ben Sirach is pointing people to the Wisdom of God, Jesus is now inviting people to himself, and thus (here, if not earlier) is claiming identification with Wisdom itself.
There are two main ways to interpret the language of ‘yoke’. Often in the OT, a yoke is a symbol of an unwanted burden, often imposed by others, from which we seek liberation, and so might reference the trials and tribulations of life. However, a contrasting sense is that of the yoke of the Torah, which is taken on when Jews become ‘sons of the commands’, bar mitzvah. It is common in popular preaching to take the image of the yoke from that of animals, where two are harnessed together, so that we are ‘yoked’ with Jesus. But the language does not suggest that, but instead a human yoke, where the work (such as carrying loaded buckets) which is necessary, but difficult on its own, is actually made possible and easier with the use of a yoke.
That this positive view is in mind is confirmed by the immediate association of the yoke with ‘learning’ (as with the Torah), using the verb manthano which is cognate with mathetes, ‘disciple’. To follow Jesus is to take on the yoke of learning from Jesus the master Teacher, so that we can bear the burdens of life and faithfulness with ease.
It is not the removal of any yolk but a new and “kind” yoke which makes the burdens “light”. A “yoke” implies obedience, indeed often slavery (Gal 5.1, 1 Tim 6.1); what makes the difference is what sort of master one is serving. So the beneficial effect of Jesus’ yoke arises from the character of the one who offers it. (R T France, NICNT, pp 449–450)
Because Jesus is ‘kind’, his yoke is also ‘kind’; it is frustrating to see so many English translations wrongly suggest that Jesus’ yoke is ‘easy’ when he has already made clear that the road to life is ‘hard’ (Matt 7.14). That Jesus is kind draws on a pun made explicit in 1 Peter 2.3 and used extensively by early Christian apologists: the Christos is ‘chrestos’ and if (as is now supposed) the iota and eta in the two words was pronounced the same (as in modern Greek) the two terms would be indistinguishable in speech.
The paradox of a yoke giving rest and service of Jesus giving us freedom and life is neatly captured by Cranmer’s Prayer for Peace, adapting language of Augustine:
O God, who art the author of peace and lover of concord, in knowledge of whom standeth our eternal life, whose service is perfect freedom: Defend us thy humble servants in all assaults of our enemies; that we, surely trusting in thy defence, may not fear the power of any adversaries…
And the theme through the whole reading is that of paradox, of both the nature of the communities and receive and reject Jesus, and the nature of his own humble authority.
Jesus himself represents that same paradoxical value-scale: his character as “meek and lowly in heart” reflects the values of the beatitudes in Matthew 5.3–10, and his “yoke” (traditionally a symbol of oppressive power) is in fact “kind” and a source not of misery but of “rest” for those who submit to his benign control. (France, NICNT, p 441).