Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30
16 “To what will I compare this generation? It is like a child sitting in the marketplaces calling out to others, 17 ‘We played the flute for you and you didn’t dance. We sang a funeral song and you didn’t mourn.’ 18 For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon.’ 19 Yet the Human One came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunk, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.’ But wisdom is proved to be right by her works.”
25 At that time Jesus said, “I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you’ve hidden these things from the wise and intelligent and have shown them to babies. 26 Indeed, Father, this brings you happiness.
27 “My Father has handed all things over to me. No one knows the Son except the Father. And nobody knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son wants to reveal him.
28 “Come to me, all you who are struggling hard and carrying heavy loads, and I will give you rest. 29 Put on my yoke, and learn from me. I’m gentle and humble. And you will find rest for yourselves. 30 My yoke is easy to bear, and my burden is light.” (CEB)
I was a little skeptical. Okay, I was incredibly skeptical. When my wife told me about the ballroom dance lessons she wanted us to take at Miami University of Ohio, I was skeptical. I thought I would make a fool of myself. I thought it would be a waste of time and money. But she really wanted to learn to dance, and she wanted to learn to dance with me. So, I agreed. We learned East Coast Swing and Waltz. For a guy who can’t even do the Macarena correctly (and there’s video proof of that online), I had more fun with Ballroom Dance than I can adequately describe. We had so much fun that we took another class when the teacher offered one in Rumba, Salsa, and Mambo. We loved it! And to think that I almost refused to join in the dance.
Jesus uses a simile to describe his own generation of Jews. Children would often play in the marketplace when their parents were shopping for goods. Sometimes, those children would pretend that they were participating in a wedding or funeral procession. This may seem odd to us, but it’s no stranger than my children pretending Mom and Dad are bad guys and pretending to spy on us and attack us with plastic light sabers. Wedding processions were elaborate community-wide events with music, dancing, and all-around celebration. Likewise, funeral processions were large events, where professional wailers would be hired in order to get the crowd into a mournful disposition. So, children would play and pretend they were flute players, or professional wailers.
Part of the game might even be to get some of the adults to play along by dancing to their pretend flute playing, or pretending to mourn with their wails. If no adults joined in the make-believe fun, the children might call out to them, “We played the flute and you did not dance,” or “We wailed and you did not mourn.” Sometimes we adults forget how to have fun. You can imagine Jesus teaching in a marketplace and watching the children play these games. Then, using the image as a lesson. Jesus’ simile describes “this generation” as the adults who refuse to join in on the children’s games.
This text marks a rather dark time in Jesus’ ministry. John the Baptist has been thrown into prison, and the people of three prosperous cities, Chorazin, Bethsaida, and Capernaum, have not listened to his teachings. People didn’t seem to be catching on to the message that the Kingdom of Heaven was coming near. It’s kind of the opposite of that “The Far Side” cartoon, in which two demons are watching a guy walk by them, joyfully pushing a wheelbarrow through the fires of hell while whistling a happy tune, and one demon says to the other: “We just aren’t getting through to that guy.” People weren’t getting this whole Kingdom of Heaven thing. They were refusing to join in the games.
John the Baptist and Jesus both came to proclaim the Kingdom of Heaven, but they did it in different ways. John was a wailer. He was an ascetic, and cried out for people to repent, to be mournful for their sins. John came “neither eating nor drinking,” but this generation refused to repent and mourn. They derided him and said, “He has a demon.”
Jesus, on the other hand, was a flute player. He came with joy to share the good news of the Kingdom of Heaven, and compassionately ministered to the people who would be his future bride as the Church (Revelation 21:2 & 21:9). His was the wedding procession. He came with merriment, eating and drinking with all sorts of people: Pharisees, sinners, and tax collectors alike. But “this generation” would not dance. They scoffed at him, saying, “Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!”
The people did not accept John or Jesus. They managed to make an excuse by finding a fault in how they dressed, the food they ate, or the people with whom they associated. It isn’t that “this generation” did not want to be redeemed. They all expected that the Messiah would come. But neither John nor Jesus measured up to their expectations of what the Messiah ought to be.
Jesus knew that this was the issue, so he told them a proverb, “Yet, wisdom is vindicated by her course of action” (Matthew 11:19c, my trans). In other words, the proof is in the pudding. The truth of John and Jesus’ proclamation of the Kingdom of Heaven is in the action: what is happening in the world through Jesus. Just as Jesus told John in the first verses of chapter 11, “the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me” (Matthew 11:4 NRSV). Jesus is saying to the people, sit out the dance if you want to, but this is the right music to kick up your heels and dance.
Jesus then offers a prayer of thanksgiving to the Father. The theology of this passage is rather complicated. At its heart is the deep, mutual, and intimate sharing of everything between Jesus and the Father. No human being knows with all completeness who Jesus is. For, “no one knows the Son except the Father” (Matthew 11:27 NRSV). God the Father is only fully known by the Son, yet the Father wants to be known by all people. This is the mission of Jesus. It is the Son who has come to reveal God to us in all fullness by proclaiming the Kingdom of Heaven and what that kingdom looks like. Jesus taught us the values of that kingdom, which are God’s values.
Jesus’ statement, “and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him” may sound as if Jesus has a secret knowledge about God, and makes independent decisions about choosing which people he will let in on the secret. But this is not the case. God the Son and God the Father are joined together in so intimate a relationship that a decision of the Son is an expression of the Father’s will. In the same way, the will of the Father is incarnate, enfleshed, embodied, in the life of the Son. This is a model for how we are supposed to live. We’re to be so intimately joined with Christ that the will of God is expressed in our very words and actions.
For us, there’s also a clash between the ancient and modern ideas of logic and philosophy. People back then thought differently than we do. Even today, people in the East think differently than we in the West. We would think that if God wants to be known, then why does he hide “these things from the wise and intelligent?” We would think that if God wants to be known by everyone, he would reveal himself to the wise and intelligent. And if God has “hidden” these things from some people, how can they be blamed for rejecting Jesus? While we tend to pit human freedom and God’s sovereignty against each other, Matthew and his contemporaries believed both that people were free and responsible, and that God is in complete control of human history.
The fact is, Jesus had revealed the truth to the wise as well as the lowly. While the common masses tended to accept Jesus because of his actions and teaching, the wise thought that, no matter what Jesus did or taught, he did not fit the Messianic paradigms they had gleaned from Scripture. Or, at least, their interpretation of Scripture. The Glad Tidings of Jesus Christ are proclaimed openly to all, but there will always be people who refuse to accept the Kingdom of Heaven. There will always be people who refuse to dance. And sometimes, it’s us religious folk who already have our ideas nailed down with our hats hung on them. So when Jesus tells us he’s got a new dance move, we are liable to cross our arms and say, That’s not how I learned to dance.
Jesus then appeals to the weary and burdened to come and find rest in him. However, what Jesus offers is not a hammock on the beach. It’s a yoke. In Judaism, the yoke was a symbol of obedience to the law and wisdom of God. Rabbis often spoke of the “Yoke of the Law of Moses.” The Law was a yoke which the Jews gladly bore because obedience to the Law meant obedience to God. Likewise, Jesus’ yoke is obedience to his commandments: a willingness to serve others with humility and mercy, to love your enemies and pray for them, to deny yourself, to seek good for others. This is what the Kingdom of Heaven looks like.
Jesus’ yoke is easy and his burden is light not because there is little to do or because the way is safely paved. On the contrary, there is a cross to bear, and the world is full of wolves. The yoke of Jesus is easy and his burden is light because God is with us along the way. Obedience to the commandments of Jesus means obedience to God. When we follow the way of God we find that it is profoundly satisfying to our souls. Jesus’ yoke is more demanding, but it is much more rewarding because it is the work of the Kingdom. It feels good to be nice to people and take care of others. Have you ever noticed how infectious something as simple as a smile or a kind word can be?
Of course, scowls and meanness are infectious, too, but the way to overcome those things is by loving others with the love of Jesus Christ.
Jesus came into the world in order to reveal God to all people. He came, not so that we could refuse to mourn our sins or refuse to dance for joy at God’s salvation. Jesus came so that we could join in with the children’s game and share the Good News of Jesus Christ with others. Jesus came to proclaim that the Kingdom of Heaven has come near.
“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.” Jesus calls us to dance with him in the joyous Good News of the Kingdom of Heaven. Don’t make excuses as the generation of Jesus’ day did—and as it is often our very nature to do. “The blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them” and we are invited to participate in the Kingdom, take the yoke of Jesus, and dance!
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!