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)
Yokes and Burdens
Back in 2005 or 2006, my wife was convinced that we needed to take ballroom dance lessons together. I don’t recall that I was as convinced as she was, but I agreed to give it a go. So, she signed us up through Miami University of Ohio, and we drove over to Oxford for our dance lessons. The dances we would learn in this beginner class were swing, waltz, and rumba.
I remember that one of the first things our instructor said after arranging us all in our starting positions is that men always start the dance with their left foot. Women always start the dance with the opposite foot. Which of course means that, even when it comes to dancing, women are always right.
In those early lessons, we were only concerned with counting the beats of the music, in various ways, and trying to keep our steps and movements coordinated. For waltz, it was one-two-three, one-two-three. For East Coast Swing, it was step-step-rockstep, step-step-rockstep. Rumba was similar to waltz, with three steps but four beats, so it was slow, quick-quick slow quick-quick. It wasn’t always easy. In those first classes, I had plenty of missteps.
But, by the end of the class, when we had a big dance party as our final exam, we didn’t have to count the beat out, or pay attention to where our feet were at each moment. By then, I was comfortable with myself and confident enough that Joy and I could simply lose ourselves in the music and dance.
John the Baptizer and Jesus of Nazareth were both, sent from God, yet they danced, so to speak, to very different tunes. Even within first century Judaism, John would have been considered old-school. John was the prophet who survived on a diet of insects and wild honey in the wide-open wilderness. John chose to wear clothes of camel’s hair and a leather belt, which would have been scratchy and uncomfortable. John could be rather scathing in his address to those who came to hear him preach, even calling Pharisees and Sadducees “children of snakes.” His message was often one of God’s judgment and wrath: “The axe is already at the root of the trees. Therefore, every tree that doesn’t produce good fruit will be chopped down and tossed into the fire” (Matthew 3:10 CEB). John’s signature sermon in Matthew 3 was about angry judgment, changing our hearts and lives, producing good fruit—sifting, gathering, and burning with fire that can’t be put out.
Jesus, on the other hand, was the teacher who dined at many tables—some fine, some ordinary—with all manner of company—some with upstanding reputations, some with reputations that no one in this room would want. Jesus was the one who used his divine power to produce 80 or so gallons of particularly fine wine so the festivities at a wedding could continue (c.f. John 2:1-11). Jesus began his signature sermon in Matthew 5 with a congratulatory tone by saying, “Happy are people who….”
Jesus, himself, recognized how different he and John were, yet also how alike they were in rejection. Those who rejected John and Jesus are compared to children in a market place who keep changing the rules of their game, or changing the tune of their song, then complaining that the John and Jesus weren’t dancing the way they wanted them to dance.
John, in all of his stern severity, wouldn’t lighten up and dance to the children’s flute. They thought John was a little too demanding; a lot too hellfire and brimstone for their taste. They tried to change John’s tune to something with a little more pep to it. But stubborn old-school John refused to pretend everything was okay: as if God won’t judge us by the fruit our lives have produced. So, those who were offended by John dismissed him by saying he had a demon.
Jesus came eating, drinking, and celebrating; essentially dancing to the very tune the people wanted John to dance to. But they thought Jesus’ message of God’s love and God’s acceptance of people who were clearly beyond salvation was unreasonable. Jesus, in his excessive inclusiveness, refused to mourn when the children tried to change his tune to something a little more palatable. Nothing tones down exuberance like a funeral dirge. They insisted the dance must cease, that Jesus must fall in line with their music.
It’s like that scene in the movie, Strictly Ballroom, when Dance Federation President Barry Fife responds to rumors of new dance moves by declaring, “There are no new steps.” All dance moves had to meet the established guidelines, and anything else would earn a quick disqualification. But Jesus came to lead us in a party dance like we’ve never imagined in celebration of God’s extravagant salvation. Jesus danced new steps to an ancient music. Yet, Jesus was a little much in some people’s opinion. Too irrational. Too out of step with how the world really is. So, those who were offended by Jesus dismissed him by calling him a glutton and a drunkard.
In a tone similar to John’s demand that his hearers produce fruit that shows they’ve changed their hearts and lives (c.f. Matthew 3:8), Jesus says that wisdom is proved to be right her works. Our deeds, our speech, our actions in life matter. That’s not always comfortable to hear. It’s much easier to digest the idea that if we only believe certain things, or ascent to certain ideologies, or—in the case of some of John and Jesus’ detractors—claim a certain genealogy. That God would demand real change in our thoughts about others and our behavior toward others is… well, that will actually take some work.
The prayer of Jesus beginning in verse 25 reminds us that Jesus is the full revelation of God. It also suggests something odd about the way God does things. Sometimes it’s the infants of the world, those deprived of power, the innocent hearts and naïve souls who somehow understand the ways of God better than the wise, learned, and powerful. God always stands unconditionally on the side of the lowly.
This is a truth which Mary, the mother of Jesus, knew to the depths of her soul, though she was not one of the educated, pillars of wisdom in Nazareth. Yet, she was able to sing the deepest truth about God, “He shows mercy to everyone, from one generation to the next, who honors him as God. He has shown strength with his arm. He has scattered those with arrogant thoughts and proud inclinations. He has pulled the powerful down from their thrones and lifted up the lowly. He has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty-handed “ (Luke 1:50-53 CEB).
Maybe God works this way because the lowly and the have-nots already understand something about humility. Maybe it’s the worldview of the powerful and the haves that runs contrary to the tune God sang at the founding of creation. Maybe the teaching of Jesus enables us to see the way things really are: that the world really was crafted with love as its first ingredient and forgiveness as both an expression and proof of that love.
There’s also something paradoxical in the yoke and burden Jesus mentions. A yoke implies work. Animals are yoked so the plow driver can keep them on a straight line and ensure the furrows don’t wander all over the place. So, how can Jesus claim that his work is easy, especially after preaching the incredibly difficult lessons in the Sermon on the Mount? Jesus even said, “…the gate that leads to life is narrow and the road difficult, so few people find it” (Matthew 7:14 CEB).
Becoming a disciple of Jesus begins in at least as much discomfort as learning to dance to the music that is played. The teachings of Jesus are difficult. Anyone who thinks the teachings of Jesus aren’t difficult obviously hasn’t bothered to read what Jesus taught. His teachings run counter to what our culture declares.
Nothing of what Jesus teaches comes to us naturally. Jesus taught that we should love our enemies. See how popular that turns out when your homeland has been occupied and annexed by an empire. It’s not natural. We have to learn. We have to work at those lessons, which always require us to change something within ourselves. Repentance—changing our heart and mind—is difficult work. Forgiving those who have hurt and wronged us is hard work. Loving people we’ve been taught our whole lives to despise is challenging work.
C.S. Lewis wrote, “Of course, I quite agree that the Christian religion is, in the long run, a thing of unspeakable comfort. But it does not begin in comfort; it begins in the dismay I have been describing, and it is no use at all trying to go on to that comfort without first going through that dismay” (Mere Christianity, Touchstone: New York, NY, p39).
Learning the ways of God begins as a burden that, quite surprisingly, morphs into the gift of rest and comfort. The more we work at it, the lighter the burden feels until it no longer feels like a burden at all. Eventually, it feels less like work and more like the way this world ought to work.
It’s kind of like learning to dance. The more you work at it, the easier it comes. Before long, you can recognize what dance goes with what song, even within the first few notes of the music. You learn that can’t waltz to Benny Goodman’s Sing Sing Sing (with A Swing), or swing to John Altman’s Under The Bridges of Paris. It takes practice but, eventually, you’re able to simply lose yourself in the music and join in the dance. What began with difficulty becomes a part of you, and you a part of it.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!
Rev. Christopher Millay