3 July 2011/Pentecost 3- Zechariah 9:9-12/Matthew 11:16-19,25-30/Song of My Beloved
The Reverend Kirk Alan Kubicek, Mount Calvary Episcopal Church, Baltimore
There is quite a bit missing in our Gospel selection for the day. One should always be suspicious of the editors, and in this case it does render the reading somewhat mysterious and unintelligible. Chapter 11 verses 1-15 form a critical transition in Matthew’s proclamation of the Good News. In the previous chapter he has just commissioned the 12 disciples and given them instructions to shape their ministries. Suddenly a question comes to Jesus from John the Baptizer: Are you the One?
This signals both opposition which is mounting against Jesus, and confusion among those who would be his most ardent supporters. John and his disciples are looking for a military king after the mold of say David, someone who would once and for all remove the yoke of Rome. (One has to admit this has a curious sort of resonance for us in this chapel this morning!) From his prison cell, John is not receiving any reports of Jesus mounting a revolt and questions whether this is really the messiah he was expecting and announcing.
Jesus gives a quite simple reply – tell John what you have seen and heard: “the blind regain their sight, the lame walk again, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have the good news proclaimed to them. And blessed is the one who takes no offense at me.”
Then, so as not to appear to be putting John in a bad light, Jesus offers extensive testimony concluding that John is the greatest of all prophets in the mold of Elijah!
Then Jesus goes to work on “this generation.” As the Jesuit scholar Brendan Byrne in his commentary on Matthew makes clear – we are to understand that in Matthew we are “this generation.” That is, we are to read, reflect and react to the narrative as addressing us directly. As Byrne puts it, we are not to go back to Jesus to discover some meaning in the past, but rather we are to go forward with Jesus here and now. Matthew addresses a church community that was in terrific turmoil and change – the very place we find ourselves today.
So as Jesus addresses us he likens us to children in the marketplace. Where do we spend more time these days? In the church community and its various ministries? Or, in the marketplace, to which we are directed by a never ending stream of invitation called advertising, which has recently taken a page from the Gospels and become more and more narrative every day. How many commercials begin with a storyline begging you to imagine, “What are they selling with this story?” To give it all more impact, the story lines are accompanied by nostalgic music.
Jesus appeals to music – the flute and wailing. The flute represents the approach of Jesus inviting all persons of all kinds to sit at the dinner table. This includes all the persons traditionally considered “unclean” and “unacceptable” to the majority of society. That might include women, those with seemingly incurable diseases, those whose social customs seem outside the norm, slaves, and so on. For his mission to include everyone Jesus is accused of being a glutton and a drunkard! Yet, his approach to “religion” is to bring people together, not set them apart from one another.
As to the wailing, or keening as it is known in some circles, this represents those people in many ancient and contemporary societies (think New Orleans) who make up a class of vocational wailers for funerals. These “wailers” serve an important function in letting the community know that there is cause for mourning – that someone within the community is suffering loss. John calls society to mourn the fact that we have lost our way, that we have gone astray from God’s way and that this is serious business. He is declared a demon for being the messenger.
Then take careful note: Jesus likens himself to Wisdom – who throughout scripture is depicted as a woman! Make of that what you will. The wisdom of his ministry, he says, will show forth in the deeds themselves. And we need John's wailing to hold our feet to the fire, and Jesus' radical hospitality to extend our love for God to others - all others.
Then another chunk of text is missing – a discussion of towns that have rejected his ministry, including his base of operations, Capernaum –saying that for those who side with the ruling majority against his ministry of inclusion, it will be a dark day indeed, worse than it was for Sodom (who paid the penalty for wicked-poor hospitality to strangers, not for sexual deviancy!).
Finally comes the metaphor of the yoke. A yoke both constrains one to a certain task or discipline, while at the same time makes the task easier by sharing the load with another. A yoke both restrains and enables, it is both burden and possibility.
Throughout Matthew, Jesus has called the disciples of his, his followers, you and me, to a higher standard than that of the Pharisees and Scribes who were the professional and accepted interpreters of God’s law, God’s Torah, God’s Way, and God’s Covenant. Their interpretation was leading to divisions within the community and against all strangers, especially resident aliens (think here of the Dream Act). Jesus ups the ante, and at the same time asserts that the more people of all kinds we let sit at the dinner table, the easier it all will be since we can then share the load among more and more people. My yoke is easy.
And since the “load,” if you will, is what God wills for all people and for all the earth, then it appears that John is right in calling society to task, and Jesus is right to let anyone – any one – sit at the table. And that this, not military might, will be the only way to escape the yoke of Rome – representing “The Empire”, which in biblical terms is Pharaoh’s Egypt where we are all slaves to the dominant culture. The irony is that the Church later became the empire.
The question for the church, which is the question for all of us: are we willing to change yokes? The irony may be that in becoming less and less a majority people within the empire we may become more and more the church community Jesus and John call us to become. Amen.