Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30, The Expected One Is Misunderstood

[July 6, 2014] Today’s Gospel text is taken from Matthew 11, following Jesus’ mission discourse in chapter 10 and the larger section, chapters 8—10, concerning the apostolate of Jesus and the church. In chapters 11—13 Matthew has composed a section that concerns people’s receptivity to the mission (the apostolate). It deals, thus, with both people’s reception and rejection of Jesus and the Gospel of Jesus.

A little clarification might help. The English word “mission” comes from the Latin noun missio which derives from the verb mittere, “to send.” The English word “apostolate” comes via Latin from the Greek verb apostellō, “to send off,” from which we get the word, “apostle.” When Jesus speaks of himself as having been sent, it is this word that is used. Now he sends us. Thus the word Mass derives from the missa (dismissal) at the end of the celebration of the Eucharist in which the congregation is sent off, but with time it has come to connote not just a dismissal but a being sent on purpose: to do the work of the apostolate (mission).

The word Gospel derives from the Old English gōdspel, or “good spell” in which “spell” meant story. The word in the Bible is euangelion, the good news (tidings or message). The good news or tidings is the story of the coming of Jesus (thus the four gospels), though not as a mere objective account of what happened but as an interpreted account so as to render the significance of this happening. It is this story that is heralded (in the rygma) and thus forms the content of apostolic preaching. When Jesus sends the apostles out with the message, “The kingdom of the heavens has drawn near” (Matthew 10:7; compare 3:2 and 4:17), this is an announcement of his coming, that is, the Gospel.

How is this announcement is received, whether by Jesus himself or by those whom he sends, is the content of chapters 11—13 (11:2—13:53). The section opens with the question brought to Jesus by the disciples of John the Baptist: “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to expect someone else?” John the Baptist was sent to announce his coming. John is in prison and is scandalized by the one whom he had identified as The One. If Jesus was the coming Judge, as John had preached, his work did not reflect this. And if the Anointed One was to release the prisoners (Isaiah 61:1), why was John still in prison?

Jesus validates John’s ministry but turns his attention to the people’s reception of both John and himself. “What comparison can I find for this generation? It is like children shouting to each other as they sit in the market place: ‘We played the pipes for you, and you wouldn’t dance; we sang dirges, and you wouldn’t be mourners.’ For John came, neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He is possessed.’ The Son of Man came, eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.’ Yet wisdom is justified by her deeds” (Matthew 16-19).

In other words, when John comes as a penitent, fasting for his own and the sins of the people (in the Hebrew Scriptures voluntary fasting is always associated with mourning over loss, often the loss of one’s own or other’s good standing with God on account of sin), the people, rather than comprehending, mock him as one who has a demon. (The original does not mean one whom the demon has or possesses; that kind of mistranslation creates a misunderstanding about demons.)

Jesus comes (after his forty days of intense fasting—and mourning?—in the wilderness) eating and drinking. People mock him as a glutton and drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners. Jesus does not carry out his mission with a long face. Instead he freely associates with all kinds of people, including the people who are marginalized by others, even becoming their friend (philos). Not only does he associate with the poor, but also with the outcast rich (tax collectors), and not only with the neglected pious, but with sinners, secular Jews, and even with the further outcast: those on the margins of society’s “morality”: with lesbians, gays, bisexuals, trans and gender-nonconforming people, and even with sex workers. It might have been said in mockery too that Jesus was their “friend,” someone who loved them, but this was also not only the puzzling and scandalous impression that Jesus has been giving, but the truth of the matter. It may be bold of me to say so, but I think Jesus owns this title, the “friend of tax collectors and sinners.”

Christians today have a horrible reputation for intolerance and even hatred for those who are not heterosexual or gender-conforming, but neither of these are moral categories as far as the way of Jesus is concerned. They are offensive to patriarchal society in which insecure and paranoid males dominate. And this indeed has been codified into the proscriptions of the historic church as they were proscribed by Jewish sensibilities before it. In the West, the church acculturated these proscriptive values from Roman society, and later from its contact with Islam during the Middle-Ages. They are not, however, the consequences of the revelation of Jesus Christ. Nor are they offensive to what the dogma of Christ—as borne witness to in the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments—reveals concerning creation. (Others disagree of course.)

In any case, Jesus’ coming is not what people expect. They in fact expect him, as Jesus says, to dance to their tunes. He does not, and so they are offended. We expect that when we read the gospels that we will find a Jesus who will approve of our values. Only, when what we expect is not what we find, we read into the text what we want to find. So in the United States people actually think Jesus approves of capitalism—which is astonishing in the extreme since Jesus actually preaches directly against the values of capitalism, not once or twice but often. We refuse to be offended or scandalized by Jesus, so we simply are in denial of what is there in the text and read into the text what is not there. It is quite amazing what we do. We abuse the gospels and think that Jesus is the mouthpiece of our own superegos.

How can Jesus get through to us?

In verses 20-24 Jesus laments that the towns which he has visited have still not repented. The miracles got people amazed and excited, but they produced no repentance.

Tyre and Sidon are idolatrous gentile cities that come under heavy condemnation in the Prophets; and Sodom, which God incinerated with fire because of their crimes, is a symbol of God’s condemnation in the Torah. After citing the cause of the Deluge in Romans 1:27 (see also Jude 6), Paul cites Sodom in verse 28 as an example of those “receiving back in themselves the reward which behooved their straying” (tēn antimisthian hēn edei tēs planes autōn en heautois apolambanontes; see also Jude 7).

Yet as bad as Tyre and Sidon and Sodom were, they would have repented if they had seen the miracles of Jesus. Thus it will be more bearable for them on Judgment Day than for Jesus’ actual audience. In other words, Jesus’ actual presence makes things worse for people if they refuse to open themselves up to who he in fact is and thus receive from him the gift of repentance to God.

Matthew 11:25—“At that time Jesus exclaimed, ‘I bless you Father, Lord of heaven and of earth, for hiding these things from the learned and the clever and revealing them to little children. Yes, Father, for that is what it pleased you to do. Everything has been entrusted to me by my Father; and no one knows the Father except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.’”

The word “bless” here is exomologeō and means to “acknowledge” and thus (as in this case) to “praise” someone. When Jesus addresses God as Father, as he always does, there is implied the Father’s goodness and love. To call God the “Lord of heaven and earth” is to acknowledge God as the pantokratōr—the ruler of all things—that we find in the first statement of the Nicene and Apostles’ Creeds (translated as Almighty).

In the Nicene Creed we say, “We believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all that is, seen and unseen.” As the creator of all that is, God is the Lord of all that is. Nothing escapes his lordship, and therefore his oversight and authority and power. As such, in the entire extent and reach and sway of his lordship, this one is always the Father. The loving and generous one.

In the context of Matthew 11:25 I am reminded of the words of Melchizedek (the king of Salem and priest of God the Most High) to Abram, having laid out before him bread and wine, “Blessed be Abram by God Most High, Creator of heaven and earth. And blessed be God Most High for putting your enemies into your clutches” (Genesis 14:19-20). The word translated here as “Creator” is from the LXX (Greek) translation of Genesis. The Hebrew has the qal participle of qanah, which means to buy or acquire, and thus an owner or redeemer. God is the Redeemer or Possessor of heaven and earth, and thus has title to all that is.

Just as the “Possessor of heaven and earth” has put Abram’s enemies into his clutches, so the Father, the Lord of heaven and earth, has entrusted everything to Jesus. The word translated “entrusted” (paradidōmi) means to hand over or to deliver up. Jesus is speaking of all that has happened to him. In this context he is referring to the people’s receptivity to him, their receiving or rejecting him. Jesus does not allow himself to get frustrated as if it were entirely up to the people themselves. He prays (if I may take a slight liberty), “I acknowledge (praise) you, Father (the one who is always good to me), for you are the Lord of heaven and earth and have hid these things from the learned and the clever. Instead you have revealed them to little children. Yes, Father, for that is what it pleased you to do.” Then he says, “Everything (all the people’s different reactions to me) has been handed over to me by my Father.”

The words “learned and clever” imply skill, good sense, and intellectual sophistication, among other things. The people who are responsive to Jesus are “little children,” not literally of course (though I’m not excluding them!), but the unsophisticated and simple. Since in the United States people often take pride in being anti-intellectual, it has to be stated that what Jesus is referring to is the proud versus the humble. It is pride that hardens the heart against the newness of (and what is new about) Jesus, regardless of one’s learning or lack thereof. Little children, after all, are not proud of being stupid!

It is not that these things (his rejection by the proud) are simply happening around Jesus and that he is a victim of it all. Nor is it that Jesus himself is responsible for all the people’s reaction to him—as if their reaction is either to his blame or credit. No, their reaction to him is because of the Lord of heaven and earth being Fatherly to Jesus. It is the Father’s generosity to Jesus that hides the reality of who he is from some people and reveals it to others. Nothing is happening to Jesus that does not reflect the Father’s goodness, even the rejection that he experiences. It pleases the Father’s generous and kind nature, not just the divine sovereignty that mysteriously orders things according to some obscure cosmic purpose.

This is probably incomprehensible to us except on a highly abstract level; at least it is to me. Nevertheless, this is what Jesus is saying: what he experiences, all the way to the cross, is the goodness of God. Not only is it the goodness of God, but it is the goodness of the Creator, the one who owns the heavens and the earth. Thus in all of this the creation itself is being good to Jesus, though it is the gift of the Father. The apostle Peter similarly calls it grace (graciousness) and grace with God (charis para theō(i)) when we are persecuted (1 Peter 2:19, 20). Perhaps this goodness of the body is what Francis of Assisi finally understood when he received the stigmata of Christ’s wounds.

Biblically, creation is continuous with history (with all that happens). Creation and history are bound together. Every event therefore is deserving of gratitude. In The Earlier Rule (X.3), Francis of Assisi wrote to sick brothers, “I beg the sick brother to thank God for everything and to desire to be whatever the Lord wills, whether sick or well, because God teaches all those He has destined for eternal life ‘by the torments of punishments,’ sicknesses, ‘and the spirit of sorrow,’ as the Lord says: Those whom I love, I correct and chastise.” This means that even the smallest details of our life, whatever comes to us, are a loving gift of God and can be effective towards the salvation of our souls.

In A Salutation of the Virtues (14-18), Francis greets “Holy Obedience,” saying “it is | subject and submissive | to everyone in the world, | not only to people | but to every beast and wild animal as well | that they may do whatever they want with it | insofar as it has been given to them | from above by the Lord.” In other words, we should graciously accept other people, creatures and events as coming from the Lord, because every creature can act only according to its freedom as permitted by God.

In A Letter to a Minister (2-7), Francis wrote, “You must consider as grace all that impedes you from loving the Lord God and whoever has become an impediment to you, whether brothers or others, even if they lay hands on you. And may you want it to be this way and not otherwise. And let this be for you the true obedience of the Lord God … And love those who do those things to you and do not wish anything different from them, unless it is something the Lord God shall have given you. And love them in this and do not wish that they be better Christians.” In other words, as Norbert Nguyên-Van-Khanh says in The Teacher of His Heart (1994, page 65-66), “History is the history of salvation, in which [Francis] sees an intrinsic relationship between the will of God the Creator and the course of events, between the action of God on the one hand, and that of people and nature on the other. Thus, we cannot obey the will of God without loving people and creatures in that inner and basic movement which constitutes their freedom. Everything that happens is grace … insofar as it is permitted by the Lord, and it must be received as such.”

Of course, this has to be qualified. It is from the believer’s own point of view that this is so. No harm need come to the disciple no matter what happens (compare Luke 21:16-19). They can rejoice. However, when creatures acts in order to harm others, real harm may follow to the others and certainly follows for themselves. There is no denying this: an injustice has been done and the impartial and impersonal judgment of God will result. Yet the disciple can see that even in this judgment God is being gracious to all and is coordinating all things towards the salvation of all.

People who “get it,” to whom the reality of Jesus is revealed, are those whom the Father has given to the Son (as in John 17:6), and to all whom the Father has given to the Son the Son chooses to reveal the Father (Matthew 11:27; see John 17:2). The revelation of the Son is by the gift of the Father to the Son, and the revelation of the Father is by the gift of the Son.

Only the Father knows the Son and only the Son knows the Father. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 3:10-11 that only the Spirit knows the things of God. Yet we have received the Spirit that we may participate in the Spirit’s knowledge of God. By coming to Jesus we participate in Jesus’ knowledge of the Father, and by coming to Jesus and receiving the Spirit, given by the Father, we participate in the Father’s knowledge of the Son. It is the gift of the Spirit that enables us to “recognize” the Son so that we can come to him. By the gift of the Spirit we participate in the life of the communion of the Trinity.

“No one knows the Son except the Father.” Yet the Father reveals the Son to individuals. In Matthew 16:17, after Peter acknowledges that Jesus is the Anointed One (the one who was to come), the Son of the living God, Jesus says, “Flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in the heavens.” Our knowledge of the Son is always a participation in the Father’s own knowledge. It is not something that we are capable of knowing on our own. It has to be revealed.

“Just as no one knows the Father except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.” People may have some sort of knowledge—objective, mystical, whatever—of God, but no one can know God as the Father because only the Son is the Son of the Father and thus can know the Father as such. Yet when we come to Jesus, he allows us to participate subjectively in his personal knowledge of his Father. Thus in the Gospel according to Matthew, Jesus always speaks to the disciples of “your Father.” This, however, is not something people can take for granted. It is a gift from Jesus by our being in that special relationship to him of disciple, having been called by him. That call—in which we intuitively “recognize” Jesus—is the gift of the Father by the working of the Holy Spirit upon and within us (in our lives and in our spirits).

This raises a difficulty for people because it brings up the specter of the Calvinist boogieman, that some people are not chosen by God, or in fact that God deliberately choses to hide the truth from them. Is that not what Jesus says in 11:25? If knowing the Father and the Son is a gift, then why is it given to some and not others, and especially, why does Jesus say that this knowledge is actually hidden from some people. (Like poor Pharaoh in Romans 9:17-18.) “This is what it pleased you [God] to do.” Does that not contradict the idea of the Father being good? Does it not also contradict the idea of people being responsible in their freedom for their unbelief?

First consider the motive and aim of Jesus’ prayer and the statement he makes in it. The terms of these statements are all temporal and respectful of the freedom of all creatures. Jesus is only saying that the gracious and good Lord of heaven and earth is coordinating all that happens—each in its turn, according to the freedom of each single thing—towards a single and final denouement, the manifestation of the revelation of Jesus Christ and the heading up of all things into him, and the glorification (divinization) of all created things with the glory of God. Everything that exists is in fact made this way, for this destiny, and eventually finds its freedom by a return to itself.

Jesus’ prayer consisted of verses 25-26. What follows in verses 27 is a very “Johannine” statement which Jesus makes out loud, perhaps for the disciples to hear, take note of and remember for a later time when it will make more sense to them.

The words that follow he addresses to the crowds, “the lost sheep of the House of Israel” who were “harassed and dejected” (Matthew 9:36; 10:6). Over the expanse of geography and centuries of cultural change he also addresses us: “Come to me, all you who labor and are overburdened, and I will give you rest. Shoulder my yoke and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls (Jeremiah 6:16). Yes, my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” When we come to Jesus and become his disciple, we shoulder the yoke that he is also wearing. The weight that we pull, he is pulling with us. Only, when we share his yoke, we are participating in him, in his relationship to the Father. His relationship to the Father, which is that which sustains him through the most difficult circumstances, is made over to become our relationship to the Father. And the God that he knows, in all his graciousness and goodness as Father, becomes what God is like to us and for us. God—whom Jesus calls, “my Father”—becomes to us “your Father who is in the heavens.” And this makes our yoke, the yoke of the relationship to Jesus of disciple, easy, and, because of this, his burden (obedience to the Father) become light.

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