Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30
Jesus said, “But to what will I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to one another, ‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn.’ For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon’; 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 vindicated by her deeds.”
At that time Jesus said, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will. All things have been handed over to me by my Father; and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him. “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. 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. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”
When you’re reading written words, it’s important to try to get underneath them – to get a sense for the actual emotion and intention behind them, to hear the emotional rhythm in the words, to really understand them – whether it’s a text message, an email, a Facebook post, a letter in the mail – and especially when it’s a passage of scripture.
When I try to hear and feel those rhythms in today’s gospel text, in Jesus’ words, it’s pretty clear that he’s upset as these words start out. He’s tired, fed up, frustrated, done with trying to break through to the people he’s talking to, and getting them to understand the kingdom of God. In his frustration, Jesus makes that comment – “We played the flute for you, and you wouldn’t dance; we wailed and you didn’t mourn.” He explains what he means by saying the John the Baptist came, trying to get them to see the truths of the kingdom of God while being stern, and austere, and separating himself out away from the people; and the respected people all discounted his message – saying he was too dour and rigid; his attitude was unconstructive; he needed to lighten up so more people would listen to him. But then Jesus arrived and tried a different approach to get them to open their eyes and understand. He was, for the most part, congenial, pleasant, always mixing with people in the synagogues and streets and weddings and out and about in public, laughing, eating, drinking. And despite what they’d said about John, the respected people rejected Jesus, too – saying he was too loose, not serious enough, too flippant, and his message wasn’t taken seriously because of the disreputable people he hung out with.
And in this passage, I think Jesus had just had it with them, and in a state of exasperation he was saying “there’s just no satisfying you people” – that their rejection of the message of the kingdom of God obviously didn’t have anything to do with the delivery method; they just didn’t want to hear and accept the truth. It was discomforting to them, so they’d found a convenient excuse to justify their rejecting of it.
This being the 4th of July weekend, it’s impossible to not recognize that it was that same sense of frustration that the American colonists felt after trying unsuccessfully to get the English crown to hear their message, their grievances, in a more civil and proper way and having their words ignored, before they changed to different tactics, tarring and feathering tax collectors, dumping barrels of tea into Boston Harbor, and so on, and finally going so far as to declare themselves independent of England, and fighting a war to make it so.
And it’s impossible to have this text to preach on this weekend, in this time, and not think about the parallel between Jesus’ words and those of Dr. King in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, as he dealt with criticism of the civil rights movement from a group of local clergymen in that city for moving beyond being polite, beyond playing the flute, as Jesus would have put it, and for moving on to wailing and offering a message harder to ignore like John the Baptist’s.
Of course that parallel applies to our own times, too – with so many of our black and brown siblings calling out for racial justice – being for the most part ignored when they try to be nice and work within the system that was deliberately stacked against them; and being criticized and rejected as going about it the wrong way when they try to get their message across in more discomforting ways, ways harder to ignore The parallel between Jesus’ experience in this story, and the exasperation and condemnation embedded within it, is real.
And it’s impossible to have this text, and this reality, to preach today, Independence Day weekend, and not point out that for all that’s good and noble and to be celebrated about our country, and there’s a lot of it, we still have a long way to go in order to live into the noble words of our founding – and to hear the music and the wailing of large numbers of our people, and to finally achieve racial and other kinds of social justice in our country, as a matter of civil society, and even more importantly for us, as a matter of our faith. It was just that understanding of the faith that led Eugene Carson Blake, the Stated Clerk of the Presbyterian Church, to go so far as to get arrested while taking part in a protest to try to integrate a segregated amusement park in Baltimore, 57 years ago yesterday, July 4th, and serving as a model for Presbyterian clergy, and Presbyterians in general, who would follow.
Those are big parallels. Important parallels between this gospel text and big social movements past and present. But the truth is, while our lives are shaped by movements, we experience life in the moments – the more personal experiences we all know and go through. And there are important parallels between Jesus’ words and those kinds of moments, too. Those moments when we’re trying to get a message across to someone who just won’t listen; someone who ignores us or dismisses us when we’re trying to be nice and polite, and gets offended when we have to change tactics in order to be heard. Times when we feel voiceless and powerless, like we’re hitting a stone wall with, maybe, some government bureaucrat. Or a hospital billing department. Or a bank, or a retail customer service center. Or even when we’re just trying to convey some important message to a family member, who just keeps rejecting us regardless of how we try to get through to them. It can get tiring. It can become draining and burdensome.
Whenever and however we feel that frustration, that exasperation – and we all have, at some point or another – remember this passage, and the fact that we aren’t alone. This text shows us that Jesus felt this same kind of exasperation. When we experience that frustration, in whatever setting, whenever we’re feeling ignored or rejected we can remember that through Jesus, God knows firsthand what we’re experiencing and feeling, and is standing with us, and for us – for us, and against the ones ignoring our words, our pleas, our wailing and suffering and burdens, and is with us to give us comfort, and strength, too, in order for us, and anyone, to be able to persevere in getting their message of suffering heard by the ones causing it.
At the end of today’s gospel text, after Jesus blasts the people he’s talking to for their stubbornness and self-centeredness, he goes on to vent his frustration as he prays, criticizing those who were ignoring both John and him, and being grateful that God favors the “infants” the ones who are actually suffering at the hands of the others, and who are actually hearing his message.
And then, finally, you can feel a bit of a shift in Jesus’ mood after his prayer, moving out of anger and into tiredness, and maybe resignation, as he simply says “Come to me, all you who are weary and carrying heavy burdens, for in me you will find rest.”
So today, reading and reflecting on this passage, I have to ask myself: In my own life, which one of those am I? Am I one of the suffering? Am I one of the ones trying to speak truth, but who are being ignored or rejected? Or am I one of the supposedly “wise and intelligent,” as Jesus described them, or a “white moderate” as Dr. King described the same kind of people his Letter? Or in some way, am I both? And beyond myself, where does our society fit on that spectrum Jesus laid out? And where do we, the church, fit on that same spectrum? And what effect does that have, should that have, for us, a Matthew 25 congregation? For us, as people of the kingdom of God – people who have offered our ultimate loyalty, our lives, not to the king of England, not even to a government in Washington, but to the Prince of Peace – the one who plays the flute, and has invited us to dance to his tune?
Thanks be to God.