Scots Church Adelaide
A Complacent Wisdom

Gospel: Matthew 11:16-19

Now when Jesus had finished instructing his twelve disciples, he went on from there to teach and proclaim his message in their cities.

2 When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples 3and said to him, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?’ 4Jesus answered them, ‘Go and tell John what you hear and see: 5the 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. 6And blessed is anyone who takes no offence at me.’

16 ‘But to what will I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the market-places and calling to one another, 
17 “We played the flute for you, and you did not dance;
   we wailed, and you did not mourn.” 

18For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, “He has a demon”; 19the 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.’[some say: children]

20 Then he began to reproach the cities in which most of his deeds of power had been done, because they did not repent. 21‘Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the deeds of power done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. 22But I tell you, on the day of judgement it will be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon than for you. 23And you, Capernaum,
will you be exalted to heaven?
   No, you will be brought down to Hades.
For if the deeds of power done in you had been done in Sodom, it would have remained until this day. 24But I tell you that on the day of judgement it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom than for you.’

25 At that time Jesus said, ‘I thank [or praise] 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; 26yes, Father, for such was your gracious will.[or: for so it was well pleasing in your sight] 27All 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.

28 ‘Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. 29Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.’

12:1 At that time Jesus went through the cornfields on the sabbath; his disciples were hungry, and they began to pluck heads of grain and to eat. 2When the Pharisees saw it, they said to him, ‘Look, your disciples are doing what is not lawful to do on the sabbath.’ 3He said to them, ‘Have you not read what David did when he and his companions were hungry? 4He entered the house of God and ate the bread of the Presence, which it was not lawful for him or his companions to eat, but only for the priests. 5Or have you not read in the law that on the sabbath the priests in the temple break the sabbath and yet are guiltless? 6I tell you, something greater than the temple is here. 7But if you had known what this means, “I desire mercy and not sacrifice”, you would not have condemned the guiltless. 8For the Son of Man is lord of the Sabbath.

•••

The gospel reading is a kind of commentary on what happens when we take on the burden of discipling. Jesus has instructed the disciples and is himself doing the same work. John the Baptist is perplexed because despite all this, the judgement he expected has not come.

‘Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?’ 4Jesus answered ... ‘Go and tell John what you hear and see: 5the 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. 6And blessed is anyone who takes no offence at me.’ (11:3-6)

The kingdom is being fulfilled! What a world this would be: 5the 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! 

How blessed is anyone who takes no offence at that! It is the Promised Land, heaven on earth. The kingdom of God is a time and place like this.

But too often people's response to Jesus was to reject him by any means possible. Offence was taken. Jesus uses the image of a children's game: You won't play weddings and you won't play funerals. You complain about John's insistence on repentance and say he has a demon. You reject my offering of the joy of the kingdom that follows repentance, and say I am a glutton and a drunkard. Anything to avoid joining it.

 This rejection of Jesus will continue until his death.

Now  we enter a complicated mix of images which calls us to slow down and mull things carefully. At one point Matthew has Jesus saying

‘I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants; 26yes, Father, for such was your gracious will. 27All 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.

The words could have been lifted from the gospel of John! They exude mystery. They are a sign to go deep below the surface, a sign that there is a hidden wisdom here. The words "and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him" suggest that there is something here which is not gained by our efforts; there is a serendipitous discovery, even a gift, that defies the essentially shallower wisdom of logic and embraces something more complete, more profound.

Wisdom bears two understandings in this passage. The first interpretation of wisdom contrasts the people of Israel to the people who have been truly wise. The second nterpretation of wisdom identifies Jesus as Wisdom herself.

Verse 20 begins a familiar and perhaps embarrassing Matthean judgement litany, which, like the lectionary, we are tempted to skip across.

Woe to you, you Catholics and Uniting Church people, for if the deeds of power done in you had been done in the midst of the Muslims and the Atheists they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. 22But I tell you, on the day of judgement it will be more tolerable for Iran and North Korea than for you. 

Judgement will be against us if we are complacent that we are in possession of the truth and of an inheritance that is rightly ours. The real shock of these words was never the pronouncement of judgement; that sort of shock reflects our modern sensibility. The shock was that they were spoken against his own people, the people of God, by Jesus the Son of God. They say today that we who are the people of God are worse off— less wise—  than those we regard as heretics and sinners! Tyre and Sidon signify the territory of the Canaanites, the proverbial enemies of the Promised Land of God.

The saying implies that, as Paul would put it, we have claimed to be wise, (Romans 1) but are not.

It gets worse. "At that time Jesus said, ‘I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants... ' " When we claim wisdom because of our heritage, because we are Christians, because we know... then we are showing that we do not know!

Wisdom requires repentance; a sack cloth and ashing which confesses we have had life completely back to front. But wisdom also requires the acceptance that wisdom itself is a gift and not a definable pack of knowledge.  The harder we try to define the having of wisdom the less able we are to grasp it. Wisdom is a gift to little children—  to infants— known, but not understood.

Wisdom hears these words of Jesus words with joy.

28 ‘Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. 29Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.’

Logically we can infer that the heavy yoke for the weary was the law as laid upon them by the Pharisees.... "The yoke of the law" is a common phrase in rabbinic writings. Jesus was not so much criticizing the law itself, but the scribes who load people down with burdens hard to bear (Alyce McKenzie)

McKenzie says

To be told we can lay down our burdens sounds so sweet, until we realize that, in Jesus' eyes, many things we view as blessings are actually burdens. These would include, both in his time and ours, judging others, viewing oneself as occupying a superior position to others and entitled to a more comfortable life with more material possessions, and making a vocation of excluding and avoiding the unclean and the sinner, those on the bottom rung of the social ladder. To those who view those things as their birthright and most cherished possessions, to be required to divest oneself of them sounds like sacrifice. And it is. But it is on the way to a life of being forgiven, being refreshed, and being empowered to live with the humility, discernment, courage, and compassion that is the essence of Wisdom.

Her words are deeply prophetic. "Making a vocation of excluding and avoiding the unclean and the sinner, those on the bottom rung of the social ladder," is a description of the ruling politics of Australia. You have to get ahead.

But try repenting of the way of the powerful and the accepted and the successful, and then try to lay down life's burdens. Not only can it can become a self justifying work and one more way of being self-righteous—  just another "vocation" of excluding and avoiding—  but doing it seriously and humbly is excruciatingly difficult.

There is a mystery here which I see in the lives of two friends who keep coming to mind as I struggle with this text. Between them they have lived for decades in refugee camps. Life in the prejudice of Australia is often not easy. They are not ranked among the wise and powerful of the land. White Christians have often looked down upon them.

But when I visit, even if it is after school and I am in the midst of the noisy swirl of children and extended family I am always confronted by what I can only call complacence. We associate self satisfaction and smugness with this word, but I'm thinking of a cat relaxed on the back of a chair as the household mills around it. Or, even more, a teacher who was pregnant, and used to sit on yard duty in the sun and knit when I was a child. I didn't even know what pregnant was until some knowing child enlightened me, but I had understood her peace and utter relaxation in the gift she had been given despite all the noise of the world running shouting around her.

 Bill Loader draws attention to the next chapter. (12) The words "at that time" (12:1) tell us it is connected to our passage.

Sometimes we imagine [Jesus] could have had joy only because he was seriously taking note of mission successes, as though natural joy at the presence of God is a kind of self indulgence. But that is not the picture. It is not a studied joy, a kind of guilty, restrained 'rejoicing' which can be forgiven because of great achievements. It is not so serious. It takes a light and fresh approach to tradition. Jesus' words, 'The sabbath was made for people not people for the sabbath' (Mark 2:27), for instance, probably had nothing to do with meeting the needs of desperately hungry disciples who just had to pluck ears of wheat to survive, but more to do with an affirmation of the enjoyment of a few casually plucked heads of grain for a chew. It was not flouting the Law; it was enjoying the day God had made.

The complacence of the disciples shocked those who observed them. Yet their enjoyment had an element of holiness about it!

I look at my two friends, surely among the weak and heavy laden of the world, and see that they do indeed bear a light yoke. There is a peace which has lifted some of their trauma from their shoulders. I suspect that like me, they are only too aware of how little has been lifted, and how much of the lifting is actually a letting go that is given to us rather than done by us; done "as the Son chooses." That is the mystery of discipleship.

When I look at these two I see wisdom is vindicated by her children. I want what they have.

How can I have that? It is not something I can get. I cannot earn it. I cannot create it. Much study can leave a person without wisdom.  As Sirach 51, possibly a source of Jesus words says,

26 Put your neck under her yoke,
   and let your souls receive instruction;
   it is to be found close by. 
27 See with your own eyes that I have laboured but little
   and found for myself much serenity.

Where do we find that gift of serene enjoyment of life to which we so object in others when we are buttoned up and self righteous?

The second use of Wisdom in this passage is as a name for Jesus.

"... in Proverbs the guiding presence of God in daily life is personified as a 'Wise Woman,' who invites followers into the path of wisdom that leads to life... One label... that shapes the depiction of Jesus, especially in Matthew and John, is that of Jesus as the Wisdom of God. One scholar calls John and Matthew "twin sons of the same mother"(ie Wisdom.) ... Matthew portrays Jesus as Wisdom in person, heavenly wisdom herself."

These are more words from Alyce McKenzie, who goes on to say

Wisdom in Person, the real deal, stands before us in Matthew 11:16. His "deeds" include healing, feeding, exorcizing, forgiving, and teaching us the Way. The question is, will we choose to participate in them? Will we allow Wisdom to be vindicated by her deeds as they show up in our lives?

The way to get wisdom is to join the games of the children! It is to play the funeral, to mourn, to repent, to turn to a new way of living. It is to play the wedding, to rejoice in the freedoms of new life, to heal and to feed and to teach, to go "light and fresh."

It is exactly as I remember the game of hockey. All the theory about strategy, and all the science of muscle memory meant nothing without a long playing of the game which meant knowing the exact time to pause and then to strike the glorious sweet spot for a shot at goal. Wisdom is the long being with people that slowly learns, without knowing quite how, when to be silent and when to speak, when to sit and when to act, when to leave and when to return.

In all this we learn skills, but I think there is more. There is something given; a reality that not understood before. Even then it is still  less understood than it  is known. And the burden of life becomes lighter.

Andrew Prior
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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