Commentary on Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30
“Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” John’s disciples ask Jesus at the beginning of chapter 11.
John, who so clearly recognized who Jesus was when he baptized him, is now having doubts. Who can blame him? The great judgment John announced has not materialized, the corrupt are still in power, and John is languishing in Herod’s prison.
Jesus tells John’s disciples to tell John what they have heard and seen — the blind receiving sight, the lame walking, the lepers cleansed, the deaf hearing, the dead raised, and the poor receiving good news (11:5). Although not the mighty judgment John envisioned, these are surely signs of God’s kingdom drawing near.
After John’s disciples leave, Jesus speaks to the crowds about John the Baptist with words of high praise. No one who has ever lived is greater than John the Baptist, Jesus says (11:11). He is the fulfillment of prophecy, the Elijah sent by God to prepare the way for the Messiah (11:12-14). He stood on the threshold of the kingdom. Yet now the kingdom is breaking in through Jesus, and even the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than John (11:11).
The problem with this generation, Jesus says, is that they listen neither to John nor to Jesus. John’s austere lifestyle led people to accuse him of having a demon, while Jesus’ habit of eating and drinking with sinners earned him a bad reputation (11:18-19). This generation finds reason to take offense at both John and Jesus and thus to evade the call of both. They are like children in the marketplace who cannot decide whether they want to play wedding games or funeral games and end up playing neither (11:16-17).
“Yet wisdom is vindicated by her deeds,” Jesus says. Jesus’ own deeds as described in 11:5 give evidence that he embodies and reveals the wisdom of God, that he is “the one who is to come,” the one who ushers in God’s kingdom.
Rest for the Weary
Skipping over the “woes” to unrepentant Galilean towns (11:20-24), our reading picks up again at verse 25, with Jesus’ prayer thanking his Father because he has “hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and revealed them to infants.” The “wise and intelligent” may refer to any who reject Jesus and his message, but perhaps especially to the religious leaders, whom Jesus often rebukes for their self-importance and hypocrisy. The scribes and Pharisees pride themselves on being learned in the law yet fail to understand the basics of justice, mercy, and faith (23:23). They repeatedly reject Jesus and conspire against him, thus conspiring against the very purposes of God.
The “infants,” on the other hand, are not regarded as wise or important. They are the poor in spirit, the meek, the merciful, the persecuted, all whom Jesus calls blessed (5:3-12). They are the sick and the lame, the lepers and demon-possessed, the tax collectors and sinners, who come to Jesus for healing of body and spirit. It is God’s gracious will to act in ways that confound human wisdom (11:26), and so these “infants” see what the “wise” cannot — that Jesus is sent by the Father and reveals the Father (11:27).
Jesus’ prayer then turns to invitation: “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens and I will give you rest” (11:28). Who are the ones laboring wearily (kopiao) and heavily burdened (fortizo)? Again, it is the common people rather than their leaders. Later in Matthew, Jesus chastises the scribes and Pharisees because “they tie up heavy burdens (fortion), hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them” (23:4). The heavy burden they lay on the people is not the law per se; it is rather their particular interpretation and practice of the law, which, for instance, excludes from meals the ritually unclean (9:10-13), places restrictions on the Sabbath that ignore human need (12:1-14), is zealous about tithing mint, dill, and cumin, but neglects the “weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith” (23:23).
The religious leaders in Matthew’s story are also complicit with the Roman rulers in maintaining the imperial system. The common people labor wearily under Roman occupation, in which the ruling elite secure wealth, status, and power at the expense of the lowly. Jesus rejects this social order as contrary to God’s will: “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. It will not be so among you; but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave; just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many” (20:25-28).
To all those laboring under harsh religious and political systems, Jesus says, “Come to me… and I will give you rest.” Rest (anapausis) in the Septuagint can refer to Sabbath rest, the rest of death, or rest from war when Israel’s enemies have been subdued. Rest also functions as an image of salvation, of what will be when the world is finally ordered according to God’s purposes and enjoys its full and complete Sabbath. In promising “rest,” Jesus promises life under God’s reign in the new world that he is bringing into being.
Jesus further invites the weary: “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” (11:29-30). The yoke was a familiar symbol of burden bearing, oppression, and subjugation. Yokes were laid on the necks and shoulders of oxen and also on prisoners of war and slaves. But “yoke” was also used metaphorically with positive connotations, as in the invitation to wisdom in Sirach 51:26, “Put your neck under her yoke, and let your souls receive instruction,” and as a rabbinic metaphor for the difficult but joyous task of obedience to Torah.
What is the yoke Jesus offers? We might infer that it is his teaching, his way of discipleship, which is not burdensome but life-giving. He invites the weary to learn from him, for he is not a tyrant who lords it over his disciples, but is “gentle and humble in heart.” His yoke is easy (chrestos, better translated “good” or “kind”) and his burden is light. To take his yoke upon oneself is to be yoked to the one in whom God’s kingdom of justice, mercy, and compassion is breaking into this world, and to find the rest for which the soul longs.
Preachers will find rich treasure in this text, for themselves and for their congregations filled with people who are “weary and carrying heavy burdens” of many and various kinds, deeply longing for rest. To all who are weary to the bone and weighed down, Jesus says, “Come to me… and I will give you rest.”
It is not that Jesus invites us to a life of ease. Following him will be full of risks and challenges, as he has made abundantly clear. He calls us to a life of humble service, but it is a life of freedom and joy instead of slavery. It is life yoked to Jesus under God’s gracious and merciful reign, free from the burden of sin and the need to prove oneself, free to rest deeply and securely in God’s grace.
July 3, 2011