For one of my seminary classes (which started this week) I’ve had to read the Gospel of Matthew. When you read a large chunk of a Bible book in one sitting, you really do get to make connections and get perspective you didn’t have before. I had many moments like that when reading Matthew yesterday, but I had one particularly poignant moment that relates to all of the Syria talk that’s going on in our country right now, and adds to my own comments a couple of days ago.
In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus begins preaching on his own, gathers some disciples around him and continues teaching while they watch. Eventually, in Chapter 10, he sends this community of people, encouragement, and support off to do ministry in various towns in the wider area and to do what he has been doing among them.
Which means he is alone again.
The disciples come back later on, but for this next chapter, it seems that Jesus continues teaching and ministering all by himself. And this is where we pick things up.
Jesus’ cousin and forerunner, John the Baptist, has been in jail during most of this book. John sort of expected Jesus to get him out of jail–being the Messiah and all–but when he doesn’t, John begins to get worried and even doubt that Jesus is in fact the Messiah. He sends his own disciples to Jesus to ask him, “Are you the Messiah we’ve been expecting, or should we keep looking for someone else?”
I imagine Jesus heartbroken and a little frustrated at this question. He ends up quoting verses from Isaiah that prophetically talk about what the Messiah will do, not-so-subtly reminding John that these are exactly the things he is doing. But (and we often miss this), in Jesus’ quotation of Isaiah 61, about the Messiah “preaching Good News to the poor”, Jesus seems to purposefully cut that verse short before the prophet’s next line: “[the Messiah will] proclaim that captives will be released and prisoners will be freed.”
John, as he hears this report, would probably have been anticipating that next line to come, but it never does. This is Jesus slyly telling his cousin that he’s probably not getting out of there alive.
John’s disciples leave, but this interaction seems to have a profound effect on Jesus. Without his support network, he feels the weight of injustice in the world and systems around him. Then we find these odd lines that Jesus starts preaching:
As John’s disciples were leaving, Jesus began talking about him to the crowds. “What kind of man did you go into the wilderness to see? Was he a weak reed, swayed by every breath of wind? Or were you expecting to see a man dressed in expensive clothes? No, people with expensive clothes live in palaces. Were you looking for a prophet? Yes, and he is more than a prophet….I tell you the truth, of all who have ever lived, none is greater than John the Baptist.
In light of the pain over his cousin’s unjust imprisonment and probable impending death, Jesus starts mourning in public, it seems. He cries out about how great this man is–how undeserving he was to be suffering like he was right now.
He seems to be frustrated that the people did not value John for who he was while he was still around. He seems to attribute this to the fact that John didn’t come in the usual trappings of power that make people care. He feels as if they did not appreciate him, listen to him, love him, and (perhaps?) defend him when his arrest came. Jesus says as much:
Anyone with ears to hear should listen and understand! To what can I compare this generation? It is like children playing a game in the public square. They complain to their friends,
‘We played wedding songs, and you didn’t dance,
so we played funeral songs, and you didn’t mourn.’
For John didn’t spend his time eating and drinking, and you say, ‘He’s possessed by a demon.’ The Son of Man, on the other hand, feasts and drinks, and you say, ‘He’s a glutton and a drunkard, and a friend of tax collectors and other sinners!’ But wisdom is shown to be right by its results.”
Maybe I’m reading into it. Maybe it’s because I favor the New Living Translation for my more devotional reading. Maybe it’s my hope that I can identify with my human Savior. But it really seems to me that Jesus is hurting here. He is frustrated. He is angry. He feels somewhat helpless against the world’s assaults on goodness and people’s apathy to it. The next section of this chapter is Jesus speaking judgments and condemnations against these towns he’s been in.
But then, Jesus seems to re-center himself on his identity, his mission, and his trust in the goodness of His Father–even in spite of the world around him. He speaks three things that can encourage us all. First, he prays. And remember, this is all still part of the same chapter and the same conversation in the text, right after having to tell his cousin he’s not getting out of jail.
At that time Jesus prayed this prayer: “O Father, Lord of heaven and earth, thank you for hiding these things from those who think themselves wise and clever, and for revealing them to the childlike. Yes, Father, it pleased you to do it this way!
He has just railed against people for not seeing the right things to fight for in this world. He has judged them for not repenting when he did miracles and not seeing injustice and acting against it. He has felt the weight of the world. And he thanks his Father for having arranged it this way.
This is odd and hard to swallow. But, in a way, Jesus shows us there is sense amidst the senselessness, and there even appears to be beauty amidst the ruins. There is a certain unexpected and–dare I say, hopeful?–arrangement of cosmic reality where God is seen most clearly by the weak, the hurting, the unjustly attacked, the suffering. And not by those who we often think could “so easily fix things”. They can’t.
He thanks his Father that there is a principle of “hiddenness” at work in this world. And then he puts his hope in the one place where all can be revealed, and hiddenness turns into hope: himself.
“My Father has entrusted everything to me. No one truly knows the Son except the Father, and no one truly knows the Father except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.”
In the midst of the brokenness of the world, there is much unknown. There is much weight to be borne. And yet our only hope is that our gaze would not be fixed on these things, but on the one who sees them as well and is moving to redeem them. To the one that reveals not the answers, but the agent behind all things. As I’ve said before, God doesn’t really answer our “why”s, but rather offers us a lot of “what”s, to anchor us in the midst.
And this is why Jesus ends with these words that we so often pull from this context. They close the chapter out. They are the last words before Chapter 12 opens up with Jesus having regrouped with his disciples and his teaching gets back to “normal”. They are the final words he speaks to himself, to his audience (the same ones he just threw judgments at, mind you), and to us, even as we consider these questions against the backdrop of the Syrian crisis and ongoing slaughter of innocents:
Then Jesus said, “Come to me, all of you who are weary and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you. Let me teach you, because I am humble and gentle at heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy to bear, and the burden I give you is light.”
As he says, life is not without it’s burdens and yokes. But may we pray that our burdens are his and that they are burdens that are infused with the lightness of hope and confidence in his goodness. Only then, it seems, can we move forward in this world without paralysis, despondency, or fear.
[image credit: untitled piece by Oldrich Kulhanek]