First Thoughts on Year A Gospel Passages from the Lectionary

Pentecost 4

William Loader

Pentecost 4:  6 July Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30

Matthew began his gospel by emphasising the continuity between John the Baptist and Jesus. A certain tension developed because John had foretold that Jesus would be the judge to come. He would come with fire and judgement (3:10-11). Matthew 11 begins with an account of John's pondering whether Jesus really is the one who is to come as judge (11:2-6). Why? Because he had not brought the judgement. Jesus replies in a way that reassures John yet also distinguishes himself from John's understanding. John is to understand Jesus' present role not just his future one. In Jesus not only is the kingdom announced; it is also coming to reality. Sometimes Matthew's emphasis on judgement to come is so strong we might wonder whether his theology is closer to John's, but then there are these passages which identify the kingdom breaking through into the present. What is awaited is not just judgement but hope of liberation and renewal. When we pray, 'Your kingdom come', we pray about the future but also open ourselves to the present. Something happens as a result - in the present!

The verses which follow (11:7-15) also both affirm John and distinguish John from Jesus and the disciples. In today's passage 11:16-19 include a similar twofold emphasis. Jesus identifies his mission with John's; yet they are different. The response of children (or it could equally be servants or slaves) to each other about dancing or wailing (11:16-17) is an image which serves to contrast John and Jesus and at the same time highlights the negative response to each. Does the dance image match Jesus and the mourning image match John? Both images would have been traditionally associated with special meals (wakes and weddings?).

John's austerity of not eating and drinking belongs to the period of waiting; the promise has yet to arrive. Jesus' celebratory lifestyle of eating and drinking belongs to the period of fulfilment. In Mark's story of controversy that John and his disciples fasted, but Jesus did not (2:18-20), we have a similar contrast. Jesus' response there is to claim that the wedding time had arrived. A celebratory lifestyle of eating and drinking would normally have brought one into bad company so it is not surprising to read the full accusation here: 'a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners' (11:19). Mark also has a story to illustrate that: associated with the call of Levi (2:13-17; of 'Matthew' in Matthew 9:9-13).

Such accusations may have been a standard denigration of people who failed to live up to the normal standards of restrained piety. Similar language appears in Deut 22:20 in speaking of recalcitrant children - who should be stoned! Jesus' celebratory lifestyle fitted his proclamation that God was already actively involved in the present bringing change. Sometimes we imagine he 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.

This affirmation of joy is not naive indulgence. Jesus knows that he reaps the fury of those who take it all so seriously that they miss the point. The words, 'Wisdom is justified by her works' (11:19), is a typical stance of Jesus. He sees himself in the tradition of the sage who knows God's wisdom and seeks to live by it. In this Matthew may be evoking those traditions which had speculated about Wisdom (Greek: Sophia) as God's companion, almost marriage partner. Jesus represents and embodies this kind of wisdom, God's wisdom, life's wisdom. Meals celebrate this presence just as they foreshadow the great dream of all peoples coming together in reconciliation in a great feast at the end of the days. Jesus was not only fond of feasting; he also employed the image throughout his teaching. It became the location for his famous last act of self giving which gave rise to the tradition of the eucharist. 'Eucharist' ('eucharisteia') means thanksgiving and needs to retain the joy of thanksgiving which characterised Jesus' ministry, which then makes sense of his death.

The closing verses of the chapter (11:25-30) also appear to draw on wisdom traditions. As wisdom is close to God, sometimes God's daughter, and the wise person God's child, so Jesus affirms his unique closeness to God (11:27). The religious wise who seriously go about trying to protect God have missed the point. Jesus' deeds of mercy and compassion are the evidence of God's will. That was what Jesus had been conveying to John's messengers (11:2-6). That was what justified the claim of true wisdom (11:19). That is why it was so offensive that Chorazin and Bethsaida refused to respond (11:20-24). There is something more serious than the immorality of the feasts; it is the denial of the miracles of compassion. The seriously moral frequently live in places like that.

The invitation of Jesus in 11:28-30 is beautiful. It is the kind of thing which sages said. Something very similar occurs in Sirach 51:26-27. It is not a summons to idol worship of Jesus, but a call to learn a new way, especially a new way of interpreting and understanding God's will. That will, God's Law, God's word, was commonly portrayed as assuaging the thirst and feeding the hungry souls. Remember the woman on the street in Proverbs who invited people to her feast (Proverbs 8-9) and Isa 55:1 with its splendid call to share free food? This is the same tradition. It is not a call to heaviness, but a call to lightness of being. It contrasts with the serious calls of those who interpret scripture as demand and stricture.

It is not by chance that Matthew will proceed directly from here to his version of the controversy over the sabbath (12:1-8). In his own way he will reshape the story to portray Jesus as an interpreter of the Law who focuses on compassion and adds to his account the words of Hosea 6:6, 'I desire mercy and not sacrifice'. The promise is not joy one day after strictures now, but joy now, embedded in the life of God and located in the midst of the world in its joy and pain - also in its hostility. With such a sense of rest we can turn our attention to what really matters, people, and turn aside from the busy hassles of religiosity with its industry of piety which continues to make of many churches its factories.

Epistle: Pentecost 4: 6 July  Romans 7:15-25a

Return to Home Page