Matthew 11:16-19 (NRSV)
16 “But to what will I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to one another, 17 ‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn.’
18 For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon’; 19 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.”
Matthew 11:25-30 (NRSV) "Jesus Thanks His Father"
25 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; 26 yes, Father, for such was your gracious will. 27 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. 28 “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. 29 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. 30 For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”
In the gospel reading, Jesus begins by calling out the leaders of the current culture. It reminds me of a story about a rather pompous-looking deacon who was endeavoring to impress upon a class of boys the importance of living the Christian life. "Why do people call me a Christian?" the man asked. After a moment's pause, one youngster said, "Maybe it's because they don't know you."
That describes the situation that Jesus was faced with as he began his ministry. Oh, sure, the talk was all about how one could live a righteous life...but when you got right down to it, the leadership of the day was missing the forest for the trees!
The Ten Commandments was the basis for righteous living. It was handed down to the people of Israel through Moses. Ten easy rules for living – No other gods, only me. No idol worship. No irreverent use of God's name, Observe the Sabbath and keep it holy, Honor your father and mother, No murder, No adultery, No stealing, No lies about your neighbor, No lusting after other people's stuff.
Then why are the next three chapters of Exodus full of extra instructions? And then there is Leviticus...and Deuteronomy? Because we are human...and nothing is that simple when you involve humans. Church, and indeed the world, would be perfect if God didn't let all these humans in!
Laws are interesting things – here are a few laws that you'll find amusing:
- In Lexington, Ky., there is an ordinance forbidding anyone to carry an ice-cream cone in his pocket.
- In the Commonwealth of Massachusetts it is against the law to eat peanuts in church or to use tomatoes in making clam chowder.
- In Kansas an old law states that you cannot eat snakes on Sunday or rattlesnake meat in public.
- In Zion, Ill., it is illegal for anyone to give lighted cigars to dogs, cats and other domesticated animals kept as pets.
- In Oklahoma you cannot take a bite of another person's hamburger.
- In Baltimore, its illegal to take a lion to the movies.
- In Nicholas County, W. Va., no member of the clergy is allowed to tell jokes or humorous stories from the pulpit during a church service.
- Oh...I'm in trouble if I go there!
So at the beginning of the gospel lesson, we find Jesus opening with a cutting declaration about the nature of much of the discourse he sees happening among the leaders of his culture. Legalism. He says they’re like children in the marketplace, complaining because other children won’t dance the dance and play the game they want to play when they want to play it. This is why, he says, prophets like John the Baptist and himself don’t get rave reviews by religious leaders. John was declared a demoniac because of his asceticism, while Jesus was considered a drunkard and glutton because of his conviviality at meals with known sinners.
There’s no pleasing some people.
But this story says more than just that the bickering was commonplace. These are the leaders, after all. Ultimately, they’re not just playing their own separate games. They’re playing the same game: rivalry. And each is trying to enlist as many others to their “side” so each can declare itself the winner and rightful ruler of all.
We hear it all the time in our modern culture. You need to worship THIS way, MY way to be right. We need to sing THESE songs, the ones that I like – to be right. You're not properly baptized if it isn't by immersion in the river... You're not a proper Christian if you choose to study a different translation of the Bible than me. You're not going to heaven if you haven't checked off these items on OUR list.
You're either on OUR team doing things OUR way...or you're wrong and doomed.
Their game of rivalry is more than just childish. It’s wearing, wearying, life-denying and destructive. Through it, leaders turn life into their own private war, with them at the top, and whomever they can enlist through their influence as expendable soldiers on the front lines. There are no real winners, except rivalry itself.
Aren't we tired of sitting down with our rule book deciding who is IN and who is OUT?
Dr. Seuss wrote many wonderful stories and books – one of my very favorite was always the one about the star-bellied sneetches. In the story (which is part of the book Sneetches and Other Stories) there is a group of yellow creatures named Sneetches. Some of the Sneetches have a green star on their bellies. The star-bellied sneetches start discriminating against the sneetches without stars. If you don't have a star, then you are shunned by the ones that DO have a star.
Enter Sylvester McMonkey McBean. With his fabulous invention, the Star-On machine, the sneetches can have a star for just 3 bucks. So now the ones who originally had stars are mad because they aren't special anymore. McBean has a Star-Off machine that will take their stars off for 10 bucks! But then the sneetches who had new stars just pay their money and take their new stars off...so they can keep being part of the RIGHT crowd.
As a kid, I loved looking a the illustrations of sneetches going in and out of these two machines. Finally...all the sneetches are broke...McBean drives off with his machines and a truck full of their money. Some of the sneetches have stars, some have more than one...some have none. But they are all a little wiser.
Whether you are looking at the early church that Paul was writing to in Rome or the modern day church – we have to stop being in the business of deciding who God thinks is worthy. That is exhausting our resources.
That is why the passage from Matthew continues with Jesus calling the wearied and overburdened to come to him for rest? Jesus doesn’t play “rivalry.” He plays “deliverance,” deliverance made possible because the kingdom of God has drawn near.
The rest Jesus promises is not a vacation or escape from this life. It is rather a different way of engaging life, under his teaching and direction, rather than under the compulsive direction of those who play rivalry and judgment. There is a yoke. There is a burden. There is work to be done, and we need the team to do it together. But this work, this plowing in the fields of God’s kingdom, is not about who has the best or most popular. It’s about a making way for harvest of righteousness, and justice, and love for God and neighbor, and then bringing in the abundant sheaves.
So this week’s reading has a lot to say to all of us just now, wherever we may be, where rivals may call for the church to divide unless they get their way on some issues.
To all of us, Jesus says, “Come to me.” Leave the game of rivalry behind. Don’t let those who play that game overwork you (like oxen), whoever you may be. Learn from me. Live as my disciples. Become bearers with me, in word and deed, in work and relationships, in public discourse and in secret prayer of the good news of God’s kingdom drawn near. Learn from me how your good work contributes to an abundant harvest for all.
Leave the judgment part to God. We are not really very good at it anyway.
A few years ago, 1996, when the Olympic Games were held in Atlanta, GA – an American police officer named Richard Jewell became known in connection with the Centennial Olympic Park bombing. Discovering a backpack filled with three pipe bombs on the park grounds, Jewell alerted police and helped to evacuate the area before the bomb exploded, saving many people from injury or death. Initially hailed by the media as a hero, Jewell was later considered a suspect. Despite never being charged, he underwent a "trial by media" with great toll on his personal and professional life. Eventually he was completely exonerated and Eric Robert Rudolph was later found to have been the bomber. In 2006 (after ten years!?), Governor Sonny Perdue publicly thanked Jewell on behalf of the state of Georgia for saving the lives of those at the Olympics.
We are human. We are quick to judge. We often discover that our initial judgment is completely wrong. We see the surface appearance of a person or a situation. We think we have all of the facts. Or at least enough of the facts. Here is a story about a quick judgment that I think we can all relate to:
It was a cold winter's day that Sunday. The parking lot to the church was filling up quickly. I noticed as I got out of my car that fellow church members were whispering among themselves as they walked to the church. As I got closer I saw a man leaned up against the wall outside the church. He was almost lying down as if he were asleep. He had on a long trench coat that was almost in shreds and a hat topped his head, pulled down so you couldn't see his face. He wore shoes that looked 30 years old, too small for his feet, with holes all over them, his toes stuck out. I assumed this man was homeless and asleep, so I walked by through the church doors.
We all enjoyed fellowship for a few minutes, and then someone brought up the man who was lying outside. People snickered and gossiped, but no one bothered to ask him to come in, including me. A few moments later church began. We all waited for the preacher to take his place, and to give us the Word, when the doors to the church opened. In came the homeless man, walking down the aisle with his head down.
People gasped and whispered and made faces. He made his way down the aisle and up onto the pulpit. When he took off his hat and coat my heart sank. There stood our preacher... he was the "homeless man." No one said a word... the room was silent and still. Then the preacher took his Bible and laid it on the stand. "Folks, I don't think I have to tell you what I'm preaching about today."
We need to get out of the judging business. We need to get down to what God really wants us to do. He did not send us to measure people with a yard stick and see how they meet our goals. He wanted us to take good news into the world!
In Matthew 22 Jesus is asked which is the greatest commandment. He said to love the Lord with all your heart, soul and mind – that is the greatest and first commandment. Then he said, Love your neighbor as yourself. Jesus took 10 commandments and packed them into two. Love God – if you do that, then that takes care of the first four of the big 10: No other gods, only me. No idol worship. No irreverent use of God's name, Observe the Sabbath and keep it holy. Love your neighbor as yourself – that takes care of the other 6: if you love your neighbor (everybody) then you will honor more than just your father and mother – you honor everyone you meet. If you love everyone the way you want to be loved, you won't need to be told not to murder or steal or practice adultery or covetousness.
So the big ten becomes the basic two. And still, we humans didn't seem to grasp it. According to the Gospel of John, Jesus tried one more time at the Last Supper. John 13: 34-35 reads, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
Nowhere in there does it say anything about IF a person is worthy of your love or IF a group agrees with what you have to say. It says love one another.
The rule book went out the window when Jesus came on the scene. That's the major reason that the establishment decided he had to GO!! He was hanging out with all kinds of people that the leadership found to be unworthy – tax collectors, prostitutes, harlots, common people. He spent no time currying their favor. They – the star-bellied sneetches of their day! Nope, he hung out with the riff-raff that had no stars on their bellies. And they probably didn't even have the three bucks to buy one!
Jesus met people where they were – and showed them that they were worthy of God's love. It wasn't about rules or pedigrees or stars...it was about being a child of God.
Jesus reminds us not to let ourselves become distracted by the game of rivalry or any leaders anywhere who play it. As compelling as it may seem, life is not sustained there.
Instead, life is beaten down, worn out, and used up there. Life, is sustained as we continue to take on the yoke of Jesus, and the burden he gives us, and learn from our meek master what it means to bear it with patience, and kindness, and love.
Are you weary? Take a break from deciding who is worthy – leave that work to the one who can handle the pressure.
The we can get back to the true labor, the true plowing, the true waiting, and trust in God’s abundant harvest among all those beaten down by the rivalries and lifted up by God in this age and in the age to come.