‘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.’
Translation: "But to what will I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the marketplaces who call out to the others, saying, 'We piped to you, and you did not dance. We wailed and you did not lament.' For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, 'He has a demon.' The son of humanity came eating and drinking, and they say, 'Behold, a glutinous person and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.' And wisdom has been justified from her deeds."
Background and situation: The section is mostly Q. See the parallel in Luke (7: 31-35, 10: 21-22). The closing words--"come unto me..."--have a partial parallel in the Gospel of Thomas (90).
The lection is part of the third major section of Matthew's gospel, the main theme of which is opposition to Jesus and the struggle between faith and doubt. The section begins with the doubts of John the Baptist (11:2), followed by Jesus' response to John and then a paean to John, one which contains a swipe at the Temple bureaucracy. John was not one to waltz around in fancy robes, said Jesus, but we certainly know the ones who do (11:8).
At the time Matthew was written, the "Jesus movement" was still quite fragile and far from unified. They were still small in number, and had various frictions, both within the church and outside it.
They worried about defections from their movement, and not without reason. "Falling away" from the church is not a new phenomenon. What's more, the people were still recovering from a particularly bloody war. Into that situation, Matthew tells us of the "Jesus movement," which, though popular and with widespread support in Galilee, nevertheless had its share of problems.
Children call to "the others": Jesus compares "this generation" to children. Most commentators seem to read verse 17 as children squabbling with each other. The children are portrayed as engaged in a mindless back-and-forth. They respond neither to the harsh message of John nor the gracious message of Jesus.
One's interpretation depends on how you read eterois--"the other ones." The children "call out to the other ones," which could mean the other children, in which case the children are portrayed as bickering and out-of-sync with each other. No matter what we did, says one group to the other, you wouldn't go along. We tried being joyous, and that didn't grab you. Then, we tried being funereal, and that didn't grab you either.
Or, one might also read the verse as children calling to "the others," who could be anyone other than children, i.e. their elders, the people who really run things. In that case, the children seem to have some life in them, both joy and sorrow, but can't get any reaction from the people in charge, who are portrayed as out-of-touch and lifeless. This latter interpretation seems to make more sense.
Damned if you, and damned if you don't: Rather than respond to the real life and needs of the people, the elders condemn the peoples' leaders. John the baptizer came as an ascetic. Yet, his opponents called him a "demon." Jesus came "eating and drinking" but that didn't suit his opponents either so they attacked him personally as well, calling him a "glutton and a wino."
This is typical of the approach the powers-that-be often use to manipulate public opinion. When someone criticizes you, attack them personally. Assault their character. Drag their name through the mud. Accuse them of insufficient piety--"demon"--or some variation of libertinism--"glutton and wino." Ad hominem attacks are nothing new, it seems. If you can't engage your opponents' arguments, then attack them personally. It's the oldest trick in the book.
This is a common failing on all sides. When the orthodox church felt pressure from gnostic groups in the second and third centuries, they quite often accused their gnostic opponents of being sexually perverse. Yet, there is no evidence, from gnostic sources, of anything of the kind. If anything, the gnostics were ascetics, not libertines. (In other words, some of the early church fathers lied about the gnostics.)
Wisdom issues in deeds: "And wisdom has been justified--edikaiothe--from her works."
In Proverbs 8, wisdom is associated with the works of God. Wisdom labored side-by-side with God in the creation of the universe. "The Lord created me (wisdom) at the beginning of his work, the first of his acts of long ago...I was beside him like a master worker." (Prov 8)
Matthew is associating the works of Jesus with the wisdom of God. The works of Jesus we have seen in Matthew's gospel--gender equality, open table fellowship, non-violent resistance to Rome, critique of heirarchy--demonstrate God's true wisdom in action in the world.
Matthew is concerned about the real. Do words issue in deeds? Do words actually make a difference? Where does the rubber actually hit the road, and how can you tell?
Consider, for example, how Matthew tells a true prophet from a false one. Matthew says you can tell by their "fruit," by what they do and what they produce (7: 15). True prophets produce good fruit, and false prophets don't. "A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit." (7:18)
In today's lection, God's wisdom, which created the world, is justified by Jesus' actual "works" in the world. His works are a fulfillment of wisdom's (and thus God's) intention in creation.
The Father's gracious purpose:
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; 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.
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.’
Translation: In that time, Jesus answered (and) said, "I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you hid these things from the wise and prudent and revealed them to children. Yes, Father, for in this manner gracious purpose happened before you. All things have been delivered 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 to whomever the Son might wish to reveal."
"Come to me, all the ones who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart and you will find rest for your lives, for my yoke is lovingkindness and my burden is light."
The intervening verses--20-24, not included in the lection--express condemnation toward cities which opposed the Jesus movement, specifically Bethsaida, Chorazin, and Capernaum.
In the face of this opposition, however, we have a kairotic moment. "At that time," Matthew says. The word for time here is kairos, which means special time, the important moment, the time of God. In this moment of special revelation, in this kairotic moment, Jesus speaks.
He begins with thanks. The word is exomologoumai, which means: "I thank you." One notes that exomologoumai is composed of ex, plus homo, plus logos--literally, "out of the same word." It has a sense of celebration and joyous affirmation.
It is also in the middle voice, which means that subject and object are in relationship to each other and affect each other. Jesus says, essentially, "I give and am being given joyous affirmation of the Father, the Lord of heaven and earth."
"For you have hidden these things from the wise--sofown--and intelligent, and revealed--apocalypto--them to children." True wisdom, as we have seen, issues in following the way of Jesus. This way has been "hidden" from those who are "wise and intelligent," but "revealed" to the insigificant.
This was true, of course, in the historical ministry of Jesus. He was leading a non-violent peasant-based movement--a "childrens' crusade," after a certain manner of speaking--and he was opposed by the rich and powerful. It is also apparently true for the community of Matthew in AD 80. It is still a peasant-based movement.
Verse 26: "...for in this manner gracious purpose happened before you..." In hiding things from the wise and revealing them to children, God's eudokia happened. Eudokia is formed from the prefix eu--"good"--and doxa, which means "glory"--hence, "good-glory."
Eudokia means a freely chosen desire that issues in a good design. It may be translated as "good pleasure," or "well-pleased." NRSV translates it as "gracious will." Eudokia definitely does have the sense of "graciousness" to it, but "will" sounds too stern and juridical. The word is gentler than that. It has a sense of delight and pleasure to it. I have "gracious purpose."
The sentence opens with an affirmation to God--"Yes, Father". The word "Father," while not a complete innovation from Jesus--(Isaiah had used the word)--nevertheless underlines the close relationship of God to the "children." It is God's "gracious purpose" to reveal the ways of the kingdom to the children, i.e. the lowly. This is yet another affirmation of what, today, we call "preferential option for the poor."
Despite the opposition they face, the sense of Jesus' speech is joyous. "All things have been delivered over to me by my Father," he says. The "Lord of heaven and earth" has delivered over "all"--panta, everything, the entire universe and everything in it--to Jesus.
Jesus then goes on to say that "no one knows the son except the father, and no one knows the father except the son." The word "know" is ginosko, which means intimate knowledge. This kind of exalted, mystical "knowing" is reminiscent of the fourth gospel. (Was the author of the fourth gospel acquainted with the author of Matthew?)
This close identification of son and father comes to human beings by revelation--"to whomever the son reveals." As in the fourth gospel, the intimate knowledge between Father and Son is not exclusive to the Father and the Son, but may also be shared with the children. From that position, Jesus issues his appeal:
"Come to me": The closing two verses are unique to Matthew, though there is a passage that is vaguely similar in Sirach (51: 26-27). As noted above, there is a partial parallel in Thomas, verse 90.
Most of our translations over-spiritualize this passage, in my humble opinion. Jesus is specifically addressing those who are over-worked and carrying a heavy load. In first century Israel, that group consisted of poor people in a condition of political and religious oppression.
He encourages them to take up his "yoke." "Yoke" was a common image for Torah and the Mosaic Law. Instead of Torah, however, we are encouraged to take up Jesus' yoke and "learn" from him. (The word is mathete, from which comes the word for "disciple." Matthew continues his emphasis on Jesus as teacher by the exhortation to "learn from him.")
The "yoke" of Jesus is to learn his Way and follow it. In marked contrast to earthly rulers, both political and religious, Jesus is "meek and lowly of heart."
NRSV has "and you will find rest for your souls." That sounds too pious and too passive for the words anapausin tais psuxais humown. Anapausin, which appears also in verse 28, means not only rest, but sabbath rest, the kind of rest that puts a person on the road to recovery. It has a sense not only of rest, but also refreshment.
Also, psuxais refers to the essence of a person's life. It is more than "soul," which, in any case, calls to mind images more related to Greek philosophy than Christian theology, which was almost surely not Matthew's intent. Frankly, I like my translation better: "...and you will find rest for your lives..." Following the Way of Jesus--open table fellowship, etc.--will set you on a path of true life.
"For my yoke is lovingkindness." The word is xrestos--"goodness, benevolence, pleasant, worthy, loving, kind," or, even better, "active benevolence in spite of ingratitude." "Easy" is OK, but, given the richness and importance of the word in this context, I'm going with "lovingkindness."
This truly wonderful text should not be pietized into worship of Jesus as if he were some kind of idol. It thoroughly intends to encourage people along the Way of Jesus, to "learn" that Way and follow it, from which will come a truer and better life.
Egalitarian living is "lighter" than heirarchical living. Living in light of the freedom and dignity of every person, and especially the poor, is not a "burden" but is, in fact, the way of true rest and true refreshment.
Image: 19th century, "Learn from me."