Lectionary Reflection—09 July 2017
“To what will I compare this generation? It’s like a child sitting in the marketplaces calling out to others, 17 ‘We played the flute for you and you didn’t dance. We sang a funeral song and you didn’t mourn.’ 18 For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon.’19 Yet the Human One came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunk, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.’ But wisdom is proved to be right by her works.”
[20 Then he began to scold the cities where he had done his greatest miracles because they didn’t change their hearts and lives. 21 “How terrible it will be for you, Chorazin! How terrible it will be for you, Bethsaida! For if the miracles done among you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would’ve changed their hearts and lives and put on funeral clothes and ashes a long time ago. 22 But I say to you that Tyre and Sidon will be better off on Judgment Day than you. 23 And you, Capernaum, will you be honored by being raised up to heaven? No, you’ll be thrown down to the place of the dead. After all, if the miracles that were done among you had been done in Sodom, it would still be here today. 24 But I say to you that it’ll be better for the land of Sodom on the Judgment Day than it will be for you.”]
25 At that time Jesus said, “I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you’ve hidden these things from the wise and intelligent and have shown them to babies. 26 Indeed, Father, this brings you happiness.
27 “My Father has handed all things over to me. No one knows the Son except the Father. And nobody knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son wants to reveal him.
28 “Come to me, all you who are struggling hard and carrying heavy loads, and I’ll give you rest. 29 Put on my yoke, and learn from me. I’m gentle and humble. And you will find rest for yourselves. 30 My yoke is easy to bear, and my burden is light.”
This generation. That’s a key phrase in the New Testament, especially in Matthew’s Gospel. In every instance the phrase “this generation” is used it means Jesus’ and the disciples generation, their contemporaries. So, when we see this phrase we know that Jesus is addressing his contemporaries—not some future generation and certainly not ours.
So what does he say to his generation? He says they’re wishy-washy. John’s an ascetic and they say he’s demon possessed. Jesus shows up and goes to parties and hangs out with all the “wrong people” and they say he’s a drunk and a glutton. In other words, if someone doesn’t adhere to their view of the spiritual life, then she’s not really a spiritual person. And, oh my gosh, isn’t that a lot of what happens today? Someone who doesn’t “fit” our way of seeing, our understanding of the religious life, and we deem them a fake, a “sheep in wolves clothing,” or even a “heretic.” But, as we saw briefly last week, we’re all part of the same “body” and as St. Paul put it, we all can’t be the hand or the eye or the mouth. We all have different places and different ways of being. We’ve been called and set on a path to become more like God (2 Peter 1.4; cf. Ephesians 4.24; Romans 8.29), but it’s God who enables us to live out that calling and walk that path (Philippians 2.13).
I’m sure I’m not the only one that’s noticed that the Lectionary seems to leave out the unpopular passages. The section left out of the Lectionary today is a perfect example; it speaks of God’s judgement being dispensed upon Jesus’ generation. We don’t like to think of God’s judgement and with good reason. A lot of people today like to use those passages as some kind of ammunition against people with whom they don’t agree. So we forgo them as not to add fuel to the fire or make it appear that we agree with that type of rhetoric. And I completely understand that position. However, if a passage is kept in its context, we can see that those judgement passages have little to do with us today.
The section left out is a good example of this; it ties together the two passages from the Lectionary reading. In the first section, Jesus talks about the hypocrisy of the religious people of his day. In the next section, he takes that hypocrisy and says that the doomed cities of antiquity would be better off “on Judgement Day” than the religious people of his generation. In the final section, Jesus praises God for hiding this truth from the Religious Elite and showing it to the “common” people.
The judgment sections shows us—at the very least—that our understanding of “Judgement Day” isn’t what we thought. If Sodom can be “better off” than the cities of Jesus’ generation, then the condition of Sodom isn’t eternal; the inhabitants aren’t being tortured for ever. I mean, how can someone be “better off” if they, too, are being tortured for ever. Even if there are “layers of hell” (as some people teach), being tortured for ever is still being tortured for ever. There’s no “better off” in that situation.
So Jesus challenges our understanding of “Judgment Day.” The fact that one can be “better off” than another shows that, as some have suggested (and to which I agree), there are different “lengths of stay,” if you will. God’s “judgment” is better understood as “justice.” God’s justice flows from Love, like all of God’s other attributes, because God’s very essence is Love (1 John 4.8), and Love seeks the betterment of others (1 Corinthians 13.4-8a), not their eternal torture.
This transitional passage, then, is important in understanding the two sections. Christ tells the people of his day, his “generation”, that if they’re struggling and “carrying heavy burdens” to go to him. He’ll remove that burden and give them rest. He then tells them to take up his “yoke.” In the Hebrew Scriptures, “yoke” is symbolic of service, specifically servitude and bondage. To describe the burden of oppression, for example, Jeremiah said the Babylonian captivity was an “iron yoke” (Jeremiah 28.14). But when a burden’s removed, it’s described as a “yoke” being broken and the chains being shattered (Jeremiah 5.5).
What could Christ mean, then, by saying his “generation” should take up his “yoke”? I think, in the context, he’s contrasting the Religious Business Institution of his day with following The Way he demonstrated by his life. That is, he contrasted a way of doing versus a way of being. Let me explain.
As we saw in the first section, the Religious Elite of his day were continuously comparing and judging the spiritual life of others and the others were always coming up short. There’s had become a spirituality of do’s and don’ts. This had nothing to do with “getting into heaven” but was a way of gauging other people’s commitment to their religion. In fact, their religious tradition had become so corrupt that the…what did I call them…“the doomed cities of antiquity” would far better than his own tradition and people “on the Judgment Day” (cf. Mark 7.1-13).
Jesus is saying that they’ve misunderstood the purpose of their calling, their election. It wasn’t to show that they were, somehow, better than others. On the contrary. It was to show others a better way of being human. And that better way was serving those around them.
By extension, if we, too, are being burdened by the “yoke” of doctrine and dogma (the do’s and don’ts) of our religious traditions—a way of doing—Christ offers to us his “yoke” of serving others—a way of being. Jesus’ offer, then, is indeed “rest” for people. To be truly human is not about following the rules of religious traditions or any tradition. It’s about serving others. And when we serve others—human and non-human—we truly “share in the divine nature.”
In the Love of the Three in One,
Br. Jack+, LC