Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30
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Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30 Biblical Commentary:
MATTHEW 11:16-19. A CONTRARY GENERATION
16“But to what shall I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the marketplaces, who call to their companions 17and say, ‘We played the flute for you, and you didn’t dance. We mourned for you, and you didn’t lament.’ 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, ‘Behold, a gluttonous man and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ But wisdom is justified by her children.”
Some people refuse to be satisfied, and Jesus describes such contrary people in these verses. He likens“this generation” (v. 16) to children who refuse to play with each other. Jesus uses this phrase, “this generation,” several times in this Gospel, always in a negative way or in the context of judgment (12:41-42; 23:36; 24:34).
“We played the flute for you, and you didn’t dance. We mourned for you, and you didn’t lament”(v. 17). A flute and dancing are appropriate for a wedding. Wailing and mourning are appropriate for a funeral. Whether the game is happy (weddings) or sad (funerals), the children refuse to play.
This wedding/funeral imagery depicts the differences in style between Jesus and John the Baptist. John is too forbidding. Jesus is too happy.
• Jesus came eating, drinking and mixing with sinners, and they said, “Behold, a gluttonous man and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners” (v. 19). The background for this phrase is Deuteronomy 21:20-21, which prescribes how parents shall deal with a rebellious son. “And they shall tell the elders of his city, ‘This our son is stubborn and rebellious, he will not obey our voice; he is a glutton, and a drunkard.’ All the men of his city shall stone him to death with stones: so you shall put away the evil from the midst of you; and all Israel shall hear, and fear.” This label, “glutton, and a drunkard,” is therefore far more serious than it first appears. If Jesus is, in fact, a glutton and drunkard by the standards of Deuteronomy 21, God’s law prescribes that he shall die a violent and dishonorable death. This verse gives us a veiled hint of the cross that awaits Jesus.
• John lived an ascetic life in the desert—harshly disciplined. Few people would want to live like John. His fire and brimstone preaching drew some people but repelled others. He was arrested and later beheaded because he gave offense to Herod’s family, but he surely offended others as well. They said of him, “He has a demon” (v. 18).
While John looks like a religious fanatic, Jesus appears to be a libertine. He is not as fastidious as some regarding his diet. He heals on the Sabbath. His disciples are not scrupulous in their observance of the law, and he defends them (12:1-8; 15:1-20). Even worse is his association with (and apparent approval of) tax collectors and sinners.
And then there is Jesus blatant disrespect for scribes and Pharisees—keepers of the law—God’s law. Everything about Jesus seems to move in the wrong direction. Compounding the problem, he attracts great crowds, tempting them to join him in his folly.
The root problem for those who reject Jesus, of course, is their awareness that taking John and/or Jesus seriously requires that they change their lives. Both John and Jesus jolt us and push us into uncomfortable places:
• John demands that we repent and move in new directions—give up cherished pleasures and take on uncomfortable responsibilities.
• Jesus turns comfortable assumptions on their heads. How, we ask, can the poor in spirit be blessed—or those who mourn—or the meek? How can Jesus make such outrageous demands regarding anger—or adultery—or divorce—or oaths—or retaliation—or the treatment of enemies? (5:1-48).
But if we can find fault with John and Jesus, we can ignore their demands—and it is far easier to criticize than to obey. And so this generation finds fault with both of these very different (but very compelling) men.
“But wisdom is justified by her children” (v. 19). The meaning of this proverb is much the same as“By their fruits you will know them” (7:16, 20). Jesus challenges his critics to look at the effects of his ministry—“the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them”(11:5). To fail to understand the significance of such events, one must be blind and deaf—must refuse to see—must stop up ones ears.
We should not miss Jesus’ reference to wisdom. We find numerous references to wisdom in the Old Testament:
• Deuteronomy 4:6 is a call to wisdom, and 34:9 says that Joshua was full of wisdom.
• 1 Kings and 2 Chronicles tell of Solomon’s wisdom.
• Ezra was to use his God-given wisdom to appoint judges and to teach the law.
• While Job is a book about the suffering of a righteous man, it is, at its’ heart, a treatise on wisdom. “With God is wisdom and might. He has counsel and understanding” (Job 12:13). Job tells his friends, “Oh that you would be completely silent! Then you would be wise” (Job 13:5). God says, “Listen to me. Hold your peace, and I will teach you wisdom” (Job 33:33).
• The Psalms say, “The mouth of the righteous talks of wisdom” (37:30). The Psalmist prays, “You teach me wisdom in the inmost place” (51:6), and acknowledges God’s wisdom (104:24). “The fear of Yahweh is the beginning of wisdom. All those who do his work have a good understanding” (111:10).
• Proverbs, of course, prizes wisdom, encourages us to gain it, and offers a good deal of practical wisdom.
• Ecclesiastes is a treatise on wisdom.
• The prophets include a number of comments about wisdom, and emphasize the limits of human wisdom (Isaiah 11:2; 28:29; 29:14; 47:10; Jeremiah 8:9; 9:23, etc.).
In the New Testament, Jesus became wisdom incarnate (Craddock, 355; Senior 129; Bruner 423; Gardner, 193).
MATTHEW 11:20-24. CHORAZIN, BETHSAIDA, CAPERNAUM
These verses are not included in the lectionary reading, but the preacher needs to be aware of them. Jesus compares Chorazin and Bethsaida, two Galilean towns, with Tyre and Sidon. He then contrasts Capernaum with Sodom. In each case, the comparison is unfavorable for the cities of Jesus’ day.
To understand the full force of these contrasts, we need to know something about these cities.
• We know very little about Chorazin, except that it was probably a village on or near the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee—not far from Capernaum. It is mentioned only here and in a parallel passage in Luke 10:13.
• Bethsaida was a fishing village on the north shore of the Sea of Galilee—the home of Philip, Andrew, and Peter (John 1:44; 12:21). Jesus had visited that area and had healed the sick (Mark 6:45-56) —including a blind man (Mark 8:22-26). This was also the site of the feeding of the 5000 (Luke 9:10-17).
• Capernaum, of course, is where Jesus made his home as a man (Matthew 4:13; Mark 2:1). He healed a centurion’s servant there (8:5-13)—and taught and healed in the Capernaum synagogue (Mark 1:21-28)—and healed a paralytic there (Mark 2:1-12)—and called Levi, the tax collector, to follow him (Mark 2:13-17)—and healed the son of an official there (John 4:46-54).
In other words, Chorazin, Bethsaida, and Capernaum were places that had good reason to believe in Jesus.
Tyre, Sidon, and Sodom were historically wicked cities—symbols of wickedness:
• Tyre and Sidon were Phoenician cities. Jezebel, the personification of wickedness in the Old Testament, was the daughter of Ethbaal, the king of Tyre and Sidon. The prophets waxed eloquently regarding the destruction that Tyre and Sidon could expect because of their wickedness (Isaiah 23; Ezekiel 26:2 – 28:19; Amos 1:9-10).
• Sodom, of course, was one of the cities destroyed by God for its wickedness (Genesis 18:22 – 19:29).
So when Jesus compares Chorazin, Bethsaida, and Capernaum unfavorably with Tyre, Sidon, and Sodom, he is painting a dark picture. The problem isn’t the depravity of Chorazin, Bethsaida, and Capernaum. Their problem is that they have heard Jesus’ teachings and witnessed his miracles and yet failed to believe. Jesus says that Tyre, Sidon, and Sodom would have repented if they had seen what Chorazin, Bethsaida, and Capernaum have seen. Therefore, these last three cities will be judged more harshly for their failure to believe than Tyre, Sidon, and Sodom will be judged for their wickedness.
MATTHEW 11:25-27: REVEALED TO INFANTS
25At that time, Jesus answered, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you hid these things from the wise and understanding, and revealed them to infants. 26Yes, Father, for so it was well-pleasing in your sight. 27All things have been delivered to me by my Father. No one knows the Son, except the Father; neither does anyone know the Father, except the Son, and he to whom the Son desires to reveal him.”
“At that time” connects Jesus’ comments about Chorazin, Bethsaida, and Capernaum with this prayer.
Jesus addresses God as Father and as “Lord of heaven and earth” (v. 25), thereby capturing both the nurturing and the majestic sides of God.
The focus changes from those who have rejected Jesus to those who have accepted him. God has hidden the truth from “the wise and understanding” (v. 25) but has revealed the truth to “infants” (v. 25). The mood also changes. In verses 16-19, Jesus expresses frustration tinged with anger toward “this generation,” but in verses 25-27, his mood is optimistic and thankful. Jesus’ optimism is based, not on any recent success, but rather on God’s gracious authority and the intimacy between Father and Son.
“that you hid these things from the wise and understanding, and revealed them to infants. Yes, Father, for so it was well-pleasing in your sight” (vv. 25-26). This reflects Jesus’ personal experience. Those in high office reject Jesus, but common people—including sub-common tax collectors and sinners—flock to him. The polarity between those who reject Jesus and those who flock to him is self-perpetuating. The more that Jesus appeals to the rejected of society, the more that society-people reject Jesus.
Not being full of self, the little ones are open to receiving God. Having no religious assurance, they are open to receiving grace. Possessing no wisdom, they are open to learning from Jesus.
Paul will amplify these thoughts when he speaks of the cross as “foolishness to those who are dying, but to us who are saved it is the power of God.” He tells us, “Because the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men” (1 Corinthians 1:18, 25).
There are exceptions to this rule—exceptions that prove the rule. Nicodemus, a Pharisee, came to Jesus by night (John 3). Joseph of Arimathea, a rich man, provided a burial place for Jesus and attended to his body after the crucifixion (27:57-60). Gamaliel, a Pharisee, counseled the Sanhedrin to be careful in their judgment of the disciples lest they find themselves in conflict with God’s will (Acts 5). Saul of Tarsus, a Pharisee (Acts 23:6; 26:5), became a great Christian missionary and author of much of the New Testament.
These exceptions demonstrate that the Gospel can be good news even for the rich and powerful, but it is far more difficult for people with great personal resources, whether wealth or genius, to admit their need for Christ. Christ blesses the humble supplicant, and it is difficult for the rich and powerful to be either humble or supplicant.
Verse 27 has been called a thunderbolt from the Johannine heaven, because its language seems more in keeping with Jesus’ prayer in John 17 than with the rest of Matthew’s Gospel. Jesus prays, “All things have been delivered to me by my Father. No one knows the Son, except the Father; neither does anyone know the Father, except the Son, and he to whom the Son desires to reveal him” (v. 27). To understand the intimacy between Father and Son, imagine the relationship that Jesus must have enjoyed with his carpenter father. While the scriptures do not tell us much about Jesus’ childhood, Joseph must have begun teaching Jesus carpentry as soon as Jesus was old enough to hold a tool in his hand. By the time Jesus reached manhood, the knowledge-transfer would be complete. Jesus would know tools—and the various woods—and techniques—and measurements. If Joseph knew it, Jesus knew it. Working side by side in their little shop, Joseph and Jesus would communicate easily. They would assess problems the same way and develop the same solutions. If a neighbor needed work done, Jesus could speak for his father, and Joseph could speak for his son. They were partners.
Now multiply that relationship times infinity, and you have the relationship between Father and Son. “All things have been delivered to me by my Father. No one knows the Son, except the Father; neither does anyone know the Father, except the Son, and he to whom the Son desires to reveal him” (v. 27).
MATTHEW 11:28-30. TAKE MY YOKE UPON YOU, AND LEARN FROM ME
28“Come to me, all you who labor and are heavily burdened, and I will give you rest.29Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle (Greek: praus—meek, humble) and lowly (Greek: tapeinos—humble, lowly) in heart; and you will find rest (Greek:anapausin—respite) for your souls. 30For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”
These are among the most beloved and quoted verses in the Bible, because all of us feel burdened and in need of rest.
In their original context, these verses spoke specifically to those burdened by the Jewish law. God gave the law to guide the Jewish people through the moral thickets of life, but well-intentioned people embellished the law until it became its own thicket. Religious professionals prided themselves on their observance of the law, but even they could not avoid infractions. The common person did not stand a chance of perfectly observing the law.
“Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me” (v. 29). Rabbis often likened the law to a yoke–a wooden bar or frame fitted across the necks of two oxen to make them a team. A yoke imposed a measure of control on the animals. Neither animal was free to go its own direction, because its bond to the other animal served as a constraint. Animals with a yoke are under the control of the master.
This is a good point. We cannot choose to serve no master at all, but can choose only which master we will serve. The yoke of the law is better than the yoke of the world, because the yoke of the law is God-inspired. In the hands of the scribes and Pharisees, however, the yoke of the law became almost as burdensome as the yoke of the world.
Jesus does not propose that we go yoke-less, but that we accept his yoke, which ischrestos—”manageable, i.e., mild, pleasant (as opposed to harsh, hard, sharp)” (Thayer, 671). A well-made yoke distributes the load evenly, making the task easier. A well-fitted yoke follows the contours of the oxen’s neck so that it does not rub or chaff. A legend says that Jesus, assisting his carpenter father, made the best yokes available–yokes that would serve both master and oxen well.
For a contemporary analogy, consider the advantages of new, high-tech, athletic equipment. A hiker can go faster, further, and more easily when equipped with a well-engineered backpack, a tiny camp stove, freeze dried food, and a featherweight tent. New advances in tennis racquets, skis, golf clubs, and running shoes help athletes to set new records. Instant replay helps them to analyze opponents. Sophisticated training programs help them to reach their peak. None of that equipment allows the athlete to win the game while sitting on the sidelines, but each enhances the athlete’s performance on the field. When Jesus invites us to take his yoke and to learn from him, it is as if he is giving us access to the finest equipment and the best coaching for the game of life.
A yoke usually joins two oxen together to work as a team. When Jesus invites us to take his yoke and to learn from him, he is inviting us to join him in harness—to allow him to take the lead—to let him help us through difficult places—to give him the opportunity to show us how it is done.
“for I am gentle (praus—meek, humble) and lowly (tapeinos—humble, lowly) in heart” (v. 29). Moses was humble (Numbers 12:3), and Jesus blessed the praus (meek), promising that “they shall inherit the earth” (5:5)—a promise that seems counter-intuitive. It appears to us that the bold and forceful inherit the earth. Perhaps the meek will inherit heaven, but we doubt that they will inherit the earth. Jesus’ promise, however, is based on God’s economy rather than the ways of the world. Just as Jesus transformed the world by his meek submission to God’s will that he die on a cross, so also, by God’s grace, the praus—those who submit their will to God—will find themselves possessed of power that transcends their natural skills and abilities.
“and you will find rest (anapausin—respite) for your souls” (v. 29). Jeremiah called Israel to “ask for the ancient paths, where the good way lies,” promising that, if they would do so, they would “find rest for your souls.” Israel, however, rejected Jeremiah’s counsel, saying, “We will not walk in it” (Jeremiah 6:16). Now Jesus makes a similar promise to those who take his yoke upon them.
Anapausin “denotes a temporary rest, a respite, e.g. of soldiers” (Thayer, 40)—an R&R to refresh us for the work that lies ahead. Jesus does not invite us to the lay-about rest of an easy chair but to the discipleship rest of a purposeful life. He does not promise clock-watchers an early quitting time, but instead offers disciples energy, vision, and purpose.
While the original context referred to the burden of the Jewish law, there is nothing in these words to suggest that they should not also extend to our weariness and burdens today. We are weary today, even though we do not observe the Jewish law. We are burdened by many things:
• Concerns about jobs, marriage, money, health, children, security, and old age
• Tough choices
• Criticism or opposition
• and a thousand other things.
Jesus’ concern for our burdens is as real as his concern for law-burdened Jews of his day. His promise is also as real. “Come to me, all you who labor and are heavily burdened, and I will give you rest.” Jesus still does that! Jesus still gives us rest!
“For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (v. 30). The combination of an easy yoke and a light burden make for a gentle journey.
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
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Johnson, Sherman E. and Buttrick, George A., The Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. 7 (Nashville: Abingdon, 1951)
Keener, Craig S., The IVP New Testament Commentary Series: Matthew, (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1997)
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Copyright 2009, Richard Niell Donovan