Third Sunday after Pentecost in Year A
God’s Wisdom for Us is Cosmic in Scope!
Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary—Year A 2011
Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30
How do we deal with rejection?
If Second Pentecost was about welcoming Jesus and his disciples, 3rd Pentecost is about their rejection and Jesus’ response. As Diane Jacobsen notes regarding the reading of this Gospel, we have moved into the section of Matthew in which the conflict “that points us to Jesus’ ultimate trial and death begins in earnest” (Jacobson, “The Season of Pentecost,” in New Proclamation, Year A, 2002, edited by Marshall D. Johnson, p. 124). Neither John the Baptist nor Jesus is welcomed by the powerful religious elite, who quickly label John’s call to repentance and his withdrawal to the wilderness as “demonic.” And they label Jesus’ eating with “tax collectors and sinners” as gluttonous and reprobate, in a phrase that indicated, according to Warren Carter, “‘a stubborn and rebellious son’ who does not obey his parents and should be put to death” (Deut 21:18-21)”
Jesus and the disciples challenge the hierarchy of the dominant culture.
There is rich irony here, as Carter notes:
From God’s point of view, Jesus is an obedient son or child with whom God is well pleased (see 2:15; 3:17; 17:5). They (unspecified) declare a verdict that is totally at odds with God’s. The second misinterpretation of Jesus as “a friend of tax collectors and sinners” evokes the meal scene (see 9:10-13) in which his demonstration of God’s mercy to all regardless of economic, social, political, gender, or religious status aggravated the religious leaders. This alternative community challenges normative hierarchical divisions (Warren Carter, Matthew and the Margins: A Sociopolitical and Religious Reading, pp. 254-55.)
We would add that there is apparently room in the way of Jesus as the Lord, the Servant of Creation for both mourning and celebration with regard to the condition of the God’s creation. However, that is not true for those unspecified persons who reject him. One can perhaps speculate that, as with those whom the children taunt, they are too caught up in the business of the market place to have anything other than a strictly utilitarian, self-serving orientation to the gifts of the Creator.
Jesus’ Father is Lord of heaven and Earth!
Jesus, on the contrary, has the creation very much in mind. This is obvious in what follows in our reading: Jesus prays to the “Father, Lord of heaven and earth.” Showing how strongly the phrase is tied into the understanding of Jesus’ identity in the Gospel, Carter summarizes the references to other parts of Matthew’s gospel as follows:
Jesus combines several familiar titles that underline God’s sovereign rule. On God s loving, life-giving Father with whom Jesus has close relationship, see 5:16, 45, 48; 6:9; 7:21 (“my father”); 16:17; 23:9. On God as Lord whose will is done on earth and in Jesus, see 1:20, 22, 24; 2:13, 15, 19; etc. The phrase heaven and earth (Jdt 9:12) acknowledges all of creation (Gen 1:1) to be subject to God’s reign (cf. 5:45; 28:18; so Philo, Gaium 115, God is “Father and Maker of the world”). Heaven is God’s dwelling place (5:16, 34; 6:9 [“our Father in heaven”]), disclosed by revelation (3:16), the place where God’s will is done (6:10), the origin of God’s empire manifested in Jesus (see 3:2; 4:17). Earth (cf. 2:6; 4:15) is the arena where God’s saving will is to be done (6:10; 9:6, 34)
Jesus challenges the domination mentality of the empire.
The point for Carter is that invoking God’s sovereignty contests rival claims for imperial power and “relativizes Rome’s rule (23:9)” (Carter, Matthew and the Margins: A Sociopolitical and Religious Reading, p. 257). In our view, equally significant is the claim that this Creator of all things is the Father of Jesus. The claim is concerned not merely with power relationships, but also with the familial values inherent in the creator/creation relationship, values on account of which one might mourn or dance and values that “infants” might more easily appreciate than the “wise and intelligent” members of the cultural elite.
Infants get it! The “wise and intelligent” do not!
Again Carter’s comment is helpful:
“Infants” is a metaphor for the lowly and teachable (Pss 116:6; 119:130), the beginner and pilgrim (Philo, Mig 29-31; Probus 160), the righteous (Ps 19:7). Frequently it denotes the vulnerable child, physically endangered by war, capable of being deceived, of wrong action and foolishness . . . . The metaphor recognizes both receptiveness to God’s revelation and the marginal and vulnerable social locations in which the desperate live (Ibid).
On the other hand, the phrase “the wise and intelligent” points to those leaders who refuse to recognize God’s ways and purposes.” They are “not humble before God and do not fear God.” They “are unreceptive to God’s revelation, protective of their own interests and control.” “Blessed are the meek,” Jesus preached in his Ssermon on the Mount; “they will inherit the earth.” These are not the meek. They constitute an elite “cocooned in power, comfort, and the arrogance of their own pretensions, [and so] do not discern God’s purposes.”
Jesus challenges the power structures of the elites
It is striking how insistently, in Carter’s view, Matthew emphasizes the importance of the power structure of society in these verses. Children taunt those preoccupied by buying and selling; marginal persons understand what escapes the powerful; God’s sovereignty outstretches Roman imperial authority; the cocoon of “power, comfort, and arrogance of their own presentions” isolates them from the reality of the divine presence in Jesus. Contrast then the image of the king “who comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey” (Zechariah 9:9-12). This lectionary lesson is also about the exercise of power. Jesus is presented as the messianic mediator of God’s presence.
Jesus, fulfiller of the Davidic hopes.
In Walter Breuggemans interpretation, this reading expresses a fourfold conviction regarding the Davidic monarchy, which we necessarily apply then also to Jesus:
1. The possibility of such a human agent is completely dependent on the fidelity of Yahweh to Yahweh’s own promise. In the end, the hope for messiah is hope based on Yahweh’s capacity to be fully faithful to Yahweh’s own promise.
2. The messiah is a human agent. . . Thus messianism is a hope for the affirmation of human agents who are to ‘have dominion,” and of the materiality of Yahweh’s intention. Yahweh intends something for the Earth.
3. The messiah is expected to exercise political power and leverage of a public kind, in order to transform and rehabilitate the public community. Thus messianism, in Old Testament testimony, is charged with justice and righteousness, with the restoration of viable communal practices in the real world.
4. The practice of human power for communal restoration is entrusted to the descendants of this particular human family, the heirs of David. (Brueggeman, Theology of the Old Testament, p. 618.)
How Jesus fulfills the Davidic hopes
It is often observed that the Jews expected the messiah to be a political leader and that Jesus disappointed that expectation because he wasn’t that kind of leader. If this were strictly true, then we probably should not be reading this lesson in Christian worship. We contend, on the contrary, (1) that he was indeed to “have dominion” in the creation as one who serves the creation; (2) that through him, God intended “something for the earth,” its restoration, even its completion as “good;” and (3) that “something” being restoration of justice and righteousness through “restoration of viable communal practices in the real world.” So Jesus was the messiah of Zechariah’s vision, with a difference: his mode of entry signals his fundamental character as agent of peace, of shalom. Matthew has Jesus himself emphasize this difference: “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” (11:29).
Jesus offers rest to those burdened by Roman imperial control
It is important to underscore that what Jesus offers here is not “surface rest,” and neither is it the “deep rest,” as Diane Jacobsen argues, at least not if it is just “for our souls” (Jacobsen, p. 126). Nor is it the rest of release from the inner spiritual struggle that the coupling of this text with Romans 7:15-25a might suggest. While Carter reminds us that such rest is indeed found in “ancient . . . (but rejected) good ways which contrast with the current ‘greed for unjust gain’ and shameful actions, as in Jeremiah 6:16, the salient point is that those to whom rest is offered are ‘weary and are carrying heavy burdens.’” They are:
not those ‘oppressed’ by the law, as some argue, but those who are burdened by life under Roman imperial control and its unjust political and socioeconomic structure. They are afflicted by disease and demons . . . by hard labor, by payment of taxes, tolls, and debts to the political, economic, and religious elite, and by the control of social superiors (5:3-12. Jesus saves from the punishment of Roman rule (21:41; 22:7; 1:2) in establishing God’s empire, now in part and at his return in full (4:17; 24:27-31) (Carter, p. 259).
The promised rest is cosmic in scope! A new creation!
The promised rest must correspondingly have deep resonance in the lived reality of life in community. It consists, Carter suggests,
not of existential peace of mind but of God’s presence with a people who live according to God’s revealed will and free of tyranny from imperial powers (Deut 5:14; 12:9; 25; 19; Isa 14:3-4; 65:10; Ezek 34:15, 27). Rest cannot happen under imperial domination (Deut 28; 65; Lam 5:5) but means the removal of that power. Rome’s rule is fated (Ibid.).
It is God’s will be done on earth. But ultimately this promised rest is cosmic in scope: it is “the creation vision of Gen 2:2-3 in which God, after creating, rests with all creation in just relation with God and itself.” It is the new creation, which comes only with God’s transforming intervention.
God’s gift of rest involves care for creation
Much is at stake here for an ecological theology concerned to promote care of creation. As Norman Wirzba points out, in rabbinic interpretation, God’s creation of rest on the seventh day of creation, “far from being an interlude in the unfolding of creation is the climax of God’s creative life.” Thus, with Jesus’ gift of rest come conditions that foster a sense of life’s fullness and its promised complete restoration, the good creation that is the source of both God’s and our eternal enjoyment and delight (Wirzba, The Paradise of God, p. 36).
Jesus is God’s wisdom and we are called to do Wisdom’s deeds
Another way to take measure of the cosmic scope of what Jesus offers us in this text is to observe that Matthew links Jesus’ words with Wisdom, who in the face of rejection like that which Jesus encountered, is “vindicated by her deeds.” Diane Jabobson finds in Matthew’s chapter 11 “the center of comparison between Jesus and Wisdom” (Jacobsen, p. 125). In a passage that carries us far beyond the scope of this lectionary, but is relevant here for the manner in which it gives meaning to the rejection Jesus encounters, Elizabeth Johnson comments on “Wisdom’s deeds” as follows:
Christ crucified and risen, the Wisdom of God, manifests the truth that divine justice and renewing power leavens the world in a way different from the techniques of dominating violence. The victory of shalom is won not by the sword of the warrior god but by the awesome power of compassionate love, in and through solidarity with those who suffer. The unfathomable depths of evil and suffering are entered into in friendship with Sophia-God, in trust that this is the path to life. Guided by wisdom categories, the story of the cross, rejected as passive, penal victimization, is reappropriated as heartbreaking empowerment. The suffering accompanying such a life as Jesus led is neither passive, useless, nor divinely ordained, but is linked to the ways of Sophia forging justice and peace in an antagonistic world. As such, the cross is part of the larger mystery of pain-to-life, of that struggle for the new creation evocative of the rhythm of pregnancy, delivery, and birth so familiar to women of all times (She Who Is, p. 159.)
Christ’s Spirit is found where we tend God’s creation
Here, too, one notes how much is at stake for an ecological theology concerned to promote care of creation. As Johnson points out,
A relation to the whole cosmos is already built into the biblical wisdom tradition, and this orients Christology beyond the human world to the ecology of the earth, and indeed, to the universe, a vital move in this era of planetary crisis. As embodiment of Sophia which is fashioner of all that exists, Jesus the Christ’s redeeming care intends the flourishing of all creatures and the whole earth itself. The power of Christ’s Spirit is seen wherever human beings share in this love for the earth, tending its fruitfulness, attending to its limits, and guarding it from destruction (Ibid., pp. 165-66).