A Reflection on Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30
The earlier echoes in this passage from Matthew are dramatic. John the Baptist preaches in the tradition of the great prophets to remind the people that it isn’t in the intricacies of the priestly tradition that they will find salvation but in righteousness, in being a community of justice and mercy. We hear the thunder from Mt. Sinai, “ I am the God who is always becoming, who has and will liberate you; who expects you to treat each other with respect and justice. This is the Law and I am the enforcer and inspiration for this liberation, this standard of living.” And again, when King Josiah found the “book” (2 Kings 22:15ff):
The prophetess Huldah declared to the priests, “Thus says the God of Israel: I will indeed bring disaster on this place and on its inhabitants—all the words of the book that the king of Judah has read. Because they have abandoned me and have made offerings to other gods, so that they have provoked me to anger with all the work of their hands, therefore my wrath will be kindled against this place, and it will not be quenched. But as to the king of Judah, who sent you to inquire of the Lord, thus shall you say to him, Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel: Regarding the words that you have heard, because your heart was penitent, and you humbled yourself before the Lord, when you heard how I spoke against this place, and against its inhabitants, that they should become a desolation and a curse, and because you have torn your clothes and wept before me, I also have heard you, says the Lord. Therefore, I will gather you to your ancestors, and you shall be gathered to your grave in peace; your eyes shall not see all the disaster that I will bring on this place.”
John the Baptist challenges the community of common folks and with the passion of Jeremiah also challenges the leaders and King Herod. His is the voice of the sirocco, the Arabian wind that sweeps the desert clean with abrasive force. The sacred history of Israel is written in this ricocheting story of the righteous people and the same people who turn away from the standards of their covenant.
Jesus’ voice, too, comes from the desert as he leaves the temptations to power and status behind him. In his voice, we hear an earlier covenant, the covenant with Abraham and Sarah, the covenant of prosperity and safety. When this covenant is broken, the Holy One repents of the harm done to the earth, but reminds the people that they will be holy, no matter how many times they turn away. The rainbow is to remind people that God will not punish the creation, despite the wickedness of humanity. In Jeremiah 31:
Is Ephraim still my dear son, a child in whom I delight? As often as I turn my back on him, I still remember him, and so my heart yearns for him; I am filled with tenderness towards him
Or Isaiah 49:
Can a woman forget the infant at her breast, or a loving mother the child of her womb? Even these forget, yet I will not forget you. Your walls are always before my eyes, I have engraved your name on the palm of my hands.
The lash of prophecy that John wields is one of self-awareness and repentance, a turning back to the Holy One. The guide rope that Jesus offers is the hour of reconciliation, the promise of a better way, healing in community. Their methods may vary, but the method is the same. Justice, mercy, and compassion are the ways to joy and well being.
It is not only Jesus’ generation that called for a song to which they would not dance, or a solution which they would reject. We see those who would deny the need for new sources of energy, for a commitment to put life ahead of profit, ecology ahead of economy. We hear the ongoing voices of discrimination encouraging hate instead of love, division instead of unity of purpose. Sometimes we hear those voices in our own heads. This is surely one of the reasons we exist as a religious institution, to help each other resist the call of the expedient and choose the longer work of reconciliation. In our churches, we must be learning how to act with justice, to speak with gentleness, to protect others with the passion of John and the open embrace of Jesus. We live not for ourselves but as living sacrifices, as Jesus and John were, pouring out our corporate life not to maintain ourselves but to be lovers, artists, and bridge builders in our community. We come together to mourn for the state of the world, and then to learn some new steps and to teach some new steps so that all may dance to a blended music of holy joy.