Summary of the Text
The Missing “Advent” Text: A lectionary preacher moving from the fifth to the sixth Sunday after Pentecost in Year A will notice that a familiar chunk is missing, sent back in time to the third Sunday of Advent. With this chronological jumbling, establishing the context here will thus be especially important. Christ’s “But to what will I compare this generation?” in 11:16 comes in the middle of an argument, but that argument does not relate to the extension of a Christlike welcome that was the focus of the previous week’s text. One might even consider incorporating an Advent carol in the service to help establish this “Prepare ye the way” context.
Kids These Days… Children in the New Testament are something of a mixed symbol, sometimes representing more negative attributes like ignorance or immaturity (e.g. “We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro…,” Ephesians 4:14), and other times representing a more positive artlessness or sense of dependence (e.g. “…for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs,” Mark 10:14). Paul holds these two aspects together in 1 Corinthians 14:20: “…do not be children in your thinking; rather, be infants in evil, but in thinking be adults.” In this week’s passage we also see a little bit of each side of this symbolism. First, in 11:16, Jesus likens “this generation”—which has rejected both John the Baptist and Christ himself—to stubborn children who have received “Unsatisfactory” marks on their report cards for “Plays well with others.” But then just nine verses later in 11:25 Jesus thanks the Father for revealing the truth to “infants” instead of to the wise. This disparate symbolism of children could serve as an organizing principle for a preacher wanting to draw in both of the pericopes that make up this week’s lectionary selection.
You Can’t Please All the People All the Time: Perhaps the most immediately relevant lesson from the perplexing 11:16-19 pericope is for the preacher herself. The generation that Jesus describes refuses both to dance and to mourn, and is committed to rejecting God’s messengers regardless of how they come—you abstain? Demon! You partake? Drunkard! “This generation” sets up for itself a kind of Catch-22, in which all possibilities are ruled out.
Most congregations can feel this way at times—too much or not enough focus on social justice; too critical or not sufficiently convicting; too much focus on the original biblical context or too great a focus on application. Humility calls us to receive feedback graciously and seriously, but trying to satisfy all of these voices consistently is a recipe for burnout. It is good to be reminded, amidst mutually exclusive human demands, that our calling is “not to please mortals, but to please God” (1 Th. 2:4).
Proof in the Pudding: Scripture is replete with warnings not to judge by appearances (e.g. 1 Samuel 16:7) and not to rely on human works (e.g. Romans 11:6). And yet this hardly means that external actions don’t matter. Providing a counterbalance to the frequent focus on the hidden heart and absolute reliance on grace we have reminders like “faith without works is dead” (James 2:26), “you will know them by their fruits” (Matthew 7:20), and—in our passage this week—“wisdom is vindicated by her deeds” (Matthew 11:19b). The transition to the “deeds” in Matthew 11:20-24 (omitted from the lectionary passage) suggests a primary reference to God’s “deeds,” though the inclusion of John the Baptist as well sanctions applying this aphorism also to works done by and through mere humans.
This can be a difficult balance to strike—especially within an individual sermon—between walking solely by faith, and relying (to some extent) on the evidence of deeds. If we lean too far in one direction we can end up with an almost cult-like fideism (“trust what I say—not what you see!”), but too far in the other can lead to moralism (“better have those fruits!”), an end-justifies-the-means mentality (“being a good person is more important than how you become one”), or a faithless empiricism (“it doesn’t really matter what’s unseen—it’s the tangible results that matter”).
Word Study: zugos: In non-agrarian societies we are about as familiar with the English “yoke” as we are with the Greek zugos. For those of us unaccustomed to working with teams of farm animals Scripture is likely the only place that we encounter these terms. Some uses can lead us to think of “yoke” as meaning the same thing as “burden” (the term to which it is yoked in 11:30). This can certainly be part of the meaning, but it leaves out the even more basic sense of being joined together. So when Jesus says, “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me,” he is not dumping something on us, but joining himself to us. We see this sense of “being joined together” (albeit in a negative illustration) when Paul speaks of being “unequally yoked” (heterozugountes) with an unbeliever in 2 Corinthians 6:14. The yoke Christ shares with us is also unequal, though in a different sense—and in a way that allows us to be instructed and supported.
Since humans are rarely yoked together in a literal sense (like oxen), the image of a tandem bike can be useful. It’s as though Jesus is saying, in a more modern idiom (if tandem bikes can be considered “modern”), “Get on the bike with me and learn how to ride—and I’m a pretty good cycler so you’ll also find some rest for your soles.”
(Whereas Paul is saying, “When you get on a tandem bike with someone make sure you plan to go in the same direction.”)
Fodder for Anti-Intellectualism? Verse 11:25 can, in isolation, provide fodder for those who are skeptical of any sort of theological education—“I thank you, Father…because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants.” Plenty of other scriptures can be introduced to show that this is not a sanction for ignorance or for neglecting the spiritual discipline of study. Think of the counsel for Timothy to be able to “rightly [explain] the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15), or any number of proverbs about the value of instruction (e.g. “Apply your mind to instruction and your ear to words of knowledge,” Proverbs 23:12).
Yet those who value clerical education should still hear a warning in this verse. While it is easy to make a counter-case for the need for an educated clergy, it is true that there also can arise the temptation to trust more in our understanding than in the Lord (cf. Proverbs 3:5) or in God’s revealed truth. Our call, ultimately, is not to dissect God, but to follow God (which does, however, entail a proper understanding of what God has revealed). In the midst of our study and preparation, it is good to be reminded of the danger of hubris and self-reliance that can be the byproducts of achieving a certain degree of expertise. Sometimes we do need to heed the warning of Festus: “Too much learning is driving you insane!” (Acts 26:24).
The Easy Way or the Difficult Road? “The gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life,” Jesus said four chapters earlier near the end of the Sermon on the Mount, “and there are few who find it.” And now here in chapter 11 of Matthew Jesus says, “My yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” Is there a contradiction here? Or maybe something of a paradox? Anyone who has experienced God’s grace and tried to live as a disciple will know from experience that the Christian life is both difficult and liberating. A sports metaphor can potentially help to clarify this dynamic—playing with an exacting teammate like LeBron James or a demanding coach like Mike Krzyzewski is difficult (I’ve heard), even as it makes the game of basketball easier.
The easy/light aspect that Jesus refers to here could relate to a couple different arenas. It could connect back to Jesus coming “eating and drinking” (v. 19) to make the point that the way of Jesus is easier than laboring beneath the weight of a Pharisaic millstone. Or it could relate to Jesus coming to fulfill God’s law for us, since on our own it would be impossible to live up to the standard of God’s justice.
Darren Pollock is Pastor of Panorama Presbyterian Church (PCUSA) and Adjunct Assistant Professor of Church History at Fuller Seminary. A graduate of UC Davis (BA in classics), Princeton Seminary (MDiv), and Calvin Seminary (PhD in historical theology), he lives in Temple City, CA, with his wife Ashley, two young children Charlie and Carter, and step-cat Fanny.
Darren is the author of Early Stuart Polemical Hermeneutics: Andrew Willet’s 1611 Hexapla on Romans (Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2017). He has also been published in Jonathan Edwards Studies, Anglican & Episcopal History, and Word & World, and he contributed multiple entries to The Jonathan Edwards Encyclopedia (Eerdmans, 2017).
After Christ and his family, Darren most loves crossword puzzles and Scrabble, Zion National Park, good coffee, passion fruit, and the ascendant Sacramento Kings.
Evangelicals believe they are saved by grace through faith but then add a man-made waiver that you have to work as hard as you can meet middle-class behavioral patterns to hang onto it.
Children in the First Century
In the first century, children enjoyed little esteem and virtually no respect. While families appreciated their own children, society merely tolerated them. The very language of the day reveals this first-century prejudice. One Greek word for child (pais or paidion) also can mean “servant” or “slave.”
Yet another (nepios) carries connotations of inexperience, foolishness, and helplessness. Greek philosophers regularly chided a stupid or foolish man by calling him “nepios.” Indeed, even biblical writers admonished Christians to “stop thinking like children [paidia]” (1 Corinthians 14:20).
Imagine, then, the people’s astonishment when Jesus brings a troublesome, noisy child and places him in front of the crowd (Matthew 18:1–9). With his hand on the lad’s shoulder, Jesus has the audacity to suggest that this small tyke provides an example to be followed.