Matthew 11: 16-30 The Wisdom of Christ in a Foolish Generation

Farewell Melody by Ravil Akmaev Shared under the Creative Commons 3.0

Matthew 11: 16-30

Parallel Luke 7: 31-35; 10: 12-15, 21-22

Highlighted words will have comments on translation

16 “But to what will I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to one another,

17 ‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn.’

18 For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon’; 19 the Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ Yet wisdom is vindicated by her deeds.”

20 Then he began to reproach the cities in which most of his deeds of power had been done, because they did not repent. 21 “Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the deeds of power done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. 22 But I tell you, on the day of judgment it will be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon than for you. 23 And you, Capernaum, will you be exalted to heaven? No, you will be brought down to Hades. For if the deeds of power done in you had been done in Sodom, it would have remained until this day. 24 But I tell you that on the day of judgment it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom than for you.”

25 At that time Jesus said, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants; 26 yes, Father, for such was your gracious will. 27 All things have been handed over to me by my Father; and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.

28 “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. 29 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. 30 For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

Throughout this reading of Matthew’s gospel, I’ve pointed to the similarity in the simple wise/foolish dichotomy of wisdom literature in many of the teachings of Jesus. The prophets also use this type of language to demonstrate the wise path of following God’s call to repent and the consequences of remaining among the foolish. As Jesus addresses the lack of repentance among those who have heard the proclamation of the kingdom of heaven, those who have not heard the wisdom the God has offered them. He points both the judgment for those who have chosen the foolish road and promise for those who have wisely taken his yoke upon them instead of remaining in servitude to other masters. The way Jesus responds to the unwillingness of many who would consider themselves wise and intelligent again helps us consider the identity of the one who speaks to this generation who seems not to have ears to hear.

We transition quickly from the identification of John the Baptist with Elijah and Jesus’ link by allusion with the LORD to the generation that accepts neither John the Baptist nor Jesus. Those who consider themselves wise now act like children who don’t want to dance when the song is played or beat their breast when it is time to mourn. Those who think they are wise are out of step with the times, like a child who throws a tantrum in the middle of someone else’s party. John the Baptist is too cold, Jesus is to hot and they are looking for someone who is just the right temperature for their group. John drinks to little, Jesus drinks to much and with the wrong people. John (and Jesus) will be accused of having or being in alliance with demons. Jesus doesn’t demonstrate a piety that would please some others judging from what constitutes a wise path from their perspective. But the works of Christ should, in Jesus’ view, point the wise towards a realization of who this proclaimer of the kingdom of heaven is and what righteousness rather than piety looks like.

Jesus’ words of woe towards the cities of Chorazin, Bethsaida and even the place that starts as his home in Capernaum are meant to bring about repentance but may also express frustration to the resistance Jesus experiences among the people in those places. These may be places where disciples or Jesus had to shake the dust of their sandals and move on to the following town. They are places that without repentance will be like the traditionally wicked cities of Sodom, Tyre and Sidon who come under God’s judgment. The response to the message that Jesus carries matters because to fail to acknowledge Jesus is to fail to acknowledge the one who sent him and to remain aligned against the approach of the kingdom of heaven.

For Matthew’s gospel there is a time of judgment, and the presence of John and Jesus indicate that the time is at hand. The coming of the kingdom of heaven is good news for those who wisely receive it, but it is condemnation for those who oppose it. I know that some of my own discomfort with Jesus’ condemnation of the towns of Chorazin, Bethsaida and Capernaum reflect my location within an American version of Christianity which in H. Richard Niebuhr’s famous words involves, “A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of Christ without a cross.” The reality that the God portrayed in the bible judges is necessary in a world where men and women do sin and treat their neighbor in unrighteous ways and empires and kings abuse those without power.

One of the reasons many may have rejected to take the offer of Jesus’ yoke may be the ways they have already accommodated the yoke of Rome and those who ruled on her behalf. People must understand what time the stand in to inform the choices they make and to most rational people of Jesus’ time this was the time of the empire of Rome rather than the kingdom of heaven. As Warren Carter can point out, more than half of the times the work yoke (Greek zugos) is used in the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures and Apocrypha) it refers to “political control, particularly the imposition of harsh imperial power.” (Carter, 2001, p. 122) I do think it is important to acknowledge that Jesus in his proclamation of the kingdom of heaven is proposing an alternative to the way things are conducted under the reign of Rome. Like the prophets who made audacious claims about God’s actions in the presence of attractive alternative ways of viewing the world, those who hear the words of Jesus should wonder what authority he possesses to make such broad claims.

Paradoxically, much like in Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, the wise of this world have rejected the wisdom of God and those who are not wise in the world’s eyes can see God’s wisdom. As we’ve seen in Matthew, it is often those who have no reason to demonstrate faith who demonstrate great faith in Jesus’ authority while those who have the witness of the scriptures remain deaf to the message and identity of Jesus. In the words of John’s gospel:

He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. John 1: 10-11

My use of John and allusion to Paul here are intentional because the language in this section resembles the language that in different ways Paul and John use to refer to Jesus. Verse 27 where Jesus talking about all authority being handed to him by the Father and no one knows the Father except the Son, and no one knows the Son except the Father would feel at home in the gospel of John. It bears the same type of pattern as John 14

Jesus said to him, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me you will know my Father also. From now on you him and have seen him. John 14: 6-7

Both John and Paul identity Jesus with being the ‘wisdom of God’ (John uses the masculine word (Greek logos) instead of the feminine wisdom (Greek Sophia)). We’ve had wisdom themes throughout the gospel but here Jesus in an offhand way alludes to the character of wisdom by stating, “wisdom is vindicated (literally justified or made righteous) by her deeds. Is Matthew pointing towards a wisdom Christology where Christ is identified with the Divine Wisdom?

The discussion is made richer by hearing two other ancient sources. Richard B. Hays and others have pointed to the similarity with the end of the Apocryphal book the Wisdom of Sirach (also called Sirach or Ecclesiasticus)

23 Draw near to me, you who are uneducated, and lodge in the house of instruction. 24 Why do you say you are lacking in these things, and why do you endure such great thirst? 25 I opened my mouth and said, Acquire wisdom for yourselves without money. 26 Put your neck under her yoke, and let your souls receive instruction; it is to be found close by. 27 See with your own eyes that I have labored but little and found for myself much serenity. 28 Hear but a little of my instruction, and through me you will acquire silver and gold. 29 May your soul rejoice in God’s mercy, and may you never be ashamed to praise him. 30 Do your work in good time, and in his own time God will give you your reward. Sirach 51: 23-30

While the prayer that ends the book of Sirach is not attributed to the divine wisdom of God, it does appeal to the hearer to place oneself under her yoke. Here Jesus now takes upon the characteristic of wisdom offering her yoke to those who need rest for their souls. By choosing the wise path, the path of Christ one will find rest for one’s souls. A second text possibly alluded to here is Jeremiah 6. Again, Jeremiah is appealing to the people of Judah to turn from their foolish ways to embrace the good ways of God.  

16 Thus says the LORD: Stand at the crossroads, and look, and ask for the ancient paths, where the good way lies; and walk in it, and find rest for your souls. But they said, “We will not walk in it.” 17 Also I raised up sentinels for you: “Give heed to the sound of the trumpet!” But they said, “We will not give heed.” 18 Therefore hear, O nations, and know, O congregation, what will happen to them. 19 Hear, O earth; I am going to bring disaster on this people, the fruit of their schemes, because they have not given heed to my words; and as for my teaching, they have rejected it. 20 Of what use to me is frankincense that comes from Sheba, or sweet cane from a distant land? Your burnt offerings are not acceptable, nor are your sacrifices pleasing to me. 21 Therefore thus says the LORD: See, I am laying before this people stumbling blocks against which they shall stumble; parents and children together, neighbor and friend shall perish. Jeremiah 6: 16-21

While the tone of Jeremiah 6 has similarities to the judgment on the cities of Chorazin, Bethsaida and Capernaum it also begs the people to turn and find rest for their souls. It also resonates with the earlier statement about not taking offense (Greek skandalizo which the verbal form of the word translated stumbling block in Paul’s letters) when God has placed a stumbling block before the people. People become unable to receive God’s path. While Jeremiah doesn’t point to the character of divine Wisdom, he does point to the LORD the God of Israel being the speaker.

It is easy to want to assign to the gospel a fully developed understanding of all the ways that the later church and even other books in the New Testament will talk about Jesus, but even though they share common language, they also speak from different perspectives and answer different questions about Jesus’ identity. Yet, the language here points to something that Matthew wants to communicate about the identity of Jesus. Richard B. Hays is worth quoting at length here:

To paraphrase the point in characteristically Matthean fashion, something greater than Wisdom is here. Jesus who is “gentle and lowly in heart,” transforms and redefines what is meant by “wisdom” by virtue of the specifically narrated character of his teachings, his life, and his death and resurrection.

At the same time, however the metaphorical linkage with Sirach 51 does suggest a cosmic, divine aspect to Jesus’ teaching. He is more than a sage, more than a prophet: he can speak authoritatively of “my yoke” as none of Israel’s sages could ever do. He does not merely point the way to wisdom as a source of rest; rather, he is the one who can promise actually to give rest to all who come to him. (Hays, 2016, p. 158)

There is something more than just a sage here, some greater understanding of what the Son of Man or Messiah mean. There is some cosmic aspect that the words of Jesus’ point to here where only the Son knows the Father and wisdom is justified by her works. Jesus will embody what the gentleness (Greek praus, translated meek in Matthew 5:5) and humility (Greek tapeinos, literally lowly or subservient) would be part of the merciful righteousness that Jesus demonstrated and proclaimed. Jesus’ merciful righteousness will stand in contrast to the pietas (or piety) practiced by Caesar.

On the other hand, there is something compelling about the wise/foolish nature of wisdom literature being spoken from one who is linked to wisdom and the way the wise of the world reject the wisdom of God. As Hays can say again, referencing Jeremiah:

Many of Jesus’ hearers, especially the wise and the learned, say in effect, “We will not walk in it.” Therefore, the promise of “rest for your souls” remains open to those who hear and obey Jesus, but those who refuse the summons come under dire judgment. (Ibid, p. 159)

Perhaps the commonality of those who were called as emissaries of the gospel of Jesus being rejected would inform much of the language of the New Testament that would become the later wisdom/Logos/cosmic Christology of many early church theologians. Jesus is greater than the wisdom of Solomon or the proclamation of Jonah (Matthew 12: 41-42) and Matthew and others continue to deploy a wide range of titles, scripture quotations and allusions, as well as hearing about the acts of power that should have caused Chorazin, Bethsaida and Capernaum to turn towards the one who knows the Father and reveals him. Many will reject the message of Jesus as foolishness, but in the words of Paul:

but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 1 Corinthians 1: 24

11 thoughts on “Matthew 11: 16-30 The Wisdom of Christ in a Foolish Generation

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