Tag Archives: Matthew 11

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

Matthew 11: 1-15 Jesus and John the Baptist: Identity, Time and Authority

Saint John the Baptist in Prison Visited by Salome, Guercino (1591-1666)

Matthew 11: 1-15

Parallel Luke 7: 18-28

1 Now when Jesus had finished instructing his twelve disciples, he went on from there to teach and proclaim his message in their cities.

2 When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples 3 and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” 4 Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: 5 the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. 6 And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”

7 As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? 8 What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces. 9 What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. 10 This is the one about whom it is written,

‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.’

11 Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. 12 From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force. 13 For all the prophets and the law prophesied until John came; 14 and if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah who is to come. 15 Let anyone with ears listen!

Jesus concludes the instructions for his disciples, and we return to narrative where we are again confronted with the question of Jesus’ identity and authority. In chapters eight and nine we were drawn in a rhythm of stories of acts of power which disclosed Jesus’ identity and authority combined with stories interjected which point to the character of discipleship under Jesus. After Jesus completes his instructions for his disciples his encounter with a group of John’s disciples returns us to the reflections upon Jesus’ identity in chapter eleven which will use language strikingly similar to some other New Testament authors and link into themes in Paul (in this section), John (in the next section) and again Paul (in the final section). While Matthew may not develop these themes in the same what that Paul or John will it does at least allude to some common language and understandings about Jesus’ identity already being present in the time of the compilation of Matthew’s gospel and continues to point to Jesus’ identity being greater than even a title like Messiah (or Christ) can encompass.

The opening verse of chapter eleven transitions us from the instruction to narrative in a pattern commonly used in Matthew’s gospel (see also 7:27; 13:53; 19:1 and 26:1). The language of this transition is also similar to the language that Deuteronomy narrates Moses using at the end of each of his teaching of the twelve tribes of Israel (Deuteronomy 31:1, 31:24 and 32:45) and further heightens the connection between the twelve tribes of Israel and the twelve disciples.  The translation of the Greek teleo here as ‘finished’ is appropriate and contrasts to the normal translation of the same term in Matthew 5:48 as ‘perfect’ which I address at length in that section. The word translated ‘instruction’ (Greek diatasso) has a firmer sense of commanding, ordering or directing and it reinforces the position of Jesus as one to give orders and to send out these followers into the prepared fields for harvest. Jesus may have completed giving instructions to his disciples, but he now moves towards the continued proclamation of the kingdom of heaven and teaching about how to live as a community under that kingdom to the cities on his journey.

Jesus has sent forth his disciples but in the presence of the crowds he receives the disciples of John who come to him and question his identity. John has heard in prison of what Jesus is doing, and the words behind the ‘what the Messiah is doing’ is literally the work of Christ (Greek erga tou Christou). Christ and Messiah are the same word (Messiah is the transliterated Hebrew and Christ is the transliterated Greek) and it refers to one who is anointed to rule. While Christ or Messiah or the Latin Rex all refer to kingship and John the Baptist’s reference to the work of the Christ probably indicates an understand Jesus in terms of the awaited king to reestablish the Davidic line and bring about the renewal of Israel. Yet, the works that Jesus is doing is not the work of a warrior king, like David, (at least not against the armies of Rome) but rather there is a different quality to the work of Jesus. John’s query through his disciples asking, “are you the one?” provides another query into the identity of Jesus and its meaning.

Jesus’ answer refers to the works narrated in chapters eight and nine, but their form also points back to language of Isaiah, particularly 35: 5-6:

Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongues of the speechless sing for joy.  Isaiah 35: 5-6a

Being the Messiah or the Son of David is redefined in terms of healing rather than military conflict. In fact, the opposition to the kingdom of heaven’s approach will be by those who use violence to bring about peace. The kingdom of heaven is not the violently maintained Pax Romana which is enforced (often brutally) by the legions of the empire or the kings and rulers of the various provinces of the empire. The Christ as embodied by Jesus embodies both the characteristics of a prophet like Elijah or Elisha (who would heal and even raise the dead), a Moses who can give instructions to the nation of Israel but also a king with authority.

Jesus’ answer to John’s disciples ends in another beatitude, like the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount, where “blessed (happy) is anyone who takes no offense at me.” As I mentioned when discussing the beatitudes in Matthew 5, this takes us into the rhythm of wisdom literature where one is ‘blessed’ to be like the saying illustrates. Wisdom is going to be introduced in our next section, but here we are also by the Greek skandalizo which is the verbal form of skandalon used by Paul, for example in 1 Corinthians 1: 23:

but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block (skandalon-scandal) to the Jews and foolishness to the Greeks.

Paul will in 1 Corinthians allude to the wisdom of God, which is Christ crucified, and as we will see as the conversation continues between Jesus and the crowd we will also be brought into an identification with Jesus and the character of wisdom. Here it is worth having one’s ear open to the identity being alluded to as Jesus redefines the expectations of Messiah initially in terms of healing and then highlighting the ‘offense’ that will cause many to choose the path of foolishness rather than wisdom.

As John’s disciples depart Jesus returns to the crowd to talk about the identity of John by extension his own identity. Jesus rhetorically negative responses about what the people went into the wilderness to encounter John the Baptist is a pretty direct jab at Herod Antipas. A reed shaken by the wind probably alludes to the coinage Herod Antipas issued which uses reeds on them. Reeds are common in Israel and while they are blown about by the wind because they are unreliable for strength. Jesus may be referring to the way Herod Antipas was ‘battered’ by John’s prophetic condemnation of his relationship with Herodias. This is sharpened by the ‘soft robes’ description. The word ‘soft’ can also be translated ‘effeminate’ which would be a strong criticism indeed in the ancient world. Herod is subtly accused of being weak, unreliable and non-masculine. John the Baptist is the contrast to Herod Antipas (even though he is imprisoned by him) and his role is that of a prophet and specifically the prophet sent to prepare the way.

Matthew uses scripture to point us to the identity of Jesus in surprising ways. Here he uses the same passage Mark quotes in relation to John the Baptist (see Mark 1:2 where Mark misquotes this as Isaiah). The reference is to Malachi 3: 1:

See I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple.

The use of Malachi is important because it is the end of Malachi where the hope for a return of Elijah comes:

Lo, I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the LORD comes. He will turn the hearts of parents to their children and the hearts of children to their parents, so that I will not come and strike the land with a curse. Malachi 4: 5-6

John the Baptist’s identity is linked to Elijah who prepares the way for the coming of the LORD, the God of Israel, and by at least allusion Jesus is linked to the LORD. Messiah as a title is insufficient for who Jesus is in Matthew’s gospel. It, like the Son of David, Son of God, and Son of Man it points to a portion of Jesus’ identity but ultimately needs to be redefined in the terms of the ‘works of the Messiah.’ John the Baptist may be greater than any who came before him, but in the dawning kingdom of heaven even the least of its citizens are now greater than John for they are a part of a new thing. The crowd hearing the proclamation of Jesus stand at a critical time for they are seeing what the prophets and the law and John the Baptist all prepared the way for. What they are seeing and hearing is the fulfillment of the prophetic and covenantal hope of Israel.

Verse twelve and thirteen can be read multiple ways. The NRSV renders ‘the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force. For all the prophets and the law prophesied until John came.’ In translating this there are two significant issues: first in the kingdom of heaven’s ‘suffering violence and being taken by force’ and secondly in the sense the prophets and the law ‘prophesied until John came.’ The first passage the Greek biazetai kai biastai arpazoousin auten is behind this phrase. Biazetai and biastai are a related verb and noun. While the NRSV’s translation of third person singular passive biazaetai as ‘has suffered violence’ is the traditional rendering of a verb that indicates entering by force it can also mean that the kingdom of heaven has entered forcefully or entered in power and in resistance to that power violent men have tried to force their way into the kingdom. The kingdom of heaven does come in power as illustrated by the healings and Jesus’ authority of sin, the demonic, creation and even death demonstrated in the previous chapters, but it will not be established by violence. There are conflicting visions between those who are looking to Jesus in terms of a traditional king or emperor whose peace is maintained by military force. Jesus himself will be seized by violent men and they will attempt to maintain their power through their violence. There is a conflict between the kingdom of heaven and those violent men who maintain the kingdoms of the earth, and the kingdom of heaven is not powerless, but it will not respond like a king or emperor. The second translational issue is whether the law and prophets have ceased their function after John came and that prophesy is at an end. I would keep the Greek word order and render the phrase ‘the law and the prophets up to John prophesied.’ There is a temporal aspect to this Greek phrase but the way the English rearranges the words in the NRSV can be read as John the Baptist bringing an end to prophecy where the Greek simply states that those who came before John and including John prophesied.

Moving back out of the translational reeds we do have in this exchange between the disciples of John, the crowds and Jesus a continued reflection on who John the Baptist is and by extension who Jesus is. John the Baptist, for those willing to hear is Elijah, and Jesus is the one for whom Elijah is preparing the way. Messiah or Christ as it is applied to Jesus needs to be understood in relations to the ‘works of the Messiah’ demonstrated by Jesus. The kingdom that Jesus proclaims and reigns over is not a kingdom created by violent men like the conquests by David or Caesar, but it is not without power. Its power may seem like foolishness to the Greeks and a stumbling block to the Jews in Paul’s language. Continuing in Paul’s language in 1 Corinthians and preparing us for the next section this ‘Christ Jesus, who became for us the wisdom of God’ is the Jesus who will be the one crucified by violent men is also the one in whom this paradoxical power of the kingdom of heaven resides. This power that allows, “the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.