An Open Table where Love knows no borders

They Started It!

A sermon on Matthew 11:16-19,25-30 by Nathan Nettleton

Imagine the scene. A group of children are playing in the town square. It is not a competition, more like a game of dress-ups and role plays. The game is called “weddings and funerals”. One or two of them have some sort of musical instrument, like a flute or whistle, and they start up a joyous wedding tune. The boys start a circle dance, just as they have often seen their fathers do at Jewish weddings, and once it is going, the girls are drawn into it. Then the music changes tune to a funeral lament. The girls begin wailing and lamenting, just as they have seen their mothers do at Jewish funerals. And then the boys join in. And then the music changes again, and then again, and the roles switch and the fun is in exaggerating the contrasts and seeing how one another responds as the lead changes and the each group is drawn in by the other’s lead. The imitation of one another is good natured and integral to the fun of the game, and it’s also part of how the children learn the roles that will be expected of them as adults at real weddings and funerals.

Now imagine the same scene gone wrong. Rivalry has somehow broken out and the two groups are at odds with one another. The boys dance their wedding dance, but the girls turn their backs and won’t join in. The girls begin the funeral lament, but the boys fold their arms and stand unmoved. Both are angry with the other for not joining in, but both are adamant that the other started it by not joining in first. “We were playing right, but they messed it up. They started it, and now it’s all ruined.” There is a tense stand off as both groups glare at one another across the square, and everyone goes home unhappy and at odds with their neighbours.

This is exactly the scene that Jesus describes to make his point in the gospel reading we heard tonight:

To what will I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to one another,
‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance;
we wailed, and you did not mourn.’
For John the baptiser came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon’; 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.”

The conversation, as you can hear, is about the people’s responses to John and Jesus respectively. And of course, what that is really about is the more fundamental question of who are the good and godly people and how do we tell. What do we believe are the appropriate lifestyle choices that mark out the good and godly people?

The contrast between John and Jesus was clearly a real one, and Jesus doesn’t play it down here. John was into the ‘don’t drink, don’t dance, fast and pray constantly’ type of religious discipline. Jesus, on the other hand, had more of a reputation as a bit of a party goer and was constantly being accused of drunkenness and gluttony and having all the wrong sorts of friends. In fact according to the old law of Moses, if you took your own son into the town square and denounced him as a drunkard and a glutton and a wild rebel, the town could join you in stoning him to death, so these are not trivial charges in that culture. So John is being portrayed as a religious extremist, and Jesus as a dangerous wild child. But notice that on this occasion at least, Jesus doesn’t make any attempt to resolve it in favour of one or the other. You may remember that on another occasion in response to the same question, Jesus talks of not fasting while the wedding is in progress, but that the day for fasting will come. Although he doesn’t say it in the same way here, his point seems to be the same. To the ear schooled in the Hebrew Bible, his illustration of the children’s game evokes the words of the wisdom book, Ecclesiastes (3:1-4):

For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:
a time to weep, and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn, and a time to dance.

Jesus, then, is not setting his way and John’s way in opposition to each other, but saying that there is a time for both. But he is saying that others are not only setting them in opposition, but rejecting them both. And I’m sure we see the same thing going on very often today. A great deal of the way we go about portraying ourselves and our approach to the faith as good and right and appropriate is to point disdainfully at other people who seem too extreme, or too lax, and condemn them and distance ourselves from them.

We see some people as being too fanatical. Maybe they are too rigorous in their literalistic ways of reading the Bible, and they get all hung up about trying to interpret some finer points of the book of Revelation, or sorting out exactly what constitutes an abomination to the Lord. Or maybe they are over-the-top super-spiritual signs-and-wonders types, who are always going on about how God told them this or that, and that miracles and healings are happening constantly, and they are terribly concerned that not enough people are speaking in tongues. Or maybe they are a bit like John, and seem fanatical about self-denial – always fasting and spending hours kneeling on stone floors in prayer, or refusing to eat anything they didn’t grow, or wear anything they didn’t make themselves or use any vehicle other than a bicycle, even if it is to take a sick relative to the hospital in the rain.

Fanatics we say. Giving Christianity a bad name. Making it seem dour and oppressive and a bit loopy and embarrassing. The church would be better off without the likes of them, we say. We’re so much more progressive and moderate and enlightened. We are above all that foolishness. Thank God we are not like them.

But of course, then there are the people we see as way too slack, way too permissive, way too lacking in standards. Maybe they call themselves church-goers but in reality they really only turn up every now and then. Or maybe they seem a lot more interested in designer clothes and a flashy car and a fancy house in a desirable neighbourhood than they do about following the one who had nowhere to lay his head. Or maybe they seem far too friendly with fundamentalists or liberals or haters of one type or another. Are there no standards? Or may they are comfortable working for the military when we are sure followers of Jesus should all be pacifists, or they are working at the Casino and we are concerned about the impact of gambling culture on the poor.

Slackers we say. Liberals, lightweights, nominals, backsliders. Failing to take Christian discipleship seriously. How is the world ever going to be changed and the kingdom of God come on earth as in heaven if people can’t step up to the mark and take it seriously? The church would be so much purer and stronger without the likes of them, we say. We are so much more committed and faithful and disciplined. We are the real deal. Thank God we are not like them.

Everybody thinks that those who don’t do things their way must be not just different, but wrong. And we clench our fists and glare at one another across the square, and Jesus shakes his head in frustration and says:

To what will I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to one another,
‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance;
we wailed, and you did not mourn.’

We human beings are always getting ourselves stuck in this trap. We heard the Apostle Paul’s description of the feeling of being trapped in a cycle of sin that couldn’t seem to be broken. We are trapped in this because it is so much a part of the culture we have grown up in that it might as well be in the air we breathe. We all want to believe ourselves to be good people, and to be seen by others as good people, but all our concepts of right and wrong, good and evil, righteousness and sinfulness, are simply relative. There is no objective standard by which we can say, “the good people are those who score above 75% on this nice objective test.” So without such a standard, but needing to reassure ourselves of our standing, we resort to comparing ourselves to one another. I feel okay about myself because I’m better than those people on the other side of the town square. They are obviously no good, because they don’t do things our way. I may not be perfect, but I’m better than them, so they are the real problem. And if you doubt this, just think for a moment about how often, when you have been accused of some failure or wrongdoing, you have pointed the finger at someone else and said, “What about them?” or “They started it!” To avoid facing the questions about my own behaviour, I point to someone who might be able to be seen as even worse. I’m okay really, because they are the real bad people. The game was all going so well until they stuffed it up. Don’t look at me; they started it.

“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest,” says Jesus. Come to me all you who are labouring under heavy burdens of condemnation or self-righteousness, of judgementalism or fear of judgement. Come to me all you who labour under the need to prove yourselves acceptable to God and everyone else and who know no way to do that that doesn’t involve pointing the finger and ganging up on someone else who can be our token wrong-doer, our reference point of not good enough, whose existence assures us that since we are not them, we are okay – not perfect perhaps, but among the good enough. Come to me, says Jesus, and lay down these burdens and I will give you rest.

There is an odd quirk about the way Jesus offers to give us rest though, isn’t there? “Take my yoke on you, and learn from me.” Putting on a yoke doesn’t sound like rest. The yoke is the thing that lays across the shoulders of a pair of working bullocks or draft horses so that they can pull a heavy load. It is not usually an image of rest. Jesus isn’t offering us some kind of entirely burden-free life. Everybody carries something. But he says, “my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” Not non-existent, but easy and light. I have a funny mental image of this light and easy yoke. My 13 month old pup, Delta, has a best mate called Archie who is about the same size and not much older. And when they are playing in the park, one of their favourite games is to both grab a stick and run, full tilt, across the park, shoulder to shoulder, held together by the stick in their mouths. And it looks for all the world like they are yoked together, but their yoking is an image of fun and freedom and togetherness and exuberance and just joy of life. Which I think is a lot like what Jesus hopes we will discover when we take on his yoke. Of course, he is not asking us to take it on alone. We are yoked with him. That’s the point. “Take my yoke on you, and learn from me.” When a bullock driver is training a new bullock, he yokes it with the most experienced bullock so that it will learn from the old hand. We are yoked with Jesus so that we might learn from him. And if we will look around in the team that Jesus chooses to be yoked with and to all pull together with, we will find that it is full of all our old disgruntled playmates from the town square – all those we turned our backs on and refused to play with because they didn’t dance to our tune. And suddenly we’ll realise that Jesus is always identifying himself with those we have rejected and despised, and now here we are, yoked to him and in the same team as them, and the only way to learn from Jesus is to all pull on the same team together. So we grit our teeth, and steel our shoulders and one, two, three, and suddenly, wow! We are off and flying with the joyously yoked freedom of a couple of crazy pups just loving one another’s company, and the great game is back on again, and the town square is ablaze with colour and movement and dancing and laughter.


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