V Pentecost, Year A
Genesis 24:34-38, 42-49, 58-67
The servant said to Laban, "I am Abraham’s servant. The LORD has greatly blessed my master, and he has become wealthy; he has given him flocks and herds, silver and gold, male and female slaves, camels and donkeys. And Sarah my master’s wife bore a son to my master when she was old; and he has given him all that he has. My master made me swear, saying, `You shall not take a wife for my son from the daughters of the Canaanites, in whose land I live; but you shall go to my father’s house, to my kindred, and get a wife for my son.’
"I came today to the spring, and said, `O LORD, the God of my master Abraham, if now you will only make successful the way I am going! I am standing here by the spring of water; let the young woman who comes out to draw, to whom I shall say, "Please give me a little water from your jar to drink," and who will say to me, "Drink, and I will draw for your camels also" — let her be the woman whom the LORD has appointed for my master’s son.’ "Before I had finished speaking in my heart, there was Rebekah coming out with her water jar on her shoulder; and she went down to the spring, and drew. I said to her, `Please let me drink.’ She quickly let down her jar from her shoulder, and said, `Drink, and I will also water your camels.’ So I drank, and she also watered the camels. Then I asked her, `Whose daughter are you?’ She said, `The daughter of Bethuel, Nahor’s son, whom Milcah bore to him.’ So I put the ring on her nose, and the bracelets on her arms. Then I bowed my head and worshiped the LORD, and blessed the LORD, the God of my master Abraham, who had led me by the right way to obtain the daughter of my master’s kinsman for his son. Now then, if you will deal loyally and truly with my master, tell me; and if not, tell me, so that I may turn either to the right hand or to the left."
And they called Rebekah, and said to her, "Will you go with this man?" She said, "I will." So they sent away their sister Rebekah and her nurse along with Abraham’s servant and his men. And they blessed Rebekah and said to her, "May you, our sister, become thousands of myriads; may your offspring gain possession of the gates of their foes." Then Rebekah and her maids rose up, mounted the camels, and followed the man; thus the servant took Rebekah, and went his way. Now Isaac had come from Beer-lahai-roi, and was settled in the Negeb. Isaac went out in the evening to walk in the field; and looking up, he saw camels coming. And Rebekah looked up, and when she saw Isaac, she slipped quickly from the camel, and said to the servant, "Who is the man over there, walking in the field to meet us?" The servant said, "It is my master." So she took her veil and covered herself. And the servant told Isaac all the things that he had done. Then Isaac brought her into his mother Sarah’s tent. He took Rebekah, and she became his wife; and he loved her. So Isaac was comforted after his mother’s death.
Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion!
Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem!
Lo, your king comes to you;
triumphant and victorious is he,
humble and riding on a donkey,
on a colt, the foal of a donkey.
He will cut off the chariot from Ephraim
and the war horse from Jerusalem;
and the battle bow shall be cut off,
and he shall command peace to the nations;
his dominion shall be from sea to sea,
and from the River to the ends of the earth.
As for you also, because of the blood of my covenant with you,
I will set your prisoners free from the waterless pit.
Return to your stronghold, O prisoners of hope;
today I declare that I will restore to you double.
I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree that the law is good. But in fact it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me.
So I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!
Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30
Jesus said to the crowd, "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 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."
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; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will. 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.
"Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. 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. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light."
New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Today’s gospel lection is a rich and marvelous reading. And it would be easy to ignore the first part of the reading and jump too quickly to the second part. The narrative begins with the disbelief of John the Baptist that leads to Jesus querying the crowd about John the Baptist. Jesus quotes his non-believing interlocutors (in a dirge like fashion he mocks their criticism); they have a problem with the way Jesus conducts his ministry.
Now John the Baptist was an ascetic and lived the kind of prescriptive Torah centered life that might have attracted kudos from the religious leadership. But it didn’t. Jesus is hospitable to the unhospitable. This does not appear to garner any legitimation for Jesus. Since John validated Jesus’ ministry; there is a succession of sorts between John and Jesus. But neither seem to be able to please the ‘wise and learned’, the urban elite.
Jesus had come to major cities that showed little interest in his itinerant traveling healing show. Think about this for a moment. If Jesus showed up today in New York City, if some homeless person down in the Village should start healing people do you think people would repent and change their ways? No, they would continue to call cabs, rush to appointments and eventually he might be arrested as a public nuisance.
Think it would be any different in Seattle, Dallas, Birmingham, Chicago, San Francisco or Washington D.C.? Sydney, London, Frankfurt, Tokyo? Cities are cities and Jesus’ critiques a formal element of human culture: the city.
There are two takes on the city in the biblical tradition: one is that the city is the noblest of human creations and the second is the apocalyptic destruction of the city. The city is both the first ‘creation’ of victimage (Gen 4) and its highest apogee (Gen 11). Jesus will die outside the walls of a city and it is a redeemed and utterly transformed ‘city’ that comes from heaven at the end of the age (Rev 21).
Jacques Ellul has been the most vigorous contemporary interpreter and critic of the ‘city.’ His many books detail the horrendous implications of ‘city life’ and technological domination, the social structures we have created to keep ourselves in the prison of civilization. We build walls around cities and protect them; they are our assets. We live, work and play in them and recently the number of human beings living in cities finally went over 50% of the total human population for the first time in recorded history. There are more people in cities now than ever before. The ‘city’ is the social context for the rejection of Jesus.
(See Matthew Pattillo’s essay on ‘Girard and Ellul’ for an analysis of violence and civilization).
The second half of our reading is one that is more genteel in character and easier to preach.
It begins by picking up the theme of rejection (7:10-12, 10:16-20) now given theological underpinning, God has hidden the revelation (ekrupsas) from the wise and learned and revealed it (apekalupsas) to those who lacked the ‘cultural’ skills to figure it out, the little children.
The invitation to ‘come’ and ‘take my yoke’ as well as the preceding emphasis on revelation might all seem incongruous if not for one thing: The ‘yoke’ ties back to the city. The yoke of Jesus is being contrasted with the yoke of ‘The Law.’ The city is governed by the ‘rule of law’ and it is by the rule of law that the city remains structured in victimage. We recall that one of the three pillars of culture is law (prohibition). Jesus is explicitly contrasting his ‘new society’ with that of human creation. And this is the point of Matthew 11 as it prepares to explicate Jesus’ confrontation with the ‘rulers of the city’ in Matthew 12.
The ‘yoke’ metaphor also entails the shift from the negative mimesis of the city to the positive mimesis of Jesus. Those who know the Son also know that discipleship consists of ‘meekness’ (praus) and humility (tapeinos), terms that hearken back to the Beatitudes and behind the Beatitudes to the poor and disenfranchised of the Hebrew Scriptures (anai’im). Again it is not difficult to see here the ‘city’ implied, for every major city is full of homeless, lonely, brokenhearted, cast-offs begging for sustenance.
The one who yokes with Jesus thus rejects the pomp and circumstance of power and glory, fame and fortune that drives ‘the city.’ Upon yoking with Jesus is promised ‘rest’, a rest to be contrasted with the frenzied and frantic pace of the city locked in mimetic entanglements and rivalry. Jesus’ ‘rest’ is predicated upon the fact that we are together with him and he with us as we go about our daily lives. As with two oxen yoked together where one is the more experienced ‘plower of the field’, so we too are the novices in the kingdom and where he leads we follow, as he takes a step we step in pace with him, side by side.
The study of Joachim Jeremias (The Prayers of Jesus) is essential reading for the latter part of our passage, particularly for understanding the so-called ‘Johannine thunderbolt’ of 11:25-27.
On the dirge-like character of the ‘children’s song’ of Matt 11:17 see Jeremias Theology of the New Testament (25-27). He observes that underlying the Greek text is an Aramaic rhythm called a ‘kina metre.’ “It derives from the lament for the dead (kina) in which the singer who leads the lament utters a longer cry (three beat) to which the lamenting women make answer with a shorter echo (two beat)…the kina metre serves above all to express strong inner emotion. It covers a wide span, including laments, warnings, threats, admonitions and summons as well as beatitudes and messages of salvation.”
An earlier form of this ‘yoke’ saying can be found in Ecclesiasticus (Wisdom of ben Sirach) 51:23-30, ‘bend your neck to the yoke, be ready to accept discipline, you need not go far to find it.”
Taking upon oneself ‘the yoke of the law’ is a rabbinic expression, implicitly but deliberately contrasted to Jesus’ yoke of humility and meekness (two qualities that do not fare well in cities).
The Mishnah reads “Rabbi Nehunya b. Ha-Kanah said: He that takes upon himself the yoke of the Law, from him shall be taken away the yoke of worldly government (tyranny) and the yoke of worldly care; but he that throws off the yoke of the Law, upon him shall be laid the yoke of worldly government and the yoke of worldly care.” (M. Aboth 3:5)
This is further elaborated in a rabbinic commentary on Leviticus (postdating the Mishnah): “It says in Lev 11:45, ‘For I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt to be your God, you shall therefore be holy as I am holy.’ That means, I brought you out of Egypt on the condition that you should receive the yoke of the commandments.” (Sifra 57b)
A later Rabbinic source reads: “Dearer to God is the proselyte who has come of his own accord than all the crowds of Israelites who stood before Mt Sinai. For had the Israelites not witnessed the thunders, lightnings, quaking mountain and sounding trumpets, they would not have accepted the Torah. But the proselyte who saw none of these things, came and surrendered himself to the Holy One, blessed be he, and took the yoke of heaven on himself. Can anyone be dearer to God than this man?” (Babylonian Tanhuma, Lek leka #6, f).
There is a modern emphasis on the ‘rule of law.’ The contemporary spread of democracy goes hand in hand with the rule of law. From time to time throughout Christian history there have been attempts to create a theocratic reign of God. From Constantine and St Patrick to the Puritans and contemporary governmental authorities there is a subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) attempt to impose a rule of law in the name of the One who is the ‘end of the Law’, whose only law is the law of love.
We can resist this in our preaching. The yoke of prohibitions and commandments is burdensome. Instead, proclaiming Jesus, the liberator from Law, we may indeed find the rest that we seek, no longer in our own self justifications but in the justifying character of our God, who reveals to us, ‘his children’, a better way than that of law; the way of the cross, the way of humility, meekness and forgiveness.