Wednesday, July 6, 2011

The Burden

Psalm 145:8-21 (call to worship)
John 8:2-11 (moments with the children)
Romans 7:15-25 (message)
Matthew 11:16-30 (message focus)

Frederick Bruner, in his marvelous commentary on Matthew, describes the theology of Matthew chapter 11 in three phrases:
Jesus is the Promised Messiah
Jesus is the Coming Judge
Jesus is the Present Savior
We are not going to follow his order, though it fits the entire chapter. Our focus will be upon one theme in the chapter – judgment – and how it works its way into the conclusion of this section. Judgment is a word we use in a number of ways, not all of them negative. We speak of a “judge”, generally with respect for the court and its officers. We talk about “judgmental” religious people, generally with pain and a loss of trust. We remind ourselves that it is not our role to “judge”, generally accurately, though sometimes we use that phrase to gloss over the obvious fact that over and over, in mundane tasks as well as bigger questions that impact other people, we each need to choose what is best and right. And, we like to think of ourselves as being a good “judge” of character, a reference to discernment, which is in itself a spiritual gift.

Despite the broad range of uses for “judgment” in our vocabulary, the fact is that judgment is a terrible burden we carry, and a burden that we sometimes impose on others. Hear Paul’s lament in Romans: “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. . . . Wretched man that I am!” That’s some burden! And, witness the story of the woman caught in adultery and brought before Jesus: “The law of Moses commanded us to [kill by stoning] such women” (John 8). That’s some burden!

Let’s take a look at this section from Matthew, in each of its parts.

In the first part (11:16-19), which I’ll call, “can’t do nothin’ right”, we have Jesus and John – whom Jesus identifies as the greatest person in history prior to Jesus – Jesus and John as children in the marketplace, trying to entice their friends into a game. John says, “I played a dirge and you wouldn’t cry.” Jesus says, “I played a wedding and you didn’t dance.” And they wonder what they’ve got to do so their friends and neighbors will play with them.

Jesus then moves from the all too familiar childhood experience to the ministry of John and Jesus in the real world, a ministry that has met with a lot of what we would call failure. John was the hard core, wild eyed, repent or bust preacher. But he was so far out there that folks said he had a demon! Jesus, on the other hand, was known for befriending sinners, tax collectors, drunks, prostitutes . . . all the folks who you wouldn’t expect to be at ease with a religious teacher. So, people said Jesus was a drunk too. There’s just no way to please Goldilocks, no way to be “just right”. It’s a “heads you win, tails I lose” proposition. Sometimes, when you are judged, it ain’t about you. Sometimes, when we judge, it’s all our problem.

This first section addresses the contemporary judgment of the religious elite, the folks who rejected both John and Jesus. The next section (11:20-27), which I’ll call “wipe that smile off your face” ... it addresses a different sort of judgment and focuses on a different audience. The audience here is those who feel themselves to be in a position of privilege because of what they have experienced of Jesus. “Woe to you, Chorazin! . . . And you, Capernaum!” These two cities were the places where Jesus did “most of his deeds of power” (11:20). But, and it is a BIG “but”, their lives were not changed by the gift of God, they had not truly repented. They could put up historical markers – “Miracle #37: Jesus healed a lame man at this site”, “The Zebedee home, where Jesus’ disciples James and John grew up and began to work in their father’s fishing business”. They could post a bill board, “Capernaum: A little heaven on earth”. But Jesus says, “Will you be exalted to heaven? No, you will be brought down to Hades” (11:23).

There’s all kinds of privilege which we experience in the world, from white privilege to male privilege to teacher’s pet to brown noser to . . . . If we’re the privileged person, we’d like to think that we really are better than everyone else – smarter, faster, nicer, harder working, better. If we’re not the privileged person, we’d like to “wipe that smile off your face”, thank you very much.

Of all the kinds of privilege in the world, one of the most dangerous is the sense that we are exceptional, special, privileged before God. That God likes me better than you. Sometimes, we even talk about this on a national level, like Chorazin and Capernaum doubtlessly talked about this on a city level. We might say, with a sense of privilege, “We’re a Christian nation.” But if we’re a Christian nation, if we ever were a Christian nation, a contention that deserves some vigorous debate or at least some fuller detail, we’re in trouble. We’re not in trouble because we’ve taken prayer out of our schools – kids will pray as long as teachers give tests. We’re in trouble because, if we are a Christian nation, it appears from this text that we are held by God to a higher standard. “Judgment begins with the household of God” (1 Peter 4:17). We’re in trouble because we in the church so often waste time fixing blame instead of fixing problems, starting with the problems in ourselves. The point isn’t whether we – nation or church – are “exalted to heaven”. The point is whether we allow our lives to be changed by the gift of God.

“I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and intelligent and have revealed them to infants” (11:25). Until we get over ourselves, we’ll find it awful hard to get to Jesus.

As a sidebar, this section of Matthew does propose the possibility that God’s judgment of people who have never heard about Jesus somehow takes fact that into account. It doesn’t elaborate, but it opens a door. And, it is instructive to note that whenever Jesus speaks about hell, he is talking to religious folks. Too often, the church has deflected these messages of judgment onto everyone else. And, we’ve missed the point.

The final section of this passage presents Good News for Burden-Bearers:

Matthew 11:28-30 "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."

Judgment is such a burden. When we judge, we have to carry and constantly maintain the burden – and the farce – of privilege. We know that we aren’t better, more deserving . . . but we have to prop up that deadly and just plain false idea. It is time to lay down the burden of privilege, to cast ourselves on the mercy and grace of a God who loves and welcomes everyone in Jesus Christ.

When we judge, we have to carry the burden of our bitterness, we insist that we – only we – can handle our pain. It is time to lay down the burden of our bitterness, to bring it before God and begin to practice the disciplines of repentance and reconciliation.

Judgment is such a burden. When we are judged, it seems no matter what we do, we are not accepted. It is time to lay down the burden. When we are judged, we don’t just lose, we are a loser. It is time to lay down the burden. When we are judged, the focus is on blame, not on change. It is time to lay down the burden. As Paul writes, “Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from the body of this death? Thanks be to God – through Jesus Christ our Lord . . . . There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 7:24-25, 8:1).

There are many other burdens from which Jesus may rescue us. We may be carrying one of them today. In the context of this story, it seems to me that the burden of our judgments is at the front of Jesus’ mind. No condemnation, only acceptance and welcome. Let’s lay our burdens down, and let’s accept one another “as Christ has accepted/welcomed you” (Romans 15:7).

Frederick Dale Bruner, 2004 (1987), Matthew: A Commentary, Volume 1: The Christbook, Matthew 1-12, revised and expanded edition, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.

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