Several years ago I was with a group of people on a trip and the van we were driving needed gas. We were in a place that was unfamiliar to all of us, so we followed the signs except, at the bottom of the exit ramp the sign was missing. One of the passengers used his instincts and said, “take a right, the town is this was so there must be a gas station.” Well after an hour or so on some tiny country roads, we did find a gas station.
As we were making our way back to the highway and as we were turning onto the on-ramp, another looked out the window and said, “hey look, there was a gas station right there!” If we had taken a left rather than right at the bottom of the ramp, we would have gassed up and been on our way. The problem was, the view from where we were was blocked by a large truck, and we could not see what was right in front of us.
I think it is a safe statement to say that we have all been there. We have all taken that right turn when we should have gone left. We should have kept quiet rather than opening our mouths. We should have opened our mouths rather than stay silent. These are all choices that we make along the journey of life, and we are being asked again on this very day, to make another choice.
The reading from the Gospel of Matthew that we just heard opens with reference to a game that was played by Jewish children in the first century. They would divide up into two groups, one that would pretend to play musical instruments while the other group responded in a manner opposite to the other. Jesus uses this example to draw a parallel to the Jewish leader who responds wickedly to both John the Baptist being too ascetic and to Jesus being too liberal in mercy and joy.
As I have mentioned before, Jesus was the most critical of the religious leaders of his day and has even called them hypocrites on several occasions. We called them this because they preached one thing but demanded another of their followers. In other words, they were preaching love, but they required people to follow a set of rules that was almost impossible to follow, and that they did not support themselves.
The other point that Jesus was making was since the religious leaders could not discredit what he was saying since he was, in fact, preaching the law, they went after his on a personal level and tried to discredit him. They pointed out that no man of his stature would hang around with drunks, prostitutes, tax collectors, and prostitutes but Jesus was saying, these are the very people that we need to be ministering to and not condemning.
Then the passage takes a turn. Jesus goes off to pray and thanks God for hiding these things, and by that he meant the truth, from the wise and the intelligent and revealed them to infants. Let’s unpack this a little because the meaning of all of this is just below the surface.
The wise and intelligent is about the leaders of the temple. They were in fact very wise and very intelligent in the ways of the law. They could recite chapter and verse when pointing out someone’s behavior and how it did not fit with their particular interpretation of that law. But they were so blinded by the letter of the law that they missed the people that were standing right in front of them. They were so blinded by the rules that they could not see the suffering that this law was causing.
Jesus says that his message was revealed to infants. Now a casual reading of this passage makes one think that the truth was being told to those in cribs and what not. Perhaps we are thinking that if the truth is going to be revealed to infants, we better get cracking on a nursery ministry, so we don’t miss out. Well, it is not an infant in the literal sense but those who understand things like an infant or small child. We are not born with prejudice, we learn it, we are taught it. Children are pure in this sense, and that is the point that Jesus is making. The wise and intelligent could not see what was right in front of them, but the infant can and does.
When Jesus turns away from the people gathered and lifted a prayer to God, we begin to realize how clearly his focus is centered, it is not centered on the powerful, the wise, and the intelligent ones who, so often attract our attention, but on the infants on those who are far from the places of influence and that so long to have that influence. Jesus is telling us not to be attracted to those in power, but just like the game that opened this passage we are to be working for and with the opposite of those with power, prestige, and money. We are to work with and advocate for those on the margins, just as Jesus did. He spoke to authority and influence, but when he did it was to advocate for those with nothing.
“Righteousness always requires favoring and advocating for the innocent, the oppressed, the poor, the widows, the orphans, and the alien. God always stands unconditionally and passionately on this side and on this side alone against the lofty on behalf of the lowly; against those who already enjoy right and privilege and in the name of those who are denied and deprived of it.” Karl Barth
The saving word of the Gospel is understood best when it is locked in the midst of the experience of the powerless and the disenfranchised.
The Gospel passage ends with the invitation to come and take up his yoke. A yoke is that wooden structure that is placed on an ox or other beasts of burden to assist them in pulling heavy objects. The yoke is custom made to each animal after careful measurement and fitting over several weeks of work by the carpenter. There is a story that in his carpenter shop in Nazareth, Jesus and his stepfather Joseph, made some of the perfect fitting yokes, in fact, it was what they were known for, and people would come from miles around to have their oxen fit.
His yoke is made easy because it is fit just for you. His yoke is made easy because he has carefully and skillfully fit it to you to help you with your burdens. This is not some off the shelf yoke at the bargain yoke store down the street, no, this is a custom fit yoke that has come after many fittings to make sure it fits just right, and it is comfortable.
The Gospel passage ends with an invitation to come, not to the rich and powerful, although they are invited as well, not sit in the choice seats but to be one among many. Jesus says come, all who are weary, those who are made weary by the world that fails to comprehend the burden of injustice. The invitation is made to take up his yoke that will be made easy by the heavenly powers coming to the aide of those who the world wants us to shun and ignore. The invitation today is for you and for me to come and to take up his yoke, the one he has custom fit for us, and to carry our burdens and to help others carry theirs.