July 9, 2017
Scripture: Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30
Audio: The audio is from the 10:30 service. Since I only use notes, the sermon as preached varies somewhat between services, and from the text.
“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” (Matt. 11:25).
This saying of Jesus’ has been seen as enigmatic by some interpreters because of the strand of thought relating to knowledge being purposefully hidden by God, or people’s eyes being made unable to see. As is often the case, Jesus is turning several common expectations on their heads with his teaching. And turning them on their heads not only for ancient people, but for us as well.
First consider the positive elements of the statement: God is revealing something to infants. Not literally infants–or at least not solely to literal infants–but those who share something in common with infants. Later in this gospel after all, Jesus will tell Peter that the truth which he confesses in calling Jesus the Son of God is the fruit of divine revelation.
But what characteristic of infants could Jesus be commending? There are a lot of things we could say about human infants, but if we look at human babies and reflect on what makes human babies distinct from other mammals, I think we can come close to what it is that Jesus is commending to us as his disciples.
The basic truth of our infant existence is that we are utterly dependent upon others. Defenseless little people whose heads are much too large, limbs are much to weak, and whose balance is initially nonexistent. Other mammals walk within hours or days, the length of time it takes us to walk, let alone become self-sufficient is measured in months and years.
But if we can stretch the idea of knowledge to include not only consciously acquired information, but “hard-wiring,” then we can see that infants are acutely and instinctually aware of their vulnerability and dependence. All the default settings of little humans are wired toward connecting with momma, and daddy, and the other family members they’ve heard in utero. The sense of smell is heightened and the smell of mom and the direction of milk is impressed upon those little psyches, as is the instinct to suck, or to cry when hungry, or wet, or confused.
Basically, we come into the world instinctively knowing nothing so firmly as our need for someone else.
I believe it’s precisely this sense of need that Jesus finds to be missing from the wise and intelligent of that age–and often our own.
If we consider who was considered “wise” or “intelligent” in the ancient world and in the context of first century Judaism, it was precisely those people who had committed themselves to study of the scriptures, or who had been educated. We can relate to this, I believe, since we still, despite some differences, consider education to be a marker for both wisdom and intelligence, if not things that completely overlap.
For Jesus to thank the Father for hiding “these things” from the wise and intelligent, he’s offering thanks that those who have been educated are having a harder time seeing things for what they are than those who have not been. Even though he says “thank you” I half wonder if thanks is the proper term for the sentiment Jesus is expressing in the first part of this statement. I don’t think Jesus particularly wants the wise and intelligent to continue–ironically–in their ignorance. But he does want them–he wants us–to come to grips with the limits of our own ability.
It is precisely those who are considered wise and intelligent who are acting, in a negative sense, like children: “But 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'” (Matt. 11:16-19).
In other words the inability of the learned to discern the work of God that is before their eyes–and their propensity to decry it–is a testament against the viability of their wisdom. In effect, their wisdom, being false and deceptive, has become foolishness, while those who are not expected to be wise, but who recognize their dependence, have had the truth revealed to them.
This demonstrates that when Jesus praises the “hiddenness” of the truth, he’s overturning other common expectation. Many apocalyptic teachers–those who spoke about the last things that were to occur–taught that knowledge of these last things was hidden from everyone who lacked specialized knowledge or revelation. In contrast, Jesus tells them that they will find their rest–an eschatological term–in him. In other words, God has “hidden” the truth in plain sight, and is available to everyone. Those who would see it only have to cast off the assumptions that prevent them from seeing it. As one commentator put it:
“children have not yet received any schooling; they still have to be initiated into the world of adults. The smallest of them are called by Jesus, who is Wisdom incarnate, to come to him … and learn from him. They are particularly suited for his interpretation of the Torah, while the wise and the intelligent are hampered by the knowledge that they already have” (Weren, Studies in Matthew’s Gospel, 45).
“Wisdom is vindicated by her deeds,” Jesus says. In other words, wisdom is proven by it’s ramifications. True wisdom is to recognize the truth of Jesus’ message and to see him for who he is.
This is good news for us. Far from being a strange and obscure command, to become like little children and enter the kingdom of heaven requires very little of us. It’s simple. As Jesus tells Martha when she complains about Mary: only one thing is needful. That one thing is the recognition that we need Jesus. This is the “better part.”
Jesus’ prayer continues as he says “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” (Matt. 11:27). The good news is that Jesus has chosen to reveal the Father, to reveal the heart and reality of God to us all. No one is left out. As one of the collects for mission in Morning Prayer puts it, “Lord Jesus Christ, you stretched out your arms of love on the hard wood of the cross that everyone might come within the reach of your saving embrace…” (BCP 101).
To be embraced by Christ, to lay our burdens down at the foot of the cross is to recognize and to receive the revelation of Christ’s words, “Come unto me, all ye that travail and are heavy laden, and I will refresh you” (Matt. 11:28, KJV, part of the “Comfortable Words” in Rite I, BCP 332).
What we find, in other words, is the good news that taking up the yoke of Christ entails a lessening of our burdens rather than an increase of them:
“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” (Matt. 11:29-30).
Thank God for the grace of God to recognize that we’re never really any less dependent than we are the day we enter the world. We need one another, and more so, we need God. And thank God that in Jesus, we find what we need to carry on.