Last week we began a three-week conversation about Evangelism. This week and next week we will continue that conversation. The text for this coming Sunday, Pentecost 3A comes from Matthew 11. Jesus sounds perhaps a little exasperated.
Matthew’s gospel is neatly arranged into 5 sections like the five books of Moses. Matthew presents Jesus as the new Moses, the new law-giver. “You have heard it said, love your neighbor and hate your enemy, but I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” Sermon on the Mount. Moses said… but I say to you…
In the early 20th century a guy named B. W. Bacon noticed that Jesus used the phrase, “When Jesus finished saying these things…” (Καὶ ἐγένετο ὅτε ἐτέλεσεν ὁ Ἰησοuς τοὺς λόγους τούτους…) five times, at the end of five long discourses, or sermons (Mt. 7:28, 11:1, 13:53, 19:1, 26:1). He pointed out the five-fold narrative/discourse structure. To oversimplify, one could organize Matthew’s gospel as follows:
Introduction: Matthew 1
1. Narrative: Matthew 2-4. Discourse: Matthew 5-7 (Sermon on the Mount)
2. Narrative: Matthew 8-9. Discourse: Matthew 10 (Missionary Discourse).
3. Narrative: Matthew 11-12. Discourse: Matthew 13 (Parables of the Kingdom).
4. Narrative: Matthew 14-17. Discourse: Matthew 18 (Living in Community).
5. Narrative: Matthew 19-22. Discourse: Matthew 23-25 (Olivet Discourse).
Conclusion: 26-28 (Death Resurrection)
For those listening to the podcast, you can see this all in writing on my blog,www.BishopMike.com.
Matthew 11 falls after the Missionary Discourse in chapter 10. Jesus has called, equipped and sent the disciples out in ministry. Jesus’ form of evangelism is to send people out to heal and proclaim the kingdom of God, or kingdom of heaven as Matthew prefers. The kingdom of heaven is not something out there, it is within you. It is breaking into our world.
Now Jesus starts venting:
To what will I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the market-places and calling to one another, “We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn.”
Wah, wah, wah. “John came neither eating nor drinking and they say he has a demon. I came both eating and drinking and they call me a glutton and a drunkard, friend of tax-collectors and sinners.” You can just hear him saying, “What do you people want?!”
Every church leader can identify with this. You can’t win. If you go play left the right pummels you. If you play right the left pummels you. If you play center everyone pummels you.
Then Jesus starts venting his frustration with the cities he had visited. He slumps into a frustrated heap and does what people of faith do. He prays:
“I thank you Father, that you have hidden these things from from the big shots and revealed them to infants.” then his prayer morphs into an evangelistic invitation, to the “little people” of this world.
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.
This sounds significantly different than the Jesus who called his followers to deny themselves, take up their cross and follow him, who said we have to hate mother and father (in just the previous chapter), who said his followers would be dragged before magistrates, who called the rich young ruler to sell all his possessions. Perhaps after playing the one side, he’s now appealing to the other.
Keep in mind, that in Matthew’s gospel the teachers of the law lay heavy burdens on their followers. They require absolute adherence to Sabbath laws. They give 10%, even of their herbs: You tithe mint, dill, cumin but neglect the weightier matters of the law, like justice and compassion. Perhaps Jesus’ yoke is freedom from legalism, and an invitation into a new way of connecting with God, through faith.
Looking at the text from an evangelism angle, perhaps different people need different approaches. Some people may be more likely to respond to a call for high commitment. High expectations yield high results. They are inspired by a challenge, because they find joy in lofty goals. “Run to win the prize,” says the apostle Paul.
Others, however, have been broken by the world. They require a gentle touch. Handle with care. The boy who is cowed and insecure from physical abuse. The girl who carries the secret of sexual abuse. The woman who is emotionally abused. Church leaders have met them all. Others have been wounded by job loss, disease or divorce. They punt, improvise and cope as they can, but all too often the world responds with judgment. To them we are the voice of Jesus, “Come to me all you who have been roughed up by the world. I have a soft heart. In me you will find rest for your soul.” I am reminded of Psalm 23: “He leads me beside still waters. he restores my soul.”
The same Jesus who kicks some in the behind, offers gentleness and soft shoulder to others. Perhaps we are to do the same. Sometimes evangelism (and love) call for a hard word; other times it requires a soft word. “A harsh word stirs up anger, but a soft word turns away wrath.” Proverbs 15:1
Either way, the yoke’s on you. A yoke is a yoke. Even if it is easy, or light, it’s still a yoke. Walking the way of Christ is a discipline. This is why we are called disciples. Discipleship directs our lives. Saying yes to Jesus means saying no to other things. There’s no getting around it. But the Spirit directs us when to speak boldly, and when to speak gently, if we will listen.
You might want to talk about unity, in light of the first section: Jesus’ frustration at the people who want him to dance for them. His frustration that they aren’t satisfied with an ascetic like John or a carouser like himself. The preacher could point out that Jesus takes a different approach than John and yet esteems him highly. Of those born of women, no one is greater. Jesus understands it takes different approaches. “Whoever is not against us is for us.”
Or, you might want to focus on Jesus’ prayer, in which he thanks God for revealing things to infants rather than the wise of the world. Jesus says we have to have the faith of a child to “enter” the kingdom.
Or, finally, you might address the light and easy yoke that Jesus offers. The preacher might talk about edgy, call to high-commitment evangelism, and gentle, soft-touch evangelism to those who have been wounded by the world. The heavy yoke of legalism, versus the light yoke of faith. The heavy yoke of law versus the light yoke of the gospel. The heavy yoke of the cross, versus the light yoke of the resurrection.
Either way, the yokes on you.