The Ultimate Wisdom

The readings for Sunday, July 9, 2017, Fourteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Cycle A, are
Zechariah 9:9-10; Romans 8:9, 11-13; and Matthew 11:25-30.

The Gospel of this day is Jesus’ hymn of praise and thanksgiving to his heavenly Father for the gift of revelation. Many of the thoughts expressed in this hymn are similar to thoughts and expressions found in Old Testament Wisdom Literature and in various Old Testament Prophets. Matthew begins with words attributed to Jesus, “I thank (bless) you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and the understanding and revealed them to the little ones.” The words, “At that time” connect the hymn with the preceding material and set the context in which Matthew places this hymn. What is that context? Jesus has just experienced three major disappointments. The first disappointment: Jesus’ former mentor, prophetic forerunner, now in prison, seems to doubt whether Jesus is the long-awaited Messiah-King who would triumph over the enemies of God’s people and set up the Kingdom of God.

Second disappointment: Popular ridicule of himself and John the Baptizer. Because John lived an ascetic life of fasting and abstaining people gossiped that he was possessed by a demon. In contrast to John, Jesus lived a more “normal” life, eating and drinking and “hanging out” with people. He quotes what people are saying about him, “Behold, a glutton and a drunk, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.” He quotes a proverb that goes something like this, “No matter what tune we played for you, you would not dance. When we were in mourning, you would not weep.” In other words, John and Jesus approached their mission very differently, but both were ridiculed in popular opinion. Third disappointment: Some of the cities in which Jesus had proclaimed the kingdom through astonishing miracles rejected him and his efforts.

After Matthew lists these three disappointments, he adds an outbreak of curses against those cities, curses which do not fit well into the mouth of one who in the following hymn will speak of himself as “meek and humble of heart.” The curses are more likely Matthew’s response to the failure of Christian outreach in those cities in the eighties of the first century when Matthew composed his Gospel. Jesus blesses or thanks his Father that revelation was accepted mostly by the unlearned (Matthew’s “little ones”) while being rejected by the learned. This expresses the fact that Christianity, with some exceptions, was more appealing to the poor and oppressed than to those who were not looking for any kind of salvation from oppression. St. Paul expressed similar thoughts in 1 Corinthians 1:26-29. It should be noted that Jesus addresses his Father in the familiar Hebrew term in which children addressed their fathers, “Abba!” St. Paul tells the Christians of Rome that we who have been adopted into the divine family may do the same.

“Come to me, all you who labor and are overburdened, and I will give you rest.” Old Testament Wisdom Literature glows through this statement. In this literature, Wisdom speaks as if she herself were a person. Sirach 24:19, “Come to me, you who desire me, and take your fill of my gifts.” The Gospel of John and St. Paul made it clear that Jesus is the ultimate Wisdom or Torah from God. Therefore it is acceptable to use the language in which Old Testament Wisdom speaks and recast it as words of Jesus. In Deuteronomy 34:14, God to Moses, “My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.” Speaking of wisdom in general, Proverbs 3:17 states, “Her paths all lead to contentment.”

“Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” With these words this hymn of joy and thanksgiving comes to an end. What is the yoke? In ancient times a yoke was a wooden bar placed across the shoulders of two draft animals (oxen) by which they were joined for working together. Such yokes could be heavy. Here however yoke is used as a metaphor for a burden under which someone works or to which someone has to submit. Rabbinical scholars refer to the “yoke of Torah” or the yoke of the Laws of Moses. Paul speaks of “the freedom with which Christ has set us free,” and “not to be subjected again to the yoke of slavery,” by which he means certain Old Testament laws and observances. The yoke of Jesus that is easier than the “yoke of Torah” is Jesus’ interpretation of the Torah.

An example: “Such and such was said to you in ancient times, but I say to you, etc.” Another example is Jesus’ more lenient observance of the Sabbath summed up in this Jesus-saying, “It is lawful to do good on the Sabbath.”