Last revised: July 5, 2020
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PROPER 9 (July 3-9) — YEAR A / Ordinary Time 14
RCL: Gen. 24:34-67; 45:10-17; Romans 7:15-25a; Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30
RoCa: Zechariah 9:9-10; Romans 8:9, 11-13; Matthew 11:25-30
Opening Comments: Elements of a New Reformation
In the midst of the worst pandemic in a hundred years, people are resisting health guidelines and measures in the name of freedom. They tie mandatory mask-wearing rules to conspiracies which are supposedly about robbing them of their ‘God-given freedom.’ Really? On the 4th of July weekend, and with this set of readings, perhaps it’s a good time to preach about the true meaning of freedom that the God of Jesus offers us.
In our online Girardian Lectionary Study Group this week, the insight that stands out for me is that yoke implies a necessary connection to another. It’s not just a harness that limits freedom for one animal. Its limit to freedom includes being yoked to an Other.
This illustrates one of the primary insights of Mimetic Theory. Our brains are hard-wired such that something as fundamental as our desiring necessarily happens in and through the Other. So the Number One fundamental misrecognition in human experience is that we are deceived into thinking our desiring defines our freedom as individuals. No, at least not in the way we think. We cannot override our hardware. Our desiring is yoked to the Other in ways that seem invisible to us because it is on the level of subconscious hardwiring. The mimetic nature of our desiring is highly visible, of course, but on the level of all our interpersonal interactions and relationships. It’s only been since advances in neurology that we can begin to understand how our hardware places limitations on our software. The inner eye must be trained to see it on the level of our internal spirituality, through practices such as Mindfulness (cf., the works of neurologist/psychiatrist Daniel Siegel) and Contemplative Prayer (especially Richard Rohr).
Jesus recognizes this fact of yoking in today’s Gospel Reading. Freedom is not a function of an individual being fully in control of his or her own desiring. Our desiring is always yoked to some Other. So freedom comes only in being yoked to the Other Other who will not desire in ways that lead us down that path of envy, rivalry, conflict, and violence. It takes being yoked to the love of God in Jesus the Messiah to catch a desiring that leads us deeper into love of all the others who are loved by God. Jesus’s yoke is kind (better translation of Chrestos) because “no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.”
Paul describes this true liberation in Romans 7 and 8. He begins by giving expression to the human experience of being trapped in a fallen pattern of desiring, switching to a first person singular voice in representative fashion. He speaks of “sinful passions” (pathēmata) that lead to death and then of “the commandment” which keeps us trapped in the law. The commandment? The only one Paul names is the commandment involving “covetousness” — namely, mimetic desire. All our desiring is so screwed up that we cannot otherwise do what we want but instead so often find ourselves doing what we don’t want. Talk about messed up desiring! This is exactly what René Girard began to lay out for us right from his first book, Deceit, Desire, and the Novel. We might consider that book, and so much of Girard’s writings, as extended elaboration of what Paul voices in Romans 7:15-24a. Under the downward spirals of mimetic desire into conflict, we find ourselves “sold into slavery under sin” (Rom 7:14).
But Paul also understands the path to true liberation:
Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, with my mind I am a slave to the law of God, but with my flesh I am a slave to the law of sin. (Romans 7:24b-25)
In short, the way to liberation is to be yoked to the desiring of God’s love in Jesus Christ. Matthew’s Jesus and Paul are making the exact same point about what constitutes true freedom. It is decidedly not the answer of today’s radical individualism that we must live as if we are unyoked from the desires of all others. The latter is, in reality, the quickest ticket to getting trapped in a totally messed up desiring that leads to death. The only true path to freedom is to let oneself become yoked to the love of God in Jesus the Messiah. For Paul this yoking is what he describes next (Rom. 8:1ff.) as “life in Christ” or “life in the Spirit.”
But the liberating gift of these readings keeps on giving. They also intuit the fundamental point of human misrecognition Number One A. Number One is not being able to see our desiring according to others. Number One A is not being able to see how the law — our human cultures, institutions, and religions — are themselves trapped under the sinful powers and principalities such that they represent another enslaving force in our lives. Being hardwired to desire through others means the necessity of living in community with others. But how do we do so peacefully? The law (twinned with religion in pre-secularized cultures) — we think. But it’s a misrecognition of how satanic powers of division have the law under its power. Our law and order is based on being over against others: we have peace in order to keep them from ruining it. The law privileges us at the expense of them. Can you see how this is always a tenuous peace, an illusory freedom?
“Yoke” was also a common image in rabbinic literature for yoking oneself to the law — which both Jesus and Paul could see as a move of less freedom if one did not see how the law under sin can enslave us. This blindness to the downside of the law is also very much a part of Romans 7-8. It is part of the imagery of “yoke” in Matthew 11, but to better understand this view of the law we need to go back to Matthew 5. Jesus tells us that he did not come to abolish the law but to fulfill it (Matt. 5:17). In the antitheses that follow (‘You have heard it said in the law . . . but I tell you. . . .’), Jesus demonstrates how the law is fulfilled in love, especially as love even erases the ultimate Us-Them boundary of friend and enemy. The law cannot make us free as long as there remains any legally structured Us and Them. As Martin Luther King, Jr. put it, “None of us is free until all of us are free.” In short, until there is no Them.
Here’s the bottom line of misrecognition Number One A: our way to peace is violent and we don’t recognize it as such. (The entire context of Matthew 11 is John the Baptist sending disciples to Jesus because his expectations are still filtered through this misrecognition; he expects violence. Jesus’s basic response to him is shocking: the kingdom of heaven will be about intentionally choosing to suffer violence. See my proposal about translating Matt. 11:12 at Advent 3A.) Our human way to keep peace misrecognizes the violence of our peace-keeping as something that can never ultimately lead to peace. We believe in having a military on alert for protection against our enemy’s violence. We believe in having a police force to protect us from the violent within our own community. Our creed revolves around sacred, sanctioned violence. When we do see the violence of the military and police, we see it differently because it’s the good violence we believe and trust in to keep us safe from the bad violence. We misrecognize the violence as good. In our society based in White Supremacist Racism, people of color aren’t as inclined to make that mistake, especially with policing. The many innocent people on the other end of our ‘smart’ bombs and drones aren’t as likely to make that mistake. Those who are deemed Them can more readily see our violence as violence (but then most often misrecognize their own violent response as violence). We serve false gods who demand the violence of Us versus Them. Jesus is offering a merciful, forgiving yoke that helps us to instead see Them as Us.
Will there always be those who refuse the freedom accorded to those being healed from our two basic misrecognitions? Perhaps. But then the Them will persist only according to their choice of refusing freedom, rather than according to societal laws which bake-in an arbitrary Them.
The Number One example of the latter in our world has been the European-American system of White Supremacist Racism. People of Color have been the Them baked into the entire structure of our society along the arbitrary lines of race. For four hundred years on this continent, the law has privileged white people at a costly, deadly expense to people of color. On this 4th of July are we white folk beginning to finally understand how it is not 1776 that has defined our freedom but 1619 that has defined our unfreedom? None of us could truly be free while many of us were enslaved. In the Gettysburg Address, Lincoln hoped the Civil War could represent a “new birth of freedom” from the ideal of the Declaration of Independence that all people are created equal.
So as we endure multiple crises this 4th of July —
- a global pandemic made worse by failed leadership;
- civil unrest in the wake of police oppression over people of color (and again the failed leadership of a racist POTUS who only fans the flames);
- economic upheaval that accentuates once again the gross inequality of our corporate capitalism;
- rising authoritarianism and attacks on the rule of law that threaten the survival of our experiment with democracy; and
- the climate-change crisis that ever lurks in the background, at least until the next super storm or out-of-control fire
— can this be another opportunity for a “new birth of freedom”? There are signs that the veil over our misrecognitions are being lifted for an increasing number of people. There are movements underfoot which subordinate the false gospel of radical individualism to a better understanding of how we are all yoked together to promote the common good in new ways that begin dismantling the centuries of racism.
But there remains the voices of unfreedom that loom large, casting shadows from some of the highest offices in our land. The Election Day between this 4th of July and the next has never been more crucial for a new birth of freedom in our nation. Nor has it ever been more crucial for followers of Jesus to understand true freedom, as represented in today’s readings, and to live into it as advocates for real change.
1. Raymund Schwager, Jesus in the Drama of Salvation, pages 59, 74.
2. Brian McLaren, We Make the Road By Walking, ch. 32, “Peace March (Palm Sunday),” uses this passage as a primary text. McLaren tells the Palm Sunday story as a first person account of a disciple. After Jesus weeps over Jerusalem, the narrator continues:
As we continue descending the road toward Jerusalem, we also descend into the quiet of our own thoughts. We begin whispering among ourselves about what’s happening. Someone reminds us of the words from the prophet Zechariah (CEB): “Rejoice greatly, Daughter Zion! Sing aloud, Daughter Jerusalem! Look, your king will come to you. He is righteous and victorious. He is humble and riding on an ass, on a colt, the offspring of a donkey.” A shiver of recognition runs through us.
“What comes next?” one of us asks. “What did the prophet Zechariah say after that?” Someone else has the passage memorized: “He will cut off the chariot from Ephraim and the warhorse from Jerusalem. The bow used in battle will be cut off; he will speak peace to the nations. His rule will stretch from sea to sea, and from the river to the ends of the Earth.”
Suddenly we feel the full drama of this moment. We recall another parade that frequently occurs on the other side of Jerusalem, whenever Herod rides into the city in full procession from his headquarters in Caesarea Philippi. He enters, not on a young donkey, but on a mighty warhorse. He comes in the name of Caesar, not in the name of the Lord. He isn’t surrounded by a ragtag crowd holding palm branches and waving their coats. He’s surrounded by chariots, accompanied by uniformed soldiers with their swords and spears and bows held high. His military procession is a show of force intended to inspire fear and compliance, not hope and joy.
And so the meaning of this day begins to become clear to us. Caesar’s kingdom, the empire of Rome, rules by fear with threats of violence, demanding submission. God’s kingdom, the kingdom of heaven, rules by faith with a promise of peace, inspiring joy. Jesus’ tears are telling us something: he knows that our leaders aren’t going to listen to him. They’re going to respond to Caesar’s violence with violence of their own, and that’s why Jesus just made that dire prediction. (pp. 149-50)
3. Anthony Bartlett, Virtually Christian, p. 245. Bartlett cites an important exegetical link that explains why this Palm Sunday passage is paired with the day’s Gospel. In Chapter 7 which basically covers the entirety of Matthew 11 (and parallel in Luke 7), the portion on Matthew’s ending in 11:28-30 begins by showing its ties to the language of wisdom in Proverbs and Sirach. Then, he writes:
The only thing that Jesus adds to the language — and this also warrants seeing the statement as authentic — is an explicit note of nonviolence. When he says he is “gentle” the word in Greek is praus, the same word used by Matthew describing Jesus’ triumphal entry to Jerusalem. It is taken from the prophecy of Zechariah, “Look, your king is coming to you, humble (praus), and mounted on a donkey” (Matt. 21:5, Zechariah 9:9). The Zechariah text goes on to say that “He will cut off the chariot from Ephraim and the war-horse from Jerusalem; and the battle bow shall be cut off, and he shall command peace to the nations” (Zechariah 9:10). When Jesus speaks as Wisdom he speaks in language with key scriptural associations of an end to violence. The statement in today’s language should therefore read: “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am nonviolent and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.”
We have reached a central seam of meaning as regards Jesus. He identified with Wisdom as his first-person truth and he understood that in terms of nonviolence. Here is surely the sign from which all I have been talking about regarding the transformative meaning of Christ in the world derives. Because Jesus took on this identity in the depth of his soul and he understood it as direct person-to-person nonviolence the meaning of humanity was changed at root. (p. 245)
Reflections and Questions
1. Why is this Palm Sunday classic paired with this week’s gospel? Bartlett (immediately above) makes the exegetical link that we can expand on. The Greek word praus, “gentle,” is not common in the Bible, occurring 20 times altogether: 16 in the Septuagint and only 4 times in the New Testament. One of the Septuagint instances (7 are in the Psalms) is Zechariah 9:9: “Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem! Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble [praus] and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” Three of the four instances in the NT are in Matthew (the fourth being 1 Peter 3:4) and are very instructive:
- Matthew 5:5: “Blessed are the meek [praus], for they will inherit the earth.”
- Matthew 11:29: “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle [praus] and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.”
- Matthew 21:5, quoting Zechariah 9:9: “Tell the daughter of Zion, Look, your king is coming to you, humble [praus], and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”
2. Why is this Palm Sunday classic paired with this week’s gospel? Prior to reading the Tony Bartlett piece above, my best guess was to relate it to the theme of rejoicing with the depiction of Jesus being about celebration more than mourning. But Jesus’ brand of joy is not easily understood, either. During his life, he was criticized for celebrating with the wrong people. In his death, he was made to be one of those wrong people. It is only in light of the resurrection that we can see that his brand of loving service among the “losers” of society is the true way of life, the only way of life worth celebrating.
1. René Girard, I See Satan Fall Like Lightning, opening pages. St. Paul ends up focusing his discussion of the relation between the Law and sin on the tenth commandment:
What then should we say? That the law is sin? By no means! Yet, if it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin. I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, “You shall not covet.” (Romans 7:7)
In his recent book, understanding the tenth commandment is where Girard chooses to begin his laying out of mimetic theory in biblical terms. The first chapter, “Scandal Must Come,” provides an excellent introduction to mimetic theory; several of the resources below continue to spin out the theological and consequences in connection with St. Paul’s rendering of the problematics of human desire in Romans 7.
2. Gil Bailie, “Paul’s Letter to the Romans” audio tape series, tape #4.
3. James Alison, The Joy of Being Wrong; for an excellent reading of Paul on the nature of our slavery to fallen desire, in the section “The Pauline Understanding of Desire,” pp. 147-56.
4. Raymund Schwager, Jesus in the Drama of Salvation, pp. 166-167, 191. Here are several paragraphs:
Starting from the presuppositions mentioned above, we can now attempt an interpretation of those utterances of Paul in which he describes reconciliation on the cross as a judgment. In Romans 8:3 he says, as we have already seen, that “God sent his Son in the form of sinful flesh” and “he condemned sin in the flesh” (en to sarki). By the emphasis on the “flesh of sin” and on judgment “in the flesh,” a connection is established with the theme of anger, as this is also fulfilled in the flesh. According to Romans 1:18-32, this is not merely the outward place where the angry action of God takes place, but it is more that active and boundless force which holds people imprisoned in its own dynamic and ruins their life. The boundless desire which springs from sin, with all the consequences from which people suffer, is identical with the anger of God, and it is identical with the law of the flesh which holds people prisoners (Rom. 7:7-25). Through these connections it should become clear that in Romans 8:3 the flesh in which judgment on sin occurred is not thought of as a purely passive substance, on which the action of divine judgment had its effect as the only active factor. As it bears within itself a boundless dynamic of desire, it must have played a part also in the condemnation of sin that took place in it. If, according to Paul, Christ was sent into the boundless and destructive dynamic of the flesh, this should in consequence mean that also the judgment on sin was achieved thereby. The interpretation which suggests itself so far is supported in addition by a linguistic hint in Romans 8:32. There we find: “He [God] did not spare his own Son, but gave him up [paradidonai] for us all… ” (Rom. 4:25). The mission of the Son in the form of the flesh (Rom. 8:3) includes not sparing and surrendering or handing over (Rom. 8:32). Paul uses exactly the same word (paradidonai) for this giving over by the Father as he does to describe the working of the divine anger (Rom. 1:24-32). This linguistic link consequently shows how one would be justified in interpreting the judgment on sin in Romans 8:3 in the light of Romans 1:18-32.
Taking into account the outcome so far, we can now turn to 2 Corinthians 5:21: “[God] has made the one who knew no sin to become sin for us, so that we might become the righteousness of God in him.” As we interpret this text, the final decision must be made as to how Paul’s view of the judgment on sin is to be understood and whether one may and ought to speak of an angry and destructive direct action of God toward the crucified one. Certainly, it is hardly to be supposed that Paul is here directed by completely different concepts than in Romans 1:18-32 and Romans 8:3. But the question must once again be looked at afresh, and the essential point is whether the utterance “he has . . . made to become sin” is to be interpreted as an exclusive activity of God or whether it means that God sent the one pure of sin into that event in which he was made to be sin by sinners. This latter interpretation is suggested by the Old Testament background. But can this be confirmed from the context?
Just as 2 Corinthians 5:21 says that Christ was made into sin, so Galatians 3:13 says that he became for us a curse (katara). Both utterances entirely match up in subject matter. However, in Galatians 3:13, Paul additionally indicates in what way this happened, namely, through the law. All who live according to the law stand under its curse if they do not keep all its prescriptions (Gal. 3:10). It further declares each one accursed who — like the crucified one — hangs on a tree (Gal. 3:13). Galatians serves as an important complement to 2 Corinthians 5:21, and the question of how Christ was made into sin and a curse must be seen and decided from this viewpoint in conjunction with the problematic of the law, so we must also briefly go into this subject.
The letter to the Romans presents the relationship between law and sin as a complex interaction. The law is of itself “holy, just and good,” and it is supposed to “lead to life” (Rom. 7:10, 12). Nevertheless, its effect in fact is the opposite, and it brings death (Rom. 7:10). This contradiction can be clarified as sin taking possession of the law and perverting its sense. Sin is so powerful that it can make use of what is good: “Did something good become death to me? By no means! But sin was bringing about my death through what is good so that it might be revealed as sin. For it was through the commandment that sin showed itself in its full measure as sin” (Rom. 7:13). If the law, which in itself is good, actually leads to death, then it follows that the law itself is not the real initiator of the event, and still less is it God, from whom it comes. What really takes action is sin, which shows its excess in knowing how to use even the good as its means and as its cover. If now even Christ became a curse through the law, then it was not the law itself and still less God who was the actor responsible. Within the Pauline world of ideas, the utterance of Galatians 3:13 can only mean that Christ became a curse through the power of sin, which made use of the law. With this insight the decision about the interpretation of 2 Corinthians 5:21 should be resolved. God was not the direct actor, but he sent his Son into the world ruled by sin, and thus, through the excess of sin making use of the law, he became sin and a curse. But who were the immediate actors in this event?
Paul’s understanding of the law was conditioned by his own experience. Since he himself, in his zeal for the law, persecuted Jesus’ disciples and at his conversion on the way to Damascus had to acknowledge the error of his ways, he remained throughout the course of his life constantly confronted by the fact that in his zeal for the good law he had done evil. But he could not estimate from his own experience the consequences of this fact, for that experience prevented him from developing a fundamental position toward the law. If nevertheless the apostle came to make statements concerning the law as such, he can only have drawn them where he found his new confidence in faith: in Christ. In the light of his own experience he was able to understand more deeply the fate of the crucified and exalted one. As he himself had persecuted Jesus’ disciples, so had his brothers in faith already in the name of the law condemned as a blasphemer and driven out the preacher from Galilee, who at his trial made the claim to be the Messiah and Son of Man (1 Thess. 2:15). But since this claim, as his own experience on the road to Damascus confirmed, was authenticated by God, the consequence must have pressed itself on Paul that the law had totally failed not only in his life but also at the most decisive moment, namely, in the encounter with the Son of God. It had not led people to a full knowledge of the will of God, i.e., of the Son, but on the contrary it contributed to his rejection and condemnation.
The power of sin is so cunning that it can get completely within its grasp the good and holy law and can so distort it that it works against God and his envoy. If Jesus in the name of the divine law was condemned as a “blasphemer” and thus was made into a curse, even into Satan (John 10:33; 19:7), it was consequently not God, the originator of the law, who cursed his Son. The power of evil rather turned back the command which came from God against the Son. Working from this insight, we are finally led to the interpretation of 2 Corinthians 5:21, that God did not himself destroy Christ in judgment. Certainly, he sent him into the world of sin, but entirely with the aim of saving humankind. However, the power of sin was so great that it was able by means of its own mechanism and dynamic to draw him into its world and thus to make him into sin. (pp. 166-168)
5. Robert Hamerton-Kelly, Sacred Violence; pp. 106-109 are specifically on Romans 7:7-25; see also his section on “The Law and the Flesh.”
6. Brian McLaren, A New Kind of Christianity: Ten Questions That Are Transforming the Faith, pp. 143-157. McLaren suggests a theme for making a unified reading of Romans that I think works well — namely, Jews and Gentiles being able to live together in Christ, who is “the firstborn within a large family” (Rom. 8:29). This theme coincides with my own choice for the clearest statement of the Gospel in Ephesians 2: grace manifests itself chiefly as God creating one new humanity in place of the two. This is the context for McLaren as well, since this chapter comes as his response to one the “Ten Questions That Are Transforming the Faith.” Question #5 is, “What is the Gospel?” (chap. 14). For more on this centrality of this question and its answer, see my Opening Comments for Proper 6A.
Chap. 15 is McLaren’s reading of Romans in light of the Gospel as Jesus’ Kingdom of God manifesting itself as Paul’s bringing together of Jews and Gentiles. See the citation on this book in Proper 4A for a more complete description of the theme and McLaren’s Seven Move outline for Romans.
This passage comes within his Fourth Move: Unite all in a common struggle and a common victory, illustrated by two stories: the Story of Me and the Story of We (Rom. 7:7-8:39), of which he writes:
Paul now tries to anticipate and counter possible misunderstandings or misapplications of his previous point. As he backs off from any suggestion that the Law (the impotent first husband in our previous metaphor of marriage) is evil, he launches his next move. He begins by abruptly switching from the plural “we” of the previous section into the singular “I” and “me,” leaving interpreters ever since scratching their heads about how to read this section. Interestingly, he will return to “we” in the following section. In our “Jews and Gentiles united in God’s kingdom” reading, Paul’s strategy seems abundantly clear. Through the “Story of Me” he shows how Jew and Gentile share a common experience of struggle as human beings (“in Adam,” as he has explained it previously,7:7-25), and through the “Story of We” he shows how Jew and Gentile can share a common experience of victory in the kingdom of God (“in Christ,” as he celebrates in 7:25-8:39).
In the Story of Me, Paul moves from the previous section’s external imagery of Adam, baptism, slavery, and marriage to the internal landscape of the human soul. This landscape is scarred by inner turmoil and frustration, the tension between high aspiration and low performance. It is dark with the despair of feeling fatally trapped in a no-win moral predicament and vicious cycle of self-examination, self-recrimination, self-defense, self-despair, as if he is experiencing exactly the kind of self-assessment he described in the first move (2:15), his thoughts “now accusing” and “now excusing” him. Finally, in desperation, the “I” in the story exclaims, “Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?” His answer: “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (7:24-25). From this point on, “I” quickly fades away and Paul transitions briefly through a “you all” to the unifying “we” again. (pp. 150-51)
7. Douglas Campbell, The Deliverance of God: An Apocalyptic Rereading of Justification in Paul. Nothing will ever be quite same in Pauline scholarship for those who take seriously Campbell’s dismantling of justification, and his arguing that Paul’s language of justification was a secondary way of speaking for Paul when in debate with a version of Christianity that is conditional in its grace. And because we misread Romans 1-4, according to Campbell, Protestantism has often lapsed into the conditional grace that Paul is trying to undo. Paul’s primary language of unconditional grace is a language of deliverance elaborated in Romans 5-8. This is now the definitive book, in my opinion, that must be contended with regarding any crucial interpretations of Romans. See my “Customer Review” on the Amazon.com page. The most controversial thesis involves his contention that Paul used the Roman rhetorical convention of Diatribe, meaning that it contains Paul voicing his opponent’s views within the text of Romans which we thus need to sort from Paul’s own views. In short, for twenty centuries after Paul delivered this letter to the Roman church, training the carrier to read it properly in two voices, subsequent generations have read two opposing views in the text all as Paul’s view only. I find this thesis compelling and vitally important; here is my own explanation and plotting of the opposing views in a translation of Romans 1:1-4:3.
8. N. T. Wright is another important resource to consult for Romans. See, first of all, his commentaries: The New Interpreter’s Bible, vol. 10; and his Paul for Everyone: Romans, Part 1 (Romans 1-8) and Part 2 (Romans 9-16). See also The Resurrection of the Son of God, ch. 5, Resurrection in Paul (Outside the Corinthian Correspondence),” sec. 7 on Romans; and Justification: God’s Plan & Paul’s Vision. His ‘big book’ on Paul in his Fortress Press series “Christian Origins and the Question of God,” was published in 2013, Paul and the Faithfulness of God; the most sustained section on Romans 5-8 are pages 1007-1026. Wright’s more recent book on theology of the cross, The Day the Revolution Began, devotes more space to Romans than any other book of the New Testament, chapters 12-13; see also my review of this book, “The Parable of the Pharisee and Tax Collector, N.T. Wright’s Latest Book, and the Idolatry of Anti-Idolatry.”
In fact, Wright’s reading of this passage is crucial for correctly understanding the voicing of the first person present tense. Many Lutherans have Luther’s saint-sinner idea in mind to hear it as Paul giving expression to his current experience under Christ. According to this common view, we remain mired in sin despite having been declared a righteous saint in faith.
But the context of this passage gives many clues that this would be a huge mistake. Perhaps the saint-sinner idea has a valid meaning, but not in reading Romans 7 as expressing Paul’s view of remaining mired in sin. He ends the chapter by declaring rescue from sin, and then he goes on to take life in the Spirit as a serious experience of sanctified living at the beginning of Romans 8. If the saint-sinner idea has validity, it cannot exclude real-life sanctification. It must be more like the life of sobriety for an alcoholic: one knows that the tendency alcoholism is still there; relapse is a constant threat. But the life of sobriety is no less real. The alcoholic can begin to live life anew. So, too, with sinner-saint. With living life in the Spirit, there is always the constant threat of a relapse. But the possibility and reality of living a sanctified life is also very real. (See my remarks on next week’s passage of Romans 8.)
So what is the proper way to read the first person present tense of this passage? As Paul expressing an experience he knows well from his former life. He is giving first person expression to what it is like to be a Jew living under the law. In Paul for Everyone: Romans, Part 1 (Romans 1-8), for example, Wright writes,
Some people have hailed it as a profound insight into the human condition; others have dismissed it as muddled ramblings. My own view is that it is neither of these things. It is not intended as an exact description of Paul’s, or anyone else’s, actual experience, though it finds echoes in many places both in human life and in literature ancient and modern. That is not the point. Paul is trying, not for the first time, to do at least two things at once.
Having described in the previous passage what happened when the Torah arrived in Israel (it meant that Israel copied, and recapitulated, the sin of Adam, showing that Israel was indeed sinful), Paul now moves into the present tense, to describe the actual situation (as opposed to the felt experience) of Israel living under the law. What happens when Israel, having been given the law, does its best to live under it?
There are many other steps to fill-in to grasp what Paul is doing here. Let me leave the reader with a glimpse of the end of Wright’s argument (which you can fill-in by consulting the several references above):
What was God up to, giving the law not simply knowing that it would give sin the chance to grow to its full height, but actually in order that it might do so?
We will discover the answer in 8.3, but we must anticipate that moment if we are to see the deepest reason, and one of abiding and indeed shocking relevance for every generation of Christian believers, why Paul has written this chapter the way he has. God wanted sin to be brought to its full height in order that he might then deal with it, condemn it, punish it once and for all. But where was sin to grow to full height? Paradoxically, in Israel, the very people God had called to be the light of the world. Why? In order that in the person of Israel’s representative, the Messiah, sin might be drawn onto one spot and condemned once and for all. What looks at first sight like a tortured and rambling account of personal moral incapacity prepares the way for a statement of the achievement of the cross which is as powerful as anything Paul ever wrote.
Reflections and Questions
1. For a more adequate Girardian understanding of this passage I would begin, as I have above, with Paul’s selected focus on coveting in 7:7. In the opening chapter of I See Satan, I think we can see where the internal struggle comes from to which Paul is giving expression in these verses. We cannot do the things we most want to do, and end up doing many things we don’t, because we act under the illusion that our desires are our own. We think we should be in control of our desires and thus be able to act on them straightforwardly. The fact that we can’t derives from the reality that our desires are not, in fact, our own. And the kind of spiral into scandal that Girard elucidates from the Gospel describes the exacerbation of this internal struggle, i.e., the more I get frustrated at not being able to straightforwardly act on my desires because they are not mine in the first place. Scandal leads not only to external conflict with our neighbors but also internal conflict with ourselves, because we live by illusory, inflated notions of ourselves. Jesus seeks to save us from such scandal by leading us into a true desiring in the Spirit, into the non-rivalrous desire of the Father for the Son and the Son for the Father. When we find ourselves living in the Spirit of such loving desire, we find ourselves truly becoming children of God. (See what follows in Romans 8!)
2. St. Paul is especially sensitive to the social dimension of our desire not being our own as it comes to us through our culture. For him as a Jew that meant as it came to him through the Torah. Sin takes charge of the gift of Torah and distorts it into a life of being scandalized by not being able to live up to the demands of the Law — most especially others!
This brings us to the next step in mimetic theory — the step where Girard leaves us at the end of chapter 1 of I See Satan. Lives caught up in scandal bring us into what he refers to as mimetic crises, an increasing spiral into what Thomas Hobbes anticipated as the war of all against all. But the human mechanism that comes into play to stem the crises is far from Hobbes’ rationalistic hypothesis of a monarchical contract. The mechanism that stems the tide of crisis is what Girard calls the victimage mechanism: the war of all against all is mimetically converted into a conflict of all against one by virtue of the mimesis of accusation. The diabolic descension into increasing scandal is averted into the satanic creation of culture around the accusation, the scapegoat. Conventional human culture is formed on the basis of someone being left out, of being expelled, of being murdered. Torah, too, comes under the clutches of this victimage mechanism such that Paul found himself living a life of persecuting others. It is that life in which he is confronted by Christ on the road to Damascus.
3. I think this text, then, can be combined with the Gospel text to elucidate two kinds of burden. More on that below.
Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30
1. Source criticism of Matthew 11, which is primarily a Q passage on disciples of John the Baptist acting as messengers between John, who is in prison, and Jesus:
- 11:1 is a Matthean addition to work a transition: “And when Jesus had finished instructing his disciples…”
- Matthew 11:2-19 is paralleled in Luke 7:18-35 and so is likely from Q. Matthew 11:2-11 is the Gospel for Advent 3A — stopping one verse short of the verse I contend is one of the most important to understanding Matthew, 11:12: “From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force.” So this key verse never appears in the lectionary. See Advent 3A for more.
- Matthew 11:20-27 is paralleled in Luke 10:12-15; 21-22 and so is likely from Q. Luke places these passages amidst the sending of the Seventy, with 10:17-20 recounting their return, including the words Girard used to title one of his books, “I see Satan fall like lightning.”
- Matthew 11:28-30 is special Matthean material. Does it refer back to 5:17-20, also special Matthean material? The yoke of law is not removed from us, but Jesus makes it easy by fulfilling it in love.
2. 11:30 — “For my yoke is easy.” The Greek word for “easy” is chrestos (one letter different than Christ!). It appears six additional places in the New Testament and, in the NRSV, is variously translated as: “The old [wine] is good” (Luke 5:39); “for [God] is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked” (Luke 6:35); “Do you not realize that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance?” (Rom. 2:4); “Bad company ruins good morals” (1 Cor. 15:33); “be kind to one another” (Eph. 4:32); “tasted that the Lord is good” (1 Pet. 2:3). In short, everywhere else it is translated as either good or kind.
From the Friberg Lexicon:
with a basic meaning being well adapted to fulfill a purpose, i.e. useful, suitable, excellent; (1) of things good, easy, pleasant; of requirements easy (MT .30); comparative, better, more pleasant (LU 5.39); morally upright, suitable, good (1C 15.33); of value superior, better (LU 5.39); (2) of persons kind, obliging, benevolent (EP 4.32); of God gracious, good (1P 2.3); (3) neuter as a substantive to chreston, kindness (RO 2.4).
The TDNT article on chrestos (9:483ff.) distinguishes it from agathos, good, in that the former is always relational. Agathos can stand for “the good” in an ideal or formal sense, while chrestos is always comparative: “good of its kind.” In the context of Matt. 11:30, then, Jesus’ yoke does not represent the ideal good; it is good in comparison to other yokes.
3. Matthew 11:16-17 — “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.'” Exegetes often comment that there was a gender difference referred to here in Jewish culture: The round dance that occurred at weddings, accompanied by flutes, was performed by men, while mourning, often done by professionals, was women’s work. Is the picture here children playing to be grownups, with the boys chiding the girls about dancing, and the girls chiding the boys about mourning? James Alison makes use of this picture in his reading below (Resources #1).
A Girardian also takes note of the phrase “this generation” (Gr: ten genean tauten), since we have in mind a “generative” anthropology, i.e., a theory which hypothesizes as to what actually generates human culture. “This generation” thus has the double sense of what generates the culture of a particular generation, the culture of a given time and place.
1. James Alison, Broken Hearts and New Creations, ch. 6, “‘Like Children Sitting in the Marketplace,'” pp. 92-108 — a full essay on the verses 16-19 portion of this lection, reading it in light of Ecclesiastes 2-3. The background to this passage is a children’s game of a back-and-forth between boys leading a wedding dance and girls leading a funeral march. The reciprocity breaks down and turns into a blame game. Jesus uses this image for his contemporary First Century culture. After showing ties to the language of Ecclesiastes, Alison writes,
Jesus links the quote and the children’s game to point out that something has got out of kilter. In the book of Ecclesiastes, part of the Wisdom of Solomon, to whom it was traditionally ascribed, you get an indication of how things should be, as set out by Wisdom. When Wisdom orchestrates, there is a time for dancing and a time for mourning: each has its proper place, and they flow into each other, like the children’s game when it is working. But when vanity gets in the way, and vanity is described as like the wind, going round and round, going nowhere, you get the breakdown of the proper time for things, and people shouting at each other instead. So Jesus is pointing to something about how “this generation,” his contemporaries, have got bogged down into vanity, going nowhere at all, with their culture breaking down into mutual recrimination. (pp. 94-95)
Alison also places these verses in the context of John the Baptist’s disciples questions. He says of Jesus’ reply:
Jesus replies to these visitors by pointing out the signs which he had just been performing, and of which there was ample evidence and talk all around him: people cured from diseases, from being bound by evil spirits, sight being given to the blind and so on. And then he tells John’s messengers to consider what they have seen and heard; but he does so, again, by allusion to a series of passages from Isaiah (Isa. 29:18-19; 35:5-6; 61:1) which tell of the coming of the Lord and what will happen on the day that He comes: the blind will see, the lame will be made whole and so on. Please notice that this “Coming of the Lord” is not prophesying the arrival of a miracle worker, it is announcing the arrival of the Creator who is fulfilling creation, turning bits of “futile” or “vain” creation into creation made fully alive and rejoicing. So Jesus answers John’s question by saying “I’m not going to answer you directly, for what you were preparing for is arriving as something on an entirely different level from what you expected, and you can infer what that is from what your messengers report to you of what they see: signs of the Creator in the midst of his people, fulfilling Creation.” (pp. 95-96)
2. Anthony Bartlett, Virtually Christian, ch. 7, “What Signs Did He Give?”, is primarily an extended reading on two passages where Jesus responds to a request for signs: John the Baptist’s disciples asking, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”, in Luke 7:18-35 / Matthew 11:2-19 (including 11:20-30 as Matthew’s extension of this context); and religious leaders asking for a sign, with Jesus’ reply about the Sign of Jonah, in Luke 11:29-32 / Matthew 12:38-42. Bartlett’s excellent discussion brings out the scandalous difference of Jesus within his own Jewish context, even from his messenger John the Baptist. John, in his preaching at the beginning of the Gospels, highlights the imagery of the coming of Elijah as prelude to God’s violent judgment. Jesus accepts the image of Elijah coming but does two things: he sees John himself as the Elijah figure who’s prelude to God’s coming kingdom, and he shifts the violent judgment of God to one of mercy and forgiveness. In replying to John’s disciples, Jesus highlights the healing and forgiveness from Isaiah’s picture of God’s coming — and then notes the scandalous implications of this shift: “And blessed is anyone who takes no offense [skandalizō] at me” (Matt. 11:6). In a section titled “The Scandal of the New,” Bartlett writes,
It seems then that mutually between Jesus and the world around him there is the possibility of one making the other fall headlong. By his use of this word Jesus expresses the profound dissonance between himself and the world constructed to this point. It is not simply a matter of rival political goals, as for example between the Pharisees and Herodians. If it were simply that then it’s hard to see how John could or would be scandalized by Jesus. Both he and Jesus preached the imminence of God’s reign on earth. In Jesus’ case, however, the reign of God was connected to an unwavering practice of healing and forgiveness, and his preaching must surely, therefore, be understood not strictly in terms of end goals but the means by which they are achieved. To be scandalized in Jesus was to be shocked and offended by the apparent weakness of the means he had chosen, and to such an extent that he could not be the one he was thought to be. John’s lifeworld of violence, including a necessary final violence by God, came crashing down when confronted by Jesus and his actions, and consequently his trust in Jesus was threatened by a similar collapse. It was not primarily a question of theology but rather fundamental anthropology, a new way of relating to others without the sanction of violence. With Jesus what was at stake was not a particular rival and the power of that rival to take the object of our desire from us — in the case of Herod, the righteousness of the nation before God. In this framework the response is old-fashioned theology (i.e. old anthropology) — God will act to defend and restore what is his. With Jesus, on the other hand, there is the offer of an entirely different model that stands against all violent desire and desire for violence. Jesus, therefore, was inviting John to cross the impossible bridge to where he stood as an agent of God whose agency was not violence, and yet was still agency. And he stood there alone! That is the point. It was and is so easy to be scandalized in Jesus because he is one against the vast crowd of humanity and its meaning as constructed to this point. How can he possibly be right? (pp. 235-36)
Bartlett then elaborates another major shift represented by Jesus. In addition to the shift away from violence, there is a shift to scandalous inclusiveness. Bartlett writes:
Jesus produces a characteristic twist of thought that fixes two antithetical images in your mind, plunging it into a kind of free-fall. He declares, “Among those born of women, no one is greater than John; yet the least in the kingdom of God is greater than he.” “Born of woman” stands in contrast to those in the kingdom of God who are born of Wisdom (“Wisdom’s children”) whom we meet at 7:35. I would take this form of the tradition to be the more original version rather than Matthew’s expression of Wisdom’s “works” (11:19) which forms an inclusion with his doctrinal expression “works of the Messiah” at 11:2. Moreover, the crucial theme of children is reinforced both by Wisdom’s standard biblical instruction to children and by the wisdom parable of children at 7:31-32. It is through this parable and its interpretation that we will get to the heart of the distinction between Jesus and John. We will return to this shortly but in the meantime we can anticipate that the conclusion at 7:35 does not warrant the usual pious reading of a common identity of Jesus and John as children of Wisdom. Rather in the context of the whole discourse it provides the uniqueness of Jesus-Wisdom giving birth to children of the kingdom. This is what distinguishes Jesus from John and gives content to Jesus’ gentle but uncompromising contrast to the anthropology represented by John.
Jesus declares that the least in the kingdom is greater than John. In Matthew’s version we hear also: “All the prophets and the law prophesied up to the time of John” (11:13). What is suggested is that the whole prophetic Mosaic tradition reached its term in John; but now something qualitatively new had emerged that went beyond prophecy. This could only be the actuality of God’s reign on earth. Anyone, therefore, who was a member of that kingdom was in a human situation that all others, no matter how great, could only have looked forward to. But what truly constitutes this reign? What makes this claim anything more than a rival rhetoric of power? It has to be the contrast of “born of woman” and “born of Wisdom.” For in the latter we have an entirely new matrix of human existence. It is not the age-old human shaping of humanity, one that includes even the prophets and the law of Israel. The new mothering of humanity does not draw a line at the family or the race but includes and nourishes precisely those who are left out, those who are not our children.
This change is illustrated in Jesus’ healing practice, as he had earlier signaled to John, and above all it is demonstrated in his association with sinners. At the conclusion of the discourse, just before the statement about Wisdom, Jesus describes himself in the third person as the one who “has come eating and drinking . . . a friend of tax-collectors and sinners” (7:34). Luke then underlines this with the shocking episode of the woman who was a sinner given directly after this discourse: she multiplied the breaking of purity boundaries by bathing Jesus’ feet with tears, wiping them with her hair, kissing them and anointing them (7:38). Matthew does not have this scene but goes quickly to a mysterious wisdom saying which we cannot analyze in detail but is noteworthy for being directed to “infants.” “You have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants” (11:25). The term “infants” signifies those not fully socialized, basically those like children who can hardly speak, who cannot read or follow difficult instructions and for these reasons cannot be exact in law-keeping. Jesus is revealed precisely to these people because they can never fully belong to the cultural boundary systems. Jesus stepped over the purity lines to be among them and in that act demonstrated a totally different generation of humanity, otherwise than the exercise of boundaries. Rather than John’s Jordan river and its implicit border associations he, in and of himself, became the scene of forgiveness and healing, a mother by definition without boundaries. (pp. 238-40)
For more on this passage from Bartlett, see the comments that connect Matt. 11:28-30 with Zechariah 9:9 under the First Reading above.
In 2014, I was engaging the congregation with the need for adult catechism, emphasizing that we are in the midst of a time of great change, the scale of which happens only every 500 years or so. It was a main point in my newsletter column for the month. Tony Bartlett’s take on this passage helped make the connection for me that Matthew 11 is about how Jesus was initiating the most fundamental change-point in history — resulting in the sermon “Jesus’ Yoke of Love.”
3. Anthony Bartlett, Seven Stories; Bartlett deals with Matt. 11 as a whole in light of Jesus’ connection to Wisdom, pp. 116-17, 168-69, 198-99, 216, 220. He writes about the wider theme in Matthew 11, comparing Jesus to Wisdom,
Jesus is greater than Solomon in terms of Wisdom (which at Matt 11.11-19 is shown as to do with eating and drinking with sinners and renouncing violence). And he is greater than Jonah. Why? He has to be greater in some aspect which Jonah already foreshadows. Jonah is a victim of the abyss of violence: he ends up in the belly of the great fish. Jesus is adopting Jonah’s situation in the belly of violence, but without Jonah’s resentment. Jesus chooses to be a nonviolent victim, in imitation of the nonviolent God of Jonah, and in order that he might be vindicated with God’s life-beyond-violence. In this way he revolutionizes the role of the victim, introducing a radical forgiveness and a completely different way of being human on earth. Jesus goes beyond the other victims we have studied, including Job. He does not simply reveal the innocence of the victim as a point of reference and truth. He lets go of all angry violence in relation to the victim, trusting in the new nonviolent life that will come from his Father. (198-99)
4. Rob Bell, Velvet Elvis, chapter 4, entitled “Yoke.” Great stuff on how students yoked themselves to rabbis.
5. James Alison, Jesus the Forgiving Victim, p. 50. In a chapter on learning to read Scripture through Jesus the Rabbi’s eyes, Alison quotes this passage and writes,
Well, this too contains some pretty technical material! The Son is the proper interpreter of the Father, and the one who freely drives that interpretation — he is the active interpreting force. Furthermore, whereas Moses was described by God as “my servant,” here we have a Son. The “yoke” was a standard way of referring to the Law of Moses, and where the Book of Numbers had used the rare word “meek” to describe Moses, here Jesus describes himself with the same word — meek. In other words Matthew is giving a reading instruction: you want to know what “meek Moses” really looks like? This, Jesus, is what “meek Moses” really looks like. The crucified and risen Rabbi is going to teach you to live God’s law in quite a different way. It is not a question of “Moses bad, Jesus good”, but rather, “You know what Moses was about — well, the servant was a stepping stone on the way to the Son, so this is what real meek Moses was really about, and he’s going to open things up for you and make you free.”
6. Gil Bailie, “At Cross Purposes” audio tape lecture series, tape #6 (beginning of side 2). Bailie sees the children already playing out their parents’ polarizations. Here are my notes / transcription for the portion of the lecture on Matt. 11:16-17:
- The other side of the matter of blaming others is blaming our political opponents, and there’s a marvelous little metaphor in the New Testament. One of the ways in which these things perpetuate themselves is to divide up into camps: Croats and Serbs, Catholics and Protestants, liberals and conservatives, Capulets and the Montegues (Shakespeare), the Guelphs vs. Ghibellines in Florence (Dante).
- Example: Original film footage of the first French anthropologist in Papua-New Guinea ca. 1960. There were cultures that existed literally side-by-side, just down the river from each other, for whom their purpose for existence — that is to say, their entire cultural apparatus, the production of their arts, their crafts, their food gathering — everything was built around venting their violence on one another. They would meet periodically in the middle and have a ritual warfare, which was not about anything (i.e., land, or the usual objects of war). They would simply come together, vent their violence on each other, and go home. It’s a symbiotic tribal situation, where the relationship between the tribes is to use each other to vent what we called last night, resentment. It’s a very effective system, that goes way back into human history, and comes right into today, with the bifurcated political system. There’s a marvelous, gentle image in the New Testament.
- Jesus says, (Matt. 11:16-17; par. in Luke 7:31-32): “But to what will I compare this generation?” Again, to me, “this generation” means all of us who continue to generate our social identity, our social consensus, using someone else on whom to blame, or vent, our resentment.
- Continuing with Jesus’ words: “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.'” This is another way of covering our ears [as those whom stoned Stephen did when he spoke to them].
- The background (one of those statements you might think ridiculous, but which could be better substantiated given more time): all cultural institutions are products of the sacrificial system. Quick example: soccer. An attendee to a seminar at Stanford was dubious about this point. ‘All of culture can’t be generated out of this,’ he said, ‘What about games, for instance?’ It just so happened that the Stanford Museum had, at that moment, an exhibit on Aztec culture, and part of the exhibit was on the Aztec version of soccer — which was played with what? The heads of human sacrificial victims! I could tell him to walk down that way, turn to left, and see for himself.
- Two institutions are referred to in these words by Jesus: the round dance done at weddings and ritual wailing at funerals. The round dance was done by the men, and the ritual wailing by the women. These are children practicing their roles in the adult world, and they’re mocking each other for not joining in on each others’ roles. It’s a wonderful little parable of how the two, symbiotic bifurcated cultural arrangement works. We have our group, and we say, ‘They’re not us. They should catch on. Aren’t they dumb.’ Meanwhile, we’re all taking part in it. And Jesus is exasperated, wondering how he can possibly get through to us, under these circumstances.
- Trapped on the tarmac at Denver in a snowstorm [during the time of the NATO intervention at Kosova], he was reading everything he could get his hands on, and stumbled onto a cartoon in the New Yorker. It’s a man sitting in his easy chair, reading a newspaper, and commenting to his wife: “Now that everyone’s joining NATO, we don’t have to take any more crap from the Martians.”
An advantage of Bailie’s reading, I think, is that it also helps to make sense of the ensuing verses. Those who have on the blinders of bifurcation can only see John the Baptist and Jesus in those terms, John as a mournful one and Jesus as a glutton. Thus, they miss the message of repentance which can truly free them of seeing the world only through these blinders of bifurcation and polarization. The consequences of missing such repentance is the fate for towns where that message was preached, Chorazin, Bethsaida, and Capernaum.
7. Raymund Schwager, Jesus in the Drama of Salvation, pp. 30, 36, 39, 215. On p. 36, for example:
A particularly characteristic feature of God’s new action, as Jesus preached it, was seen in his own behavior. He turned toward sinners, tax-collectors, and prostitutes, and his conduct was so conspicuous that he drew the reproach: “Behold, a glutton and drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!” (Matt. 11:19).
For the full context of this passage, see the excerpt of this section, “God’s Turning Toward His Enemies.”
8. René Girard, I See Satan Fall Like Lightning, p. 147:
It is mimetic contagion that completely determines the contents of mythology. The myths are so much in its thrall that they cannot suspect their own subjection. No text can make allusion to the principle of illusion that governs it. To be a victim of illusion is to take it for true, so it means one is unable to express it as such, as illusion. By being the first to point out persecutory illusion, the Bible initiates a revolution that, through Christianity, spreads little by little to all humanity without being really understood by those whose profession and pride are to understand everything. This is one of the reasons, I believe, Jesus speaks the literal truth when he exclaims: “I thank you, Father . . . that you have hidden these things from the wise and clever and revealed them to babes” (Matt. 11:25).
9. James Warren, Compassion or Apocalypse?, pp. 72-73. In a section on “The Imitation of Christ,” this passage is cited along with Philippians 2:
In a Girardian context, “imitation of Christ” means allowing Jesus to be one’s model, and imitating Jesus’ desires, attitudes, and acts. This, in turn, generates within the follower a desire that seeks to do the will of God, and seeks the good of the other rather than a covetous desire to acquire from the other. What is wonderful about this is that Jesus serves a God who is not in rivalry with human beings, and as an imitator of that God (his “Abba”), Jesus himself is not in rivalry with us, and has no desire to acquire or grasp from others. Nor does he covet or desire to wrest anything from God. On the contrary, Christ’s is a spirit of generosity and self-giving love. As the famous text in Philippians puts it:
Cultivate this mind-set in your community, which is in fact a community in Christ Jesus, who, although being in the form of God, did not consider his equality with God as something to be exploited for his own advantage, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a slave; that is, by being born in the likeness of human beings. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death — even death on a cross.
Jesus’ willingness to empty himself for the sake of loving us, and for the sake of “obedience” to God (another way of speaking about imitation), is held up here as the model for the entire community to imitate (“cultivate this mind-set in your community”). This relationship between Jesus and God becomes the mimetic foundation for a new community of disciples. It is new because, while mimetic, its mimesis is not acquisitive; it contains no rivalry, and thus no acquisitive desire, no covetousness, no scandal, no violence. When Jesus says, “Ask, and it will be given you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks it will be opened.” (Matt. 7:7-8) he is not proposing a quid pro quo: do this and God will give you that. He is indicating that God is not in rivalry with us, but wants to give to us, if only our entrapment in scandal did not prevent us from opening our mouths and asking. Prisoners of mimetic rivalry and scandal are always knocking at closed doors: the door of the fascinating model, where they will encounter ultimately nothing but an obstacle. But Jesus’ “Abba” is the God of the open door, and in this God we find rest from the endless frustration typically produced by scandalous relationships.
Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light. (Matt. 11:28-30)
The “yoke” to which Jesus refers was a common metaphor used by ancient Jewish Rabbis when accepting new pupils. Jesus was often called “Rabbi,” by characters in the Gospels, and indeed he often acts like one. Rabbis were different in the way they interpreted Scripture and Torah, and when a student studied with a particular Rabbi, he was said to take that rabbi’s “yoke” upon him. (The metaphor is one of training an ox to plow by yoking him to another, experienced ox. The yoke forces the new ox to imitate the experienced ox, and so it learns how to behave in the way the farmer desires.) When a student took a Rabbi’s yoke upon himself, it meant that he left his home and his parents to devote his life to becoming like that Rabbi. This is what is in play when Jesus calls his disciples, asking them to follow him — and all of a sudden they up and leave their wives, homes, and livelihood, and take off with Jesus. This seems strange to us, but in the world of first century Judaism, a parent would be proud if a son were accepted by a Rabbi to study, and would gladly give up the child to such a calling. But, as Rob Bell suggests, the radicalism of Jesus’ move is that he calls students who would not have been considered talented enough or worthy of Rabbinical study, and are basically rejects. Jesus as a “Rabbi” with a band of followers like these yoked to him must have looked like some kind of circus act to the religious establishment of the day.
Jesus played the same basic game as the Rabbis, therefore, gathering students who would imitate him in everything, trying to become as much like him as they could. But Jesus’ yoke was “easy” and the burden of carrying it was light. For he would put no obstacle in front of his students. He would not weight them down with the impressive heaviness of his own accomplishments, seeking their admiration, and looking to them as mirrors to reflect back his own glory. He did not want anything from them in an acquisitive sense. He did not want to be their scandal, leading them on to become like him, only to turn against them when they actually began to rival him. It is because Jesus is like this that imitating him is safe, and his way the real solution for the violent cycles of reciprocity within which the world operates. There is no risk of getting caught up in violent exchange with Jesus, for regardless of what we do to him, there will be no imitation coming back at us from his side of the field to inflame, validate, or feed the passion of rivalry. Through his nonviolent compassion, servanthood, humility, generosity, and love Jesus becomes the model for a new humanity. (pp. 71-73)
10. Michael Hardin, The Jesus Driven Life, featured in a section titled “Following Jesus,” pp. 79-82. After quoting Matthew 11:25-30, Hardin writes:
Back in 2005 we moved to Lancaster, PA. As I sit here writing this from my home office, I can look out my window and watch the Amish farmer across the way plowing his field with mules. The mules are yoked together with the farmer riding the plow behind them. The yoke functions to keep the mules from going in directions different than the farmer would have them go. I am told that when a young mule is first learning to plow a field, they team him up with a veteran mule that has plowed the field for many years. This way the younger mule learns how to respond to the farmer’s guidance because when the older mule turns, the younger mule has to go the same way, the yoke making it impossible for him to go another.
In the same way, we are yoked with Jesus who knows the Abba’s will. When the Father moves the reins in a certain direction Jesus responds and we respond not by choosing, nor out of our own initiative but simply by submitting to the yoke. The only choice we make is to be yoked with Jesus. After that it is no longer about choice but about something entirely different. It is about “trust.” (p. 80)
Hardin is also helpful in citing Mishnah, where rabbis use the image of yoke, sometimes for Torah and sometimes for imperial oppression — after which, he concludes:
It’s not an either/or when it comes to Jesus’ offer. The Mishnah saying above combines the two possibilities of Torah and Empire as backgrounds for the word “yoke.” Whether religion or Empire (culture) we are under “the rule of law.” Western jurisprudence grew out of religious taboo. Jesus’ yoke takes us out from under the rule of law, religiously conceived, and places us in the rule of love. Our ethics, our social behavior is normed by Jesus, not by an abstract set of morals, values or mores. This means that our choices are developed from a living intimate relationship with Jesus, not from a codebook. Ethics is no longer a question of trying to figure out right and wrong, it is about living in relationship with others in the same manner that Jesus lived in relation to others. (p. 82)
11. James Alison, The Joy of Being Wrong, p. 105, n. 29. Also, a video homily for Proper 9A (Ordinary 14); in 2020 Alison began a new website during the pandemic, “Praying Eucharistically,” which included weekly homilies. He begins by filling in the wider context of responding to John the Baptist’s expectations (through John’s disciples). The expectations of many, including John, involve violence, but Jesus will disappoint those expectations. He is revealing God the Father as nonviolent.
12. Brian McLaren, in a number of his books, commenting on the Way of Jesus as a “yoke.” In A Generous Orthodoxy, he writes:
In contrast, your life could be centered in serving Jesus Christ — which would not replace or eradicate, but rather transform and enrich the way you serve any other legitimate groups or causes. Jesus defined his own identity not as being served, but as giving his life in service, and in this way, acknowledging Jesus as master means one voluntarily “takes his yoke” and learns from Jesus how to serve God, plus one’s neighbor, plus one’s enemy, and so the whole world. Confessing Jesus as Lord means joining his revolution of love and living in this revolutionary way. (pp. 93-94)
In The Secret Message of Jesus, he makes the connection of Matthew 11:28-30 to Matthew 5. A common Protestant reading of Matthew 5 (one I’m very familiar with as a Lutheran) is that Jesus’ demands are impossible. Matthew 11:28-30 might speak against that interpretation — that Jesus’ yoke is actually easy since it is fulfilled in love. McLaren writes,
Conventional readings of the kingdom manifesto often make much of how impossibly demanding it is, driving us to despair about ever actually living this way, so that we will faithfully turn to God for mercy. I wholeheartedly affirm the need to turn to God for mercy, but I don’t see the manifesto as a call to achieve a kind of pharisaical technical perfection. Instead, this way of life impresses me less as impossibly or oppressively demanding than as healthy, attractive, and liberating. It recalls for me Jesus own words about his ethical teaching (called a “yoke” in his day): “Come to me, all who labor and are heavily burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me, for I am meek and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:28-30). For more on “yoke,” see [Rob Bell,] Velvet Elvis (Grand Rapids: Zonderan, 2005), 40ff. As Dallas Willard says, the cost of discipleship must be compared to the terrible toll of nondiscipleship. (Endnote 1, on page 130 in the text; found in the Notes section on p. 234 in the hardcover version)
In Finding Our Way Again, he writes,
Jesus also described this way of life as a yoke and a road. The first image evokes a young ox harnessed next to an experienced, older ox. The young animal would learn to pull the plow or cart in rhythm with his mentor and model. And by the metaphor of a road or path, Jesus didn’t imply a broad and smooth Roman highway, but a twisty, rocky mountain footpath that required careful attention and commitment, step by step. One learned the path by following Jesus, by trusting him enough to imitate his example and put his words into practice. Jesus didn’t merely describe this way or path, nor did he merely point to it, nor did he reduce it to a list of rules; he actually embodied it: I am the path, he said. Love as I have loved. I have given you an example that you should follow. (p. 35)
In Naked Spirituality, McLaren references these verses within a prayer:
“Lord, once again I’ve taken on too much. Now I’m exhausted. Help me, Lord, to remember that you are the God who created Sabbath, that you want me to live a life that balances good work with adequate rest. Please liberate me from the fears and insecurities that are like a slave driver, always demanding more of me, never letting me say, ‘No, I can’t.’ Help me to settle into the healthy rhythm that you set for me, for your yoke is easy and your burden is light.” (p. 105)
13. Brian McLaren, We Make the Road By Walking, ch. 37, “The Uprising of Partnership,” cites this passage as a background text to the primary text of Acts 16:11-40, the story of Paul and Silas being jailed in Philippi for freeing a slave girl, and then liberating their jailer, too. He concludes:
Paul wasn’t in any rush. He decided to stop and spend some time here at Lydia’s house, where the rest of us have been waiting. We quickly gathered the newly forming ecclesia. Paul and Silas shared the story you just heard. Everyone is brimming with excitement, overflowing with joy. We are partners in an earthquake of liberation! As we move forward together in this partnership in mission for peace and freedom, injustice at every level of society will be confronted, and people at every level of society will be set free! (p. 190)
14. Robert Hamerton-Kelly, sermon from July 3, 2005 (Society of St. John at St. Mark’s Chapel, Palo Alto).
15. Andrew Marr, Abbot of St. Gregory’s Abbey (Three Rivers, MI) is a long-time reader and writer on Mimetic Theory and in his blog, “Imaginary Visions of True Peace,” offered these reflections on this passage in 2017, “Jesus’ Yoke.”
Reflections and Questions
1. There are at least two kinds of burdens, apparently, according to Jesus in Matt. 11:28-30. Notice Jesus doesn’t offer to take away all burdens; he offers to replace the heavy burden of this world with the lighter burden of living his life of loving service. The world’s burdens are those created by the rivalry of mimetic desire. It is the kind of life-toward-death that living lives entrapped in scandal entails. The excerpt above of chapter 1 in I See Satan gives a good intro to the Girardian analysis of living this kind of burden. In modern terms, one might say it the burden of “keeping up with the Joneses.” Mimetic rivalry keeps one’s life a perpetual famished craving. No matter what one achieves or accumulates there will never be enough. There will always be someone who does it better or who has more. With so much wealth this famished craving only intensifies in our modern society. The perpetual feeling of never quite making the grade, or of there never being enough, creates a great sense of burden.
The world’s way of lightening that load has always relied on some version of the victimage mechanism: transferring as much of the burden onto a scapegoat. In a society focused on material wealth, the ultimate burden is born by the poor, those who are deemed to really miss out because there isn’t enough to go around for everyone. ‘I may not have quite as much as the guy next door right now, but at least I’m not poor.’ Thus, mimetic theory doesn’t trivialize the suffering of real victims as it helps us to see the burden of the perpetrators, too. The burdens created by mimetic rivalry never go away completely, even when much of it is shifted to the victims.
Jesus’ lighter burden is paradoxically being willing to take on the load of victims. Again, the Cross shows us that this is not a trivializing of suffering. But the Resurrections shows us that this is the only ultimate way to true life, Eternal Life, i.e., by a life of sharing the suffering of others. Eschatologically, everything does get turned upside-down. The poor in spirit, the meek, the mourning, the peacemakers, the persecuted are actually the blessed ones. They are the ones to inherit eternal life because their burden ultimately is shared by the one who brings God’s power of eternal life. The burdens created by mimetic rivalry, on the other hand, are burdens ultimately carried alone, and so they can never participate in this power of life.
2. Link to a sermon outline, entitled “Relieving the Yoke of Modern Consumerism,” combining Bailie’s insight into this passage, a Girardian take on the covetousness of Rom. 7, and some July 4 holiday reflections on our nation.
3. I’ve also appreciated Paul Tillich’s approach to this passage as represented in his sermon on it, “The Yoke of Religion” (link to an online version). Link to a sermon that gives a Girardian version of how religion can be a yoke, entitled “All Sinners yet All Saints.”