Woe to You!
“To what can I compare this generation? They are like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling out to others: ‘We played the pipe for you,
and you did not dance;
we sang a dirge,
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, ‘Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.’ But wisdom is proved right by her deeds.”
Then Jesus began to denounce the towns in which most of his miracles had been performed, because they did not repent. “Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. But I tell you, it will be more bearable for Tyre and Sidon on the day of judgment than for you. And you, Capernaum, will you be lifted to the heavens? No, you will go down to Hades.[a] For if the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Sodom, it would have remained to this day. But I tell you that it will be
At that time Jesus said, “I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children. Yes, Father, for this is what you were pleased to do.
“All things have been committed to me by my Father. No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.
“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, 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.” Matthew 11:16-30
“Woe to you Chorazin! Woe to you Bethsaida! And woe to you, Capernaum, the town that I made my home. Don’t think you’re so great. Sodom will be better off than you.”
These are the towns where Jesus spent most of His ministry, the towns where He did most of His mighty works. They know Jesus well and He knows them, too well, perhaps. He knows their unbelief, their unwillingness to change, their refusal to yoke themselves to Him, to His gospel, and to the priorities of the Kingdom of God.
Matthew calls these verses the reproach of Jesus to the cities. That’s a nice way of saying that Jesus is really ticked off and He is telling them, in no uncertain terms, how it is.
The lectionary, the book that contains the readings for each Sunday, omits these verses. We don’t like reproach very much. We don’t like it in our lives, and we don’t like it in our scriptures. Most would rather skip quickly to the good part, the part about the humble and gentle Jesus who we think is going to make life easy.
But we need to hear these words of reproach. They are important words, so I took the liberty of including them in and not omitting them from today’s gospel. Reproach for Jesus in not rejection. It is the other side of care and concern.
Jesus continues. “You are like a bunch of spoiled kids unhappy with whatever is offered to you. You want it your way and no other. John the Baptist came neither eating nor drinking and you said that he was a nut case, possessed by craziness. I come eating and drinking, and you call me a glutton and a drunkard, a guy who hangs out with the wrong kind of people.”
I wonder what Jesus would say to us today as individuals, as a community, as a nation. Are we different from Chorazin, Bethsaida, and Capernaum? How have we responded to Christ and Hs gospel?
Let’s look at the record. In a nation where the gospel has been preached and the majority have long, and at least until recently, identified themselves as Christian, for some 244 years, we have maintained social, policing and judicial systems that are aggressively racist and even genocidal; systems that insure economic inequity, and unequal opportunity for quality and well-resourced education; systems in which, 143 million people live below the poverty level, the children in 14 million households go to bed hungry every night, and in which healthcare is denied to 28 million people; systems that advance wars of aggression to insure economic hegemony in the world and display marked indifference to global pain, except when there is the possibility of national benefit or interest being served; in recent years we have taken to tearing children from the arms of their parents and putting them in cages, and treating economic and environmental refugees as criminals and even less than human. And four years ago, we elected a leader who is a sociopathic narcissist who daily gives expression to the worst rather than the best in us. A sobering litany is it not? Does it not merit a word of reproach?
Reflecting on this behavior raises the deep and fundamental question. To what or whom are we yoked? To what or whom do we give ourselves? What or who takes priority in our lives, orienting how we live and relate to others, how we make decisions?
We all harness our lives to something: another person, work, family, success, reputation, our country, our political party. Sometimes our yokes are more interior like fear, anxiety, anger, particular beliefs and opinions, or the losses and tragedies of our lives.
Regardless they are the relationships and the attachments that we depend on for meaning and, for better or worse, they give us our life’s direction. We’ve all got them and usually more than one.
What yokes do you wear? Which one is primary? We know what the right answer needs to be. The answer is Jesus Christ. But is that really how we live personally and communally? Is it reflected in our actions and in our relationships? Apparently, it was not for Chorazin, Bethsaida, and Capernaum.
If we are going to call ourselves Christians, we must fully yoke ourselves to Christ. He must be the primary and determining yoke. We cannot simply come to church, hear the gospel, say some prayers and then go to lunch. The gospel of Christ begs and even demands a response. That is why Jesus is so harsh with His words.
The people have seen God among them, they have witnessed the signs. Jesus has cleansed their lepers, healed their sick, calmed the sea, cast out their demons, forgiven their sins, preached and taught in their cities and still they reject Jesus and, before Him, John the Baptist.
Sometimes we are like those little kids in the marketplace, unhappy with whatever is offered to us. We want the gospel to conform to our beliefs, desires, and agendas rather than shaping our beliefs, desires, and agendas to fit the gospel.
That simply is not an option for Jesus. We are offered two gifts for the wellbeing of our souls. We can dance, celebrating and giving thanks for the coming of God among us in the person of Jesus. And we can mourn for our sins, the brokenness of our lives, and the pain of the world. But we must respond. We must choose both. To take both is to take the yoke of Christ. Taking both will reorient our lives and priorities.
What does that mean for us? It means we take seriously our life of discipleship. Our prayer is more about intimacy with God, than getting what we want. We work for justice and the dignity of every human being. We care for the poor, we feed the hungry, and defend the oppressed. We love our enemies. We offer forgiveness before it is asked for. Out faithfulness should be evident by how we live and speak. We live day by day praising God and giving thanks for His gifts and blessings. We let go of anger. We don’t live in fear and we trust that daily bread will be provided.
To be yoked to anyone other than Christ will only leave us weary and burdened. This is a spiritual condition, a disease of the soul, as much or even maybe even more than it is a physical one. If we are not yoked to Christ, our lives will be frenzied and fragmented. We end up comparing, competing and judging ourselves and each other. We act as one person in one situation and another in a different situation. There is no internal integrity. The reserves run dry and we live exhausted with nothing of depth or substance to offer. Soon relationships become superficial and utilitarian.
Are we weary? Burdened? If so, maybe this means we are not fully wearing the yoke of Christ. Too often we treat our weariness and medicate our burdens with retail therapy, addictions, a new toy, a vacation, a nap, a day off, busyness, and perfectionism.
Interior voids cannot be filled with exterior things. More often than not we are just as weary and just as burdened afterwards as before. These are not the antidote to our exhaustion. The antidote to our exhaustion begins with wholeheartedness. That wholeheartedness is only found in sharing the yoke of Christ, the heart of God and the heart of humanity beating as one.
Jesus isn’t upset because the cities misbehaved. His heart is broken because they have chosen a life that is less than what they were created for, a life less than what God is offering. This is why His words of reproach soon become words of invitation, love, care and concern. “Come to me, al you who 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 of heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light.”
You know how children get so exhausted they just act bad? How they can’t hold their eyes open but refuse to lie down and rest? You also know, I am sure, that it’s not just children. It will happen at every age and in every generation. Jesus is like a loving parent looking for His children. “Oh Chorazin! Oh Bethsaida! And you Capernaum! You are like exhausted children, so tired that you do not know which end is up, so weary and burdened that you misbehave. It does not have to be like this. Take my yoke upon you.”
To take on the yoke of Jesus is to take on His life. “Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me,” He says, “Let your heart love like my heart loves. Let your minds be filled with the same concerns as mine. Let your feet walk in step with mine. Let your hands touch the world like mine. Let your eyes see the Father like mine. Love and move in tandem with Me, as one, and you will find rest for your soul.”
The Rev. Frank J. Alagna
July 5, 2020