Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Reflections on the Gospel of Matthew: The Call to Messianic Discipleship and Jesus' Unique Sonship in Matthew 11:25-30

The famous but obscure passage found in Matthew 11:25-30, in which Jesus seems to begin praying at random and then to call an anonymous audience to come to him for rest, comes out of nowhere and at first glance strikes the reader as misplaced, or at least as arbitrarily inserted into the narrative. However, upon further inspection the passage is not only thoughtfully and intentionally placed where it is, it contains a kind of magnetic force, situated as it is near to the middle of the Gospel, drawing together crucial Matthean themes in concentrated form. As a whole, they coalesce into a summary call to messianic discipleship, grounded in the unique and revelatory relationship between Jesus and Israel’s Lord—here named as personal Father—out of which flows the free (and exclusive) call to the peculiar way and knowledge of the Son.

One of the chief rhetorical ways in which the passage communicates its theme of discipleship is by its use of vocabulary introduced or used in the Sermon on the Mount in chapters 5–7. Nearly a dozen words in this short pericope refer back to language used in the Sermon. For example, four of the total six times epiginosko (“to know”) appears in the Gospel are found in this passage and in the Sermon: in the latter, regarding knowledge of the Son and of the Father (11:27); in the former, regarding how to discern real disciples from imitators (“by their fruits”; 7:16, 20). As well, the only two times the verb kopiao (“to toil”) appears in Matthew are in 11:28, in which Jesus offers rest to those laboring wearily, and in 6:28, in which Jesus calls his disciples to “[c]onsider the lilies of the field” as a positive example of that which does not labor but is provided for sufficiently by God.

An obvious case is the use of praüs (“meek, humble”) in 11:29, which Jesus claims for his own character (literally “in heart,” thus already echoing 5:8, the “pure in heart”), thereby recalling the blessing of the meek in 5:5, as well as prefiguring Matthew’s sole other use of the word in his later quotation of Zechariah: “Look, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey” (21:5). To take only one more example, the rest Jesus promises to the weary proves to be a double echo. On the one hand, having before been told that if one seeks one will “find” (heuresete; 7:7; heuriskei, 7:8), that promise is now fulfilled in a further promise, namely that those who take on Jesus’ yoke “will find [heuresete] rest for [their] souls” (11:29). On the other hand, the rest offered to persons’ “souls” (psuchais) is precisely the antithesis of a life spent “worry[ing] about [one’s] life (psuche)” (6:25), closing the referential loop by calling to mind once again the sort of rest that marks the non-laboring “lilies of the field” (6:28).

These resonances with the Sermon on the Mount might be taken to be illusory if not for the other flashing signals in the passage that clearly point to the theme of discipleship.

First is the use of the imperative deute (“Come!”; 11:28), which, of its total 13 appearances in the New Testament, is found in the Gospel of Matthew a full six times. Jesus employs the word ironically in successive parables (21:38, the wicket tenants; 22:4, the wedding banquet), but the three primary times involve Jesus’ calling persons to come after/to/with him: from nets to discipleship (4:19), for soul-wearied rest (11:28), into the inheritance of the kingdom (25:34). Its last appearance is, fittingly enough, found in the angel’s reassurance to the women at the tomb: “He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come (deute), see the place where he lay” (28:6). When Jesus therefore calls the weary to “come” to him for rest (11:28), this call is not merely one of benefits, but first and foremost marked by the sort of costly discipleship spoken of in the rest of the Gospel (4:19) and thus bound up with the unjust suffering of the both the son (21:38) and his servants (22:4), ultimately serving as a call to see the empty tomb of victory (28:6) and so to share in the kingdom of that victory (25:34).

The second clear indication of discipleship is Matthew’s use of airo in 11:29. This word has a number of possible definitions, and indeed is used throughout the Gospel and the rest of the New Testament to indicate multiple things: to pick something up, to bear something away, to take something away, and so on. But when in this passage Jesus says, “Take (arate) my yoke upon you,” he is using the exact same word we find later in 16:24: “Then Jesus told his disciples, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up (arato) their cross and follow me.’ ” This idiosyncratic use is fulfilled with dreadful irony on the way to Golgotha, in the word’s final appearance in the Gospel: “As they went out, they came upon a man from Cyrene named Simon; they compelled this man to carry (are) [Jesus’] cross” (27:32). Thus, the call to the weary to take Jesus’ “easy” and “light” yoke upon them is not a relinquishment from the demands of discipleship—it is itself the call to discipleship, only here formulated as a call to the life of discipleship as the one true and therefore good life. However laborious following Jesus may look like to a violent and persecuting world, it is in fact the only true path to rest.

Third, these linguistic gestures are confirmed in a cluster of words that gather meaning from elsewhere in the Gospel. The first of these is nepios, the “babes” or “infants” to whom the Father has revealed that which is hidden, found also in 21:16 in a quotation of Psalm 8: “Out of the mouths of infants [nepion] and nursing babies you have prepared praise for yourself.” These recall also the “little ones” of Matthew’s Gospel (see 18:1-7), all of which together suggest that the image of the young child or vulnerable one is meant to evoke the disciple of Jesus. Insofar as a disciple is a learner (mathetes), then, Jesus’ call is to “learn” (mathete) from him (11:29).

And what is to be learned from Jesus? “To be gentle and humble [tapeinos] in heart” (11:29). Matthew has Jesus make two remarkable statements later in the Gospel using the verb form of this adjective. In 18:4-5, he says: “Whoever becomes humble [tapeinosei] like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.” He then goes on to say in 23:11-12, right before he begins pronouncing his woes on the Pharisees, that “[t]he greatest among you will be your servant. All who exalt themselves will be humbled [tapeinothesetai], and all who humble [tapeinosei] themselves will be exalted.” Such humility is indeed the heart of the call to discipleship—and so of the gospel! No wonder that, for the sake of the “heavy burdened” (pephortismenoi; 11:28), the “burden” (phortion) of the Messiah is “light” (elaphron; 11:30), in contradistinction to the “heavy burdens” (phortia barea) which the scribes and the Pharisees “tie up . . . and lay . . . on the shoulders of others,” though “they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them” (23:4).

On the basis of these textual indicators, then—though there are others also—we may conclude that verses 28-30 of Matthew 11 are a call to nothing less than the radically humbling way of following Jesus to the cross, a path in actuality not wearying or burdensome but free, light, easy, and full of the rest only the Messiah can give.

But on what grounds can the Messiah make such a promise? How can Jesus make such an outlandish claim? Verses 25-27 answer: on the mysterious but rock solid ground of the singular and intimate relationship between Jesus, Israel’s Messiah, and his Father, Israel’s Lord.

The first indication that this is the case is in the use of eudokia in 11:26: “for so it was well-pleasing in your sight” (NRSV alt. trans.). The verb form of this word (itself used only once) is found in three other places in Matthew’s Gospel, each at a crucial point in the narrative. The first is Jesus’ baptism, where the text reads that “a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased (en ho eudokesa)” (3:17). The second is Matthew’s fulfillment quotation of Isaiah in 12:18: “Here is my servant, whom I have chosen, my beloved, with whom my soul is well pleased [eis hon eudakesen he psuche mou]. I will put my Spirit upon him, and he will proclaim justice to the Gentiles.” And the third place is the transfiguration, which reads that “suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased [en ho eudokesa]; listen to him!’ ” (17:5). Thus when Jesus praises the Father’s decision to hide “these things from the wise and the intelligent” and to reveal “them to infants” (11:25) as befitting the Father’s “well-pleasing-ness” (11:26), we know that this is no disinterested decision but a christological one; for the One in whom the Father is repeatedly “well pleased” is none other than the Son, the prophesied Messiah (3:17; 12:18; 17:5)—and so Jesus moves on to this very relationship in verse 27.

The language of “Father” (pater) and “Son” (huios) is rampant throughout Matthew, but there is an important nuance here: the Son is not of anything or anyone, but merely “the Son” (not unlike in the Gospel of John). There are only four such times the Son is linguistically “naked” in this way, rather than named as the Son “of David . . . of Abraham” (1:1), “of God” (e.g., 4:3), or “of Man” (e.g., 8:20). The first is in this passage. The second is in the parable of the wicked tenants (showing up again, in the same verse as one of the uses of deute!): “But when the tenants saw the son [they decided to kill him]” (21:38). The third is in the apocalypse of Jesus’ final discourse: “But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father” (24:36). And finally, the second to last verse of the entire Gospel: “. . . baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit . . .” (28:19). In each case it is Jesus—prayerful, parabolic, tarrying, or triadically deified—identifying himself as not simply “a” son of God, nor even one of an exemplary sort, but somehow without need of a modifier, and so ontologically, “the” Son. One need not ask “of” what, for it is clear: of the Father.

On what basis, then, is Jesus’ revelatory call to discipleship made? On his matchless and unapproachably distinct relationship to the Father, as the one and only Son of God (11:27).

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