Always, always, always be suspicious when you see that there are a couple verses omitted in a scheduled reading on a Sunday, particularly in the Gospel, because if they’re omitted, it’s probably because there’s something objectionable in them, and if there’s something objectionable in them, then it’s probably something interesting. It’s probably something that requires explanation—something that the collators of the lectionary are afraid that you’ll hear out of context and be offended or angry or confused by. They don’t trust the congregation, and they don’t trust the clergy to address whatever it is that’s odd.
I trust you. And I trust myself. So here’s what is missing from the Gospel text today, coming right after the line, “Wisdom is vindicated by her deeds.”
“Then [Jesus] began to reproach the cities in which most of his deeds of power had been done, because they did not repent. “Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the deeds of power done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. But I tell you, on the day of judgment it will be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon than for you. And you, Capernaum, will you be exalted to heaven? No you will be brought down to Hades. For if the deeds of power done in you had been done in Sodom, it would have remained until this day. But I tell you that on the day of judgment it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom than for you.””
And only then does Jesus move on to talk about how this message (which was omitted in the lectionary today) has been hidden from the wise and intelligent, and been revealed to infants. The passage as whole doesn’t make sense without it, because otherwise we don’t know what Jesus is referring to as his message.
So in the briefest of explanations for the part that was omitted, Chorazin, Bethsaida, and Capernaum are all Jewish cities and villages in Galilee where Jesus preached and healed—they are the ones to whom Jesus is preaching woe, because he doesn’t believe that they have accepted his message, despite all the healings and signs he has done. Tyre and Sidon are Canaanite cities on the coast—not Jewish places—and they are who Jesus is saying are capable of believing his message. Sodom we know—sort of— as an Old Testament city that God destroyed for its sin, though the sin in question was not what our language refers to as sodomy but rather a lack of hospitality, and the epitome of divine disaster befalling a city.
So now that you’ve heard the whole passage, and a little explanation, what does the whole thing mean? What is the good news in this tale of woe and disappointment and frustrations that then suddenly ends with what we know as the “comfortable words”: "Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light."
I have a friend who is at many levels a very successful Lutheran pastor in Queens—he’s got a thriving congregation, he’s a good preacher, and if he’s a little bit of a curmudgeon, it only adds to his charm. But he occasionally says jokingly that he “aspires to a ministry to furniture and dishes.” By which he means, that ministering with people in the church is really hard—they don’t do what you want them to do, they don’t respond the way you want them to respond, it doesn’t matter what deeds of power you do in front of them, they have their own ideas and go their own way. Furniture and dishes, on the other hand, stay where you put them, can be arranged beautifully, and need only dusting and polishing to stay perfect. (I might add that it is evident from the condition of some of our furniture and dishes at Epiphany that we do not emphasize our ministry to them over our ministry to people…) I would think the same could be said of anyone whose vocation involves working with people: physicians and health care workers with their patients; politicians with their constituents (and vice versa); lawyers with clients; economists with the general populace…. People don’t always do what you expect, or what you can clearly see is in their best interests.
Jesus was a far more successful pastor than my friend in Queens, but it seems to me that he’s having his furniture and dishes moment. Jesus is frustrated that his real world ministry with real people is proving more like herding cats than herding sheep. Jesus did not come to minister among furniture and dishes, he came for the salvation of all humanity, and humanity in the 11th Chapter of Matthew is not responding the way he wants them to. He’s confronted with the realization that he is not succeeding the way he thought he would. That the gospel he is preaching, which he believes should be infinitely compelling, is not.
Jesus is frustrated at the beginning of the passage by how he and John are perceived as opposites, and equally too extreme for most people. It’s almost like the story of the Goldilocks and the 3 bears. About John the Baptist, Goldilocks would say, “This prophet is too holy.” And about Jesus, “This prophet is not holy enough.” And there’s no third choice in the middle where “this prophet is just right!” Jesus despairs that neither John’s message of strict asceticism nor his own message of welcoming sinners is moving people. He had hoped to have his message heard by all; but today he realizes that he just can’t please these people, and he may need to redirect his message.
Then Jesus gets to the woe sayings to the cities. According to Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus has done incredible things in these towns—he’s healed the sick, preached the Sermon on the Mount, even literally raised the dead—and still his disciples are being persecuted. The residents of the towns are happy with things the way they are; very comfortable, thank you, with their religious life, and don’t need to introduce a new element of following Jesus into their routines and traditions. No wonder he’s disappointed at the intransigence of the authorities and bulk of the population. But these are the towns where his message was supposed to work; the Canaanites in Tyre and Sidon were not supposed to be his audience—but they may end up being the people who respond best to the Good News. To me, this part of the passage is all about losing our sense of entitlement and recognizing our own resistance to change. Where are we feeling entitled and satisfied, like the people of the towns Jesus had done all the signs in, and are therefore resistant to hearing and seeing the Gospel when it comes into our midst?
Together, these passages stand as a warning against grounding ourselves in earthly notions of success, and against assuming that failure is permanent. Today Jesus feels like he has failed. Jesus does not ultimately fail. But he doesn’t succeed during his earthly lifetime in a way that, say, the people who preach the prosperity gospel today would recognize. His message does not move the rich or powerful, or change the political system, or bring him honor during his lifetime. In the long run, death does not have the last word, salvation does come to the world, but perhaps it’s not as clean and simple as Jesus himself had expected, and there’s a whole lot of disappointment along the way. But even here, in the midst of his despair, Jesus is able to give thanks for what he is finding: if the people of Bethesaida, Chorazin and Capernaum are not going to hear his message, then the people of Tyre and Sidon, the infants, will. And he will still be offering his embrace to all those who—like him—carry heavy burdens and are longing for a new yoke.
Preachers are known for preaching to ourselves and Jesus is, in all the Gospels, a powerful preacher. It occurred to me this week for the first time that in the comfortable words—and the verse before them about Jesus and the father knowing one another so intimately, perhaps Jesus is preaching to himself. He’s preaching the message that he needs to hear. He is laboring, and he is heavy laden, and as the Father is in him and he is in the Father, he can in some sense come back into himself and be refreshed. He labors under the yoke, and it is feeling heavy and so he stops and reminds himself that he isn’t laboring alone. He’s yoked to us.
Today I want to take Jesus up on his invitation to come and be refreshed. I want to take his yoke upon me, and learn from him, and find rest for my soul. He says his yoke is easy and his burden is light—sometimes true, sometimes not, in my experience—but perhaps it is when the yoke does not feel easy that I must realize that it’s because I’m pulling away from him; I’m making it harder on both of us by going in the wrong direction. And if there are times today—and I’m sure there are—when Jesus again looks at the church, or the world, and despairs, I want to run into his arms and say, “Yes, it was worth it, and it is worth it. Thank you.” The comfortable words are not just comfortable and comforting for us, they’re comfortable and comforting for Jesus, because they’re the renewal of our relationship with one another. It brings Jesus joy to have us come to him, to hear our praise and thanksgivings, to dwell in us as we do in him, and to help shoulder our frustrations when we are burdened by them, as we shoulder his frustrations when he is burdened.