Matthew T. Phillips

Can’t Win for Losin’ (Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30)

The Seventh Sunday After Pentecost (A)
Union Grove United Methodist Church
Hillsborough, North Carolina

16“But to what will I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to one another,

17 ‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance;
we wailed, and you did not mourn.’

18For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon’; 19the Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ Yet wisdom is vindicated by her deeds.”

25At that time Jesus said, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants; 26yes, Father, for such was your gracious will. 27All things have been handed over to me by my Father; and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.

28“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. 29Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30 NRSV

Getting what you want

It was never flute playing for me. The only instrument I played as a child was the piano, and if someone had managed to get me to play in front of others, someone dancing would surely have stopped me. I remember wailing some, but it wasn’t exactly out of mourning. It was because I had done something wrong, gotten caught, and made to regret whatever I had done wrong.

I think modern images might make this clearer for us. I do remember wanting to play a game. I was pretty good at Monopoly; I had figured out a sure-fire strategy. Buy the whole first row of property, and one property of each other group on the board. That way, I could build tiny green plastic houses on that first row where the building cost was relatively low, jack up the rent for the other players, and rarely get caught paying high rent myself because I had blocked everyone else. Of course, given the luck of the dice, my strategy didn’t work every time; a lot of playing Monopoly is just tolerating the incredibly long time it takes to play. But hey, I was a kid and had plenty of time, and I enjoyed having my grimy hands on all that money, so I frequently tried to cajole my mother or grandmother into playing with me. Because, as I said, the game takes forever, it wasn’t too often that I was able to convince someone to start a game, and after we did, we’d never finish it in one sitting, so the board would sit on the dining room table, with my master plan suspended in favor of things that had to be done around the house, like eating and sleeping. I remember a couple of times that I finally gave up after a couple of days of “I don’t want to play right now, Matthew” and cleared away the board. Those were probably the times I thought I might lose.

Jesus said the generation of people who heard him are like that. It doesn’t have much to do with dancing or mourning, and certainly nothing to do with playing the flute. It’s about control: getting other people to behave the way we want them to, and on our schedule.

First one thing, then another

“Do you remember John the Baptist?” Jesus asks the crowd. “He came wearing a camel skin and eating bugs and tree sap. He didn’t hang out with other people so much, keeping mostly in the wilderness. You looked at him and said, ‘that guy is crazy!’ You might even say he was wailing, and no one would mourn.”

If you think about the story and close your eyes, perhaps you can almost see the men hearing him, and beginning to scratch their heads. “So what does the part about playing the flute mean?” And Jesus begins again: “I’ve been spending time with all kinds of people who you ignore. I went to a wedding and partied with them; I’ve been traveling among people teaching a little, but fellowshipping a lot and having a good time, and you look at me and criticize me for opposite of what John did. Talk about your tough crowds. God keeps reaching out to you, sending different kinds of messengers, but he can’t win for losing. John keeps to himself and you call him a recluse. I spend time with people and you complain that I should have picked different people. He barely ate or drank, and you said he must have been possessed. I eat and drink all the time and you complain that I’m a lazy drunk. What happens when you’re plowing the field? Do you try to pull the poor donkey both ways at the same time?”

Hidden things

And then he gets mad. He lists the cities where he has been with no success, saying that even the ancient city of Sodom, everybody’s favorite city to criticize, would have understood his teaching, and if they’d had the benefit of hearing Jesus, they would have known to be kind and generous to each other, and to especially value the lives of strangers, and they would still be there. Jesus says that the burned city of Sodom will have it easier come Judgment Day than those cities who heard and ignored his teaching.

I’ve got to wonder about those people watching and listening to him again. They might not understand exactly who he is, but they know he is powerful—he’s been doing miracles and wonderful things for a while now—and he’s getting pretty mad. When powerful people get mad, it makes for quite a show. But there are no fireworks. Instead Jesus seems to momentarily forget that there is a crowd around him, and he says a prayer. “I am grateful to you, Father, because you have sent me to those who trust rather than those who try to understand and control, because you knew that was best. No one will know me without having faith in you, and only I can reveal your fullness to people here.”

It’s strange, I think, that Jesus would complain about us being confused when it is God’s will that it be a difficult to understand. It reminds me of the pharaoh in the story of the Exodus: God hardened his heart and then punished him for being hard-hearted. After all, it is in our natures to seek to understand rather than to trust blindly. Or maybe that’s not what was happening. Maybe Jesus was just beginning to understand himself. This is still pretty early in the story of his life, so maybe something dawned on him as he was trying to tell the people they needed to quit trying to control everything and berating the cities who had not heard him. He realized that it is not God’s will for everyone to understand him, but rather for those who first trust in God.

A pastoral invitation

And then Jesus’ mood seems to change sharply. No longer is he the teacher talking about children in the marketplace: no longer the prophet criticizing the cities who won’t listen. Now he is the shepherd—the pastor—inviting people to him, to a place where they can begin to trust, and therefore know, God.

He senses each need that people have. “You are tired and carrying heavy burdens, sometimes on your backs, and sometimes on your hearts; come to me and I will give you rest. You are feeling confused and are trying to understand; take my yoke and I will guide you. I will teach you how to find life itself.”

The words of this invitation have become familiar with repetition. Actually they’ve become familiar by confusion as well: they sound much like the words of the poem by Emma Lazarus that is inscribed in the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty:

Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me.
I lift my lamp beside the golden door.

I’m not real big on mixing Christianity and patriotism, because I think it usually makes a bad Christian and a bad patriot, but perhaps today more than any day it is worth considering that the best intentions we have to be a land of opportunity for all people are not that far off from Jesus’ invitation to us.

The comparison to the Lazarus poem is useful in another way too. We forget that the sonnet and Jesus’ invitation have something to do with us, albeit in very different ways. Our love of the Statue of Liberty as a symbol means that we should honor the promise she makes to welcome the “wretched refuse” that the ancient, honored lands of the earth send away through storms of poverty and hate. She doesn’t lift her torch for us, she lifts it for those who are still to come. That lovely poem gives us a job of love and hospitality.

And Jesus’ invitation? It wasn’t just issued to those within earshot. It isn’t only issued to those who have never heard of him. It applies to us too: people who have heard but who do not yet trust completely.

Tune our hearts

We still seek to understand before we are willing to trust God, and because understanding that way is impossible, this kind of half-faith leads to more stress and more weariness rather than rest for our souls. As we feel ourselves begin to wander back toward that natural state of questioning, that’s when the words of our final hymn fit the best:

Let thy goodness, like a fetter, bind my wandering heart to thee.
Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it, prone to leave the God I love;
here’s my heart, O take and seal it, seal it for thy courts above.

Robert Robinson, “Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing” (1758)

If the source of our faith is God grace and our trust in God, then surely the source of our hope must be the assurance that Christ’s invitation will be open to us for as long as it takes. Our hearts may not be sealed, but we can keep on doing our best to “tune our hearts to sing [God’s] grace.”

John came, didn’t eat or drink, and we called him crazy. Jesus came, ate, drank, and took care of the people we wouldn’t look at. We called him a gluttonous drunk and criticized him for hanging out with lowlifes. It seems God can’t win for losing with us, but, lucky for us, God won’t let us lose for nothing.