When we focus on outward actions and those that are trivial, we have completely missed the higher principles God wants us to follow.
Our reading for consideration is Matthew 11. Up until recently, according to Matthew, Jesus’ ministry had been popular and free of conflict. He had openly traveled around Galilee, publicly conducting his work. As Matthew 9:35 records:
But circumstances would soon become more dangerous, and Jesus gives an indication of this shortly after the call of the twelve disciples: “I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves.” (Matt 10:16). The “wolves” would primarily prove to be the religious authorities who were beginning to be more aggressively hostile to Jesus’ teachings and work.
When we reach Matthew chapter 11, we find John the Baptist in prison. His imprisonment is described in Matthew 14, in a flashback to the story (see Matt 14:1-12). Recall that Jesus is John’s cousin, so when John sends some of his disciples to ask if Jesus is the one who is to come (i.e., Messiah), it’s likely John himself already knew this and that he was providing them with encouragement and a spiritual path forward. Jesus’ response to this question is at once obvious and enigmatic. When he states,
“Go back and report to John what you hear and see: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor” (Matt 11:4- 5), he is stating the obvious:
“Look, you have heard about and seen the miracles I have been doing. What more proof do you need? Not only that, but God’s truth is no longer restricted to the wealthy, educated special class of religious scholars such as the Pharisees, but available to even the lowliest of society.”
Jesus’ next phrase, however, is much less obvious: “and blessed is the one who is not offended by me.” (Matt 11:6 ESV). The NIV translates this as, “Blessed is anyone who does not stumble on account of me.” This is the first recorded instance in Matthew’s Gospel of the format of “Blessed is…” since the beatitudes in chapter 5. Surely it is an echo of the message there, directed at the crowds of people on the mountainside, again from all walks of life, and likely including the poor.
So why does Jesus say this? If we go back to Matthew 5, we see the last beatitude is this one:
Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you. (Matt 5:11-12).
This invitation is meant to be a blessing for all of us who accept it
The theme is the same as Matthew 11. It concerns persecution and rejection, something John the Baptist was experiencing directly, something that Jesus was starting to experience more frequently, and that Jesus had warned his disciples to expect. Jesus was inviting his listeners to become part of the “Kingdom of heaven,” part of God’s dominion and family of believers.
This invitation is meant to be a blessing for all of us who accept it, but by the same token, it can lead to pressures from others that can result in suffering for Christ’s sake. In Matthew 11:12 Jesus expresses this idea with this stark language:
The only other occurrence of the phrase “subjected to violence” is, The Law and the Prophets were proclaimed until John. Since that time, the good news of the kingdom of God is being preached, and everyone is forcing their way into it. (Luke 16:16).
Here, in a confrontation with the Pharisees, Jesus is teaching that you cannot force your way into God’s kingdom by self-justification or other means or, in other words, by relying on your own supposed goodness as expressed by your outward actions. The previous two verses explain this:
This is a central theme of both the gospels and Paul’s letters. Self-justification by works or by fine outward appearances is completely counter to the principle of being “saved by grace through faith” and does nothing except lead to death. Many of the pressures and persecutions that new believers in the first century experienced were the result of this kind of thinking.
We sometimes refer to this as salvation by works, or legalistic thinking, because it often springs from a desire to return to observance of laws as a basis for righteousness. This is what Jesus means when he states, “Blessed is anyone who does not stumble on account of me.” He became the “stone of stumbling and rock of offense” (Isa 8:14; 1 Pet 2:8) for those who rejected his message of salvation.
Jesus strongly condemns this kind of thinking in Matthew 23, in his powerful, astringent polemic against the scribes and Pharisees: Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the door of the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to. (Matt 23:13).
Notice again the violent imagery employed here: “You shut the door of the kingdom of heaven in people’s places.” In other words, the Pharisees, by their complex and overwhelming system of rules, had made it impossible for ordinary people to be considered worthy of a place in God’s kingdom.
Jesus goes on to describe many inconsistencies in their rules when compared to true divine principles. For example:
His message here is that when we focus on outward actions and those that are trivial, we have completely missed the higher principles God wants us to follow. Note there is nothing wrong with diligent and earnest obedience in itself—Jesus doesn’t tell them to abandon tithing completely—he says, essentially, you should have practiced justice, mercy, and faithfulness without neglecting your reverence to God through tithing. This confirms another key principle Jesus taught— “He who is faithful over little I will make faithful over much.” (Matt 25:21 ESV).
But the danger for us is that we may find it easy to observe and keep rituals without practicing these greater principles, in this case, justice, mercy and faithfulness. I think Jesus likely has Micah 6:8 in mind here:
Faithfulness, justice and mercy are overarching principles that must guide our way of life. “Walking humbly with your God” is likely a synonym for “faithfulness.” Faithfulness involves loyalty, commitment and integrity. As Christ’s disciples, this is the great calling to which we have been called.
Faithfulness does not involve focusing on outward, ritualistic practices, such as concerns over how we conduct our morning services (Zoom has shown us there is more than one way to do that) or what hymns we sing, or what clothes we wear, or what type of bread or wine we use for the emblems, or what version of the Bible we read from. (Surely having our Farsi-speaking brothers and sisters so much a part of our ecclesial world has now taught us that any insistence on using only the KJV is foolish).
Faithfulness is concerned with the large issues, not the trivial ones, such as personal consistency in behavior and thought. For example, my hope is that when I am among my brothers and sisters, they see the same version of me that my family does at home—and that it’s a godly person they see, not one filled with pride or inconsistencies or judgment towards others.
Justice involves being fair to everyone, extending trust by giving everyone the benefit of the doubt. Or, as Paul puts it, “esteem others as better than himself.” (Phil 2:3 NKJV). Justice involves core integrity and honesty. You cannot be just if you lie about something, if you distort facts, or if you are biased in your opinion.
Justice involves providing for the needs of the poor and destitute, giving a personal, practical element to your faith, not just saying, “Go in peace, be warm and well-fed” (Jas. 2:16) without doing anything about it.
Mercy involves practicing forgiveness and understanding your own need for mercy from God. It is also expressed in kindness, both in attitude and in action. Practicing mercy facilitates the ministry of reconciliation which Christ gave to each of us as our personal responsibility (see 2 Cor 5:18).
Mercy does not look for wrongs or seek to punish them. Mercy is interested in opening the door to the kingdom of heaven as wide as possible, not slamming it shut in people’s faces. Mercy does not excuse sin, but it does extend love, kindness, and grace to the sinner, with the hope and desire of positive change resulting from the expression of that mercy.
Let’s go back to Jesus’ speech against the Pharisees because there is a further connection with today’s reading in Matthew 11. Earlier on in this speech, Jesus addresses the crowd:
This is likely a reference to the arcane rules and laws the Pharisees had devised and added to the true Law of Moses over the years. But these rules did not help one become closer or pleasing to God. In contrast, they simply placed unbearable burdens on people’s faith, crushing their spirit and serving to alienate them from a path to God’s presence through simple, trusting obedience.
Do we sometimes place unnecessary burdens on our brothers and sisters? Have we sometimes lost the simplicity of our faith and exchanged it for rituals and rules that create burdens and alienate rather than liberate us and bind us together in love?
In Acts 15, early in the growth of the church, the brethren dealt with a major crisis due to the vast cultural divide between Jewish and Gentile converts. The resulting formal letter that resulted from the Jerusalem conference contained these lines:
Note the use of the word “burden” here (the actual Greek is “lay upon you no greater burden,”2 similar language to Jesus’ in Matt 23:4). Even with all the potential conflicts over the form of worship, residual wrong beliefs (on both sides), and countless cultural differences, the apostles only saw fit to suggest (not even absolutely demand) the few changes in conduct for the Gentiles mentioned in verse 29.
we must be conservative with ourselves, and liberal towards others
Notice the apostles were keen not to impose unnecessary burdens. This is the spirit we must maintain in our ecclesial lives. It’s all too easy to make demands of others to conform to our understanding of what is right and true godly behavior and belief. But really, we should focus on ourselves.
We often talk in terms of brothers and sisters being conservative or liberal in their religion. One brother expressed it this way to me once: we must be conservative with ourselves, and liberal towards others. In other words, always have the highest expectation of godly thought and conduct for yourself. Do not worry yourself about others’ apparent weaknesses, faults or inadequacies.
Instead of seeking to place burdens on them by the imposition of your standards and expectations, choose to “Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.” (Gal 6:2 ESV). Bearing someone’s burdens involves engaging with a spirit of understanding, mercy, kindness, and justice—the key principles we saw earlier. It means listening and coming to a place where we can understand a person on their terms, not our own.
We cannot influence people for good if we do not first seek to understand them. I think this is the essence of Jesus’ message at the end of Matthew 11, where in contrast to the violent, destructive practices of the religious rulers of his day, Jesus says:
Jesus is not denying that following Him has a great deal of responsibility attached to it. He is not teaching that life itself is a picnic once we choose to follow Him. He does not state “I will take away all your burdens and cast off all yokes”. Instead, he calls us to be slaves to righteousness, to follow in his footsteps, according to the example He left for is in his submission to the cross (1 Pet 2: 21-25). But his burden is light.
It is not the burden of following rules and laws that aim to unnecessarily stifle our individuality or freedom of conscience or that are barriers to our worship. It is not the burden of experiencing judgment from our brothers and sisters when we fail to meet their own expectations.
It is the burden of quiet, trusting faithfulness, of personal integrity, sincerity, and obedience that springs from a true love of our Savior, lightened by an understanding of the great mercy that has been extended to us and by a belief that we stand before God in a condition of grace (Rom 5:2).
Saanich Pensinsula Ecclesia, BC
1 Unless otherwise noted, all Scriptural citations are taken from the New International Version.
2 Greek word for “burden” in Acts 15:28 is βάρος – baros. In Matthew 23:4 it is φορτίον phortíon. See in Matt 11:30 and Luke 11:46.