Lay Your Burden Down
The early Christians responsible for the New Testament combed the Hebrew Scriptures and intertestamental writings for images and concepts to help them express the identity of Jesus. We are familiar with titles such as Son of God. Son of Man. Suffering Servant. Messiah. Son of David. New Moses.
One label we are not so familiar with but that shapes the depiction of Jesus, especially in the gospels of Matthew and John, is that of Jesus as the Wisdom of God. One scholar calls John and Matthew "twin sons of the same mother" (i.e., Wisdom). Read the Prologue to the Gospel of John (1:1-18), and you'll notice that the author basically borrows Woman Wisdom's job description from Proverbs and attributes it to the Logos (Word) of God. Logos was a male gendered image of divine intelligence drawn from Greek philosophy. When the Prologue says that Jesus came to his own but they did not know him (Jn. 1:11), doesn't that sound like the Wisdom we've described above?
Jesus in John is the Word and Wisdom of God come to earth. He is "Wisdom in Person." In his ministry we see him as a wisdom teacher who speaks of the gifts he offers followers in the form of several "I am speeches." They sound uncannily like those of Woman Wisdom in Proverbs: life (I am the Resurrection and the Life); guidance (I am the Way); nourishment (I am the Bread of Life); and a fountain of life (I give the Living Water).
In Matthew, Jesus is portrayed as a wisdom teacher who taught in parables and proverbs. Matthew also portrays Jesus as Wisdom in person, heavenly Wisdom herself. Matthew and Luke borrow sayings and parables from a source scholars call the Q document. It views Jesus as a messenger and teacher of wisdom. Matthew changes the wording in some of the sayings to put wisdom' words on Jesus' lips, identifying Jesus with Wisdom herself. (Compare Mt. 23:34 and Lk. 11:49.) In Matthew 23:34 Jesus identifies himself with Wisdom when he says "I send you prophets, sages, and scribes, some of whom you will kill and crucify . . ."
Some People Are Just Never Satisfied
Matthew 11:16-19 describes two messengers of Wisdom, John and Jesus. "This generation" (11:16) refers to contemporaries of Jesus who refused to believe he was the Messiah. Some people will not respond to any appeal. John was a preacher of repentance and an ascetic. He threatened the practices of those in power. He wailed and the people would not repent and mourn. And he was put to death.
Jesus was a preacher of grace as well as repentance. He healed on the Sabbath and ate with sinners. He brought the opportunity for wholeness and joy and inclusion. He played the flute for them and they would not dance. And he was put to death.
In the presence of John we should repent. Instead we condemn his stern asceticism and reject his appeal. In the presence of Jesus we should rejoice. Instead we reject Jesus and slander his pleasure in life.
We will not enter the game. We will not play. Neither the ascetic behavior of John nor the ebullience of the Son of Man can break through our conscious will to resist Jesus' message and identity. Nothing pleases us. (From The New Century Bible Commentary on Matthew by David Hill, p. 202. Note: I changed the historical reference from "the Jews" to "we" and "us" to see how it rings true for us today.)
We refuse the kind of introspection that leads to repentance. And we thereby miss the abundant life that lies on the other side.
Alyce M. McKenzie is the George W. and Nell Ayers Le Van Professor of Preaching and Worship at Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University.