Lay Your Burden Down

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Lectionary Reflections
Proper 9, Third Sunday after Pentecost
Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30
July 3, 2011

For years I skipped over this passage with its odd centerpiece verse: "Wisdom is vindicated by her deeds" (Mt. 11:19). I considered it to be obscure and, lo and behold, commentators did too. One of them says about this verse "This logion (saying) is obscure and seems to have been so from early times." (Hill, 202) No kidding. There's a reason Matthew 11:19 was never the memory verse in Vacation Bible School. I have always liked verse 28 better: "Come to me, all ye who labor and are heavy laden . . . my yoke is easy and my burden is light." It's so sweet and comforting.

How about if we ignore verse 11:19 because it's so obscure? And then let's embroider verse 28 on a pillow because it's so sweet.

My journey toward a deeper encounter with this text began on the morning, years ago, when I was a graduate student at Princeton Seminary and arrived late to my seminar on Interpreting the Genres of the Old Testament on the third floor of Stuart Hall. I was only ten minutes late, but it happened to be the day we were signing up for paper topics. Somebody had already signed up for the Psalms. Someone else had nabbed the prophets. Someone else had called dibs on the historical books. There was just one blank space left, waiting for someone to scrawl her name. It was next to the Book of Proverbs.

So it was that I began studying the concept of the Wisdom of God, first in the Old Testament Book of Proverbs, and then, as early Christians related it to the identity of Jesus in the New Testament. Once I completed my obligatory 25-page paper, I was unable to leave the study of biblical wisdom behind. I have been thinking about wisdom ever since. So apparently, the early bird is not the only one that gets the worm.

In the process I discovered that, in this passage, Jesus is speaking of himself as the Wisdom of God. Hold that thought while we go backstage behind this text from Matthew 11:16-19.

Jesus as the Wisdom of God
What I found out through hours of late night and early morning study was that in Proverbs, the guiding presence of God in daily life is personified as a Wise Woman, who invites followers onto the path of wisdom that leads to life. In chapter 8, she is depicted as having been present with God at creation, helping in creation and delighting in God's handiwork. Throughout the Book of Proverbs, she is depicted as a source of guidance, who offers the "way" of wisdom, nourishment, a fountain of life, light and a secure dwelling place. (See 1:20-33, 3:5-20, 8:22-36.)

Jewish writings from between Old and New Testament times continued to reflect on Wisdom as a figure that expresses God's presence and guidance. Such writings include The Wisdom of Jesus ben Sirach (Ecclesiasticus), The Wisdom of Solomon, Baruch, 1 Enoch, and 4 Esdras, among others. Here is the composite picture they present of Wisdom.

Wisdom was present at Creation, in which she served as an agent or instrument. She came to earth, sent to call both Israel and all humankind onto the way of obedience to God. Some listened to her, but most did not. She sent and spoke through prophets and sages, most of whom were rejected by those to whom she sent them. In some places, she is identified with Torah, the guiding book for the nation. She was so often rejected by humanity that eventually, finding no place of rest and welcome on earth, she returned to dwell with God. (PBWSHS 177)

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).