"This Generation"

Photo by Benigno Hoyuela on Unsplash

Inspired by the play-based curriculum of my children’s preschool, I used to turn my kitchen over to Desmond, Anna, and Ozzie, when they were barely toddling around and gurgling a few words at a time. I would get out all the pots and pans, every possible cooking utensil, and many large bowls of random ingredients: uncooked rice grains (to my mother’s chagrin), flour, baking soda, various shapes of dried pasta noodles, water, vinegar, food coloring. The shrieks of joy and frustration at the experiments we were concocting together punctuated the constant music of spoons clanging on bowls.

We would go at it: straining and combining, kneading and splashing, and if there was ever an image for the strange mixing of images and stories that often happens in so many of the stories of the Bible, (and especially the stories that Jesus tells us), this might be one possibility. I love the Jesus of Matthew’s Gospel, and the chance to sit with his version of Christ’s life and ministry, a version that includes all the familiar stories ranging from the parables about the kingdom of heaven to the feeding of the multitudes.

Speaking of children, they actually play a striking role throughout most of the gospel of Matthew—they’re received and blessed by Jesus, they participate in miracles, they are recipients of healings. This is not surprising as Matthew’s focus is firmly rooted in one’s roots—the relationships between ancestors and descendants, and making explicit the line from Jesus to all the familiar characters beginning with Abraham to King David to less familiar names, then to “Jacob the father of Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born, who is called the Messiah. So all the generations from Abraham to David are fourteen generations; and from David to the deportation to Babylon, fourteen generations; and from the deportation to Babylon to the Messiah, fourteen generations,” (1:16-17). Matthew wants us thinking in terms of generations. Of the stories of ancestors. Of dreams of descendants. And all the beautiful ways we’re tied together.

There’s the moment in chapter 11, though, when he seems especially exasperated with “this generation.”

“But to what will I compare this generation?” (v. 16). He answers this himself with a parable about children who do not respond to the celebrating or to the wailing. Are the children who play and wail in the parable to symbolize the prophets of their tradition—Elijah, Moses? Or do they represent John the Baptist and Jesus? They were on opposite ends of the spectrum: John played the part of societal misfit, a throwback prophet whom many supposed was demon-possessed (v. 18). Jesus, on the other hand, associated himself with sinners and tax collectors, and was viewed “a glutton and a drunkard” (v. 19). John called for mourning and repentance in the face of judgment whereas Jesus proclaimed joy because of the presence of the kingdom. In both cases their messages encountered unbelief or indifference by “this generation.”

Having read this passage countless times over several years I always found myself nodding at the overall frustration that Jesus may have felt towards “this generation.” Why haven’t they figured it out?

The message of God’s kingdom was practically a bright, flashing neon sign with John the Baptist, and they had a front row view of the nearness of God’s kingdom enfleshed in Jesus: in all the teachings and miracles of healing and raising from the dead, of feedings and calming of storms and walking on water.

In other words, “this generation” in Matthew’s gospel seems easily swayed, capricious, even fickle.

At the same time, I can’t help but feel some empathy for them - the crowds, the people, the disciples… ”this generation.”

Chapter 11 is part of a narrative section following Jesus’ launching of the disciples out into the world – their commissioning to proclaim the good news: “The kingdom of heaven has come near;” and the work: to cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons. Not only does “this generation” have this work, but there is the extra burden of the constant tension with the wider community; and not only the established religious community, but pressure from neighbors, relatives, colleagues and co-workers, and friends. There is judgment, rejection, persecution.

But this story isn’t just about the disciples, it was written to include Matthew’s community, (those reading the gospel at the time), that is, “this generation” includes Matthew’s people: those who’ve witnessed the destruction of the temple, the displacement of their people, and the emerging question of their own identity as God’s people in the midst of cultural upheaval, and governmental and political corruption. There was disease and poverty, and ongoing social inequities.

It feels familiar, doesn’t it? The world was heavy then, and it remains so today.

At the end of the prayer, Jesus offers an invitation. It is tantamount to turning from the narrative world to the writer’s world to the reader’s world, what we sometimes call “breaking the fourth wall.” Matthew intentionally includes future generations. That is, “this generation” is the church today, meaning all of us here. When Matthew has us thinking in terms of generations, it’s because the story is constantly extending out. The circle is constantly widening to include more and more of us.

“But to what will I compare this generation?”

I reflect often on this last year in which we’ve attempted to recover some semblance of pre-covid normalcy by returning to the speed and intensity of life before. Or maybe we tried not to because we did learn that our pre-covid lives were untenable – not for us, not for our planet. But we got swept up anyway into all the activities and work, the programs and commitments, and this on top of regular life with its new babies/grandbabies, illnesses, and travel—most of it good, wonderful and purposeful.

Suddenly, our calendars became fuller than ever. Maybe it’s just me. No doubt much has shifted not only in the last three years but even in just the last year. In hard ways. There are a lot of conversations now about “this generation,” and the impact of all that has happened - is happening in the world - on them. What can we do, or should we do with “this generation”?

It struck me that at least one thing has remained the same. All around us there are narratives and stories, voices and sources claiming answers: the formulas, the plans, apps and tools—proffering and asserting a “wisdom,” a certain way of operating in the world, of living, of being, of choosing. To be pushed and pulled in so many different directions – this too weighs on so many in “this generation.”

And so we have Jesus’ countercultural words at the end of the passage: “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.”

Before this invitation Jesus gives thanks to God: “You have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants.” What does God reveal to “infants,” to the most vulnerable, to the least likely, to the powerless among them? To “this generation”? :

“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.”

We are invited to rest. And certainly this resonates in profound ways during this summer season. But the kind of rest offered here is, (typical to Jesus’ vision), a radical alternative. Rest as a response of love. Rest as an offering of care. Rest as a way of being in this world when everything says “do” and “go,” and “scroll” or “download” or “buy”?

‘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.”

This invitation to rest is radical because it is also an invitation to a particular kind of discipleship.

According to NT scholar Colin Yuckman: Despite all the warnings about rejection and suffering (10:16-22), Jesus speaks of a discipleship characterized by “rest,” “light” burdens, and an “easy” (or “good”) yoke.

But light burdens and easy yokes appear oxymoronic. They produce a tension in our understanding of Matthew’s Gospel, in which Jesus elsewhere reminds disciples that “the gate is narrow and the road is hard” (7:14). Less than a chapter ago in Matthew we hear a different tone: “whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me” (10:38).

The command to “learn from me” in the Greek (mathete ap’ emou) is related to the word for “disciple” (mathetes). The invitation to discipleship, however, is more than cognitive learning, or overcoming a gap in knowledge; it is the adoption of a way of life. And this way of life is expressed in terms of doing and being something in relation to Jesus.

In other words: to learn from Jesus is to rest in the person of Jesus. To follow Jesus is to rest in the person of Jesus.

The promise of rest is not guaranteed vacation time, but a beautiful theological affirmation. Of who we are. Of who is with us and for us. And it has precedence. Yuckman goes on to explain: The language clearly recalls Moses’s own vocation (Exodus 33:12-17). To ease Moses’s anxiety about the uncertainty of the wilderness journey, God promises to accompany God’s people along the way: “My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest” (Exodus 33:14). God will fulfill the promise for this people whose existence has known little rest (first enslavement, then wandering, later exile and captivity).

Discipleship then, according to Jesus in Matthew’s gospel, is the ongoing return to the person that is the source of all we are and do in this world. It is as the prophet Zechariah says in the passage today: a return to the stronghold and to the promises of God’s restoration. It is the simplicity of the child-like dependence on God who sees us and all we carry, and loves us.

I think often of the young people in our midst, in our churches, who especially participated this past summer in the work of the church, (whether at church camp or on pilgrimage). How might we affirm all their journeys, their work, their experiences because they too need reminders that God’s invitation to rest is an invitation to discipleship? But they also show us a particular kind of wisdom as “this generation,” which is their adventurous response to these invitations, this summer, engaging their belovedness.

Perhaps this is why children are an important motif throughout the gospel. We read elsewhere that “unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” To read about feeding the hungry is one thing; to give a cup of water to one of these little ones is quite another; but to receive that gift is a part of our faith.

This is an invitation to enact wisdom by redirecting our lives. Because the truth and wisdom of our faith is in the living. One discovers the wisdom of Jesus by following, (and yes, sometimes), doing, and also sometimes napping, (Google the Nap Bishop and the Nap Ministry). It’s also making space to dream and to imagine and to hope, and we do so by adopting his spirit and living his imperatives, that is, first to rest in him.

It is fitting that Matthew’s Gospel ends not with Jesus’ departure, but with the assurance of his ongoing presence: “I am with you, even to the end of the age” (28:20). We rest in Jesus, we respond in love so that through him we might be the flesh and blood, the hope and joy of his kingdom in this world.

This essay was originally published on the Church Anew Website.