The times were hard. The government, a huge bureaucracy that provided so many important things like roads and military support and the justice system, was hopelessly out of touch with the people. And the religious establishment wasn't much better. It seemed so focused on preserving what was that it had little or no vision for what might yet be. When a prophet spoke out, they were vilified, punished, especially if they called into question the decisions of the government. Voices of hope arose, but just as quickly they fell as questions arose about the character of the speaker, about their ability to deliver, or about the transgressions of their past. Apathy was the prevailing ethos in the community. It was not hard to imagine the people asking, "Why even bother when nothing seemed to change?"
Kind of hard to figure out the time referenced, isn't it? While this description is meant to refer to Matthew's community, they could be referring to today in any of our towns or cities. The pervasive apathy of our age, the sense that nothing can improve and to bother trying to make things better is a fool's errand, the despair that makes us resign our hearts to a belief that poverty, hunger and homelessness have no real answers, have no hope. Such matters are left to Sisyphus, sadly rolling that stone up the hill only to have it roll back down, generation after generation after generation.
These are not the usual sentiments of a holiday weekend. This is a time of picnics and fireworks, of national pride and family reunions. Matthew's words disrupt our revelry, tear us back to the realities of Monday morning and the real world that awaits. Jesus calls us to come with him, to come because of him, to live and serve as we are called, which may not be as the folks in the marketplace expect. Jesus certainly didn't meet the expectations of those in the market; he didn't dance to their tunes, he didn't cry with their grief. He was and is about something else.
Not walking in step with the establishment is hard work, and it can be dangerous. On this holiday weekend, it's not hard to think of names of those who made hard choices for this nation: George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and so many others. It's not hard to think of those whose impact has changed the world: Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., Mother Teresa, Dorothy Day, Oscar Romero, Rigoberta Menchu, Wangari Mattai, and so many others. But in some ways, our attention given to them can actually feed the apathy of our age, for how many of us will be another Washington? Another King? Another Mother Teresa? And if we can't be them, what difference can we make?
Such is the thinking is the message of the so-called wise and intelligent ones to whom Jesus refers, the ones who have lived life and know that life is as it is, and we can never change it. Our fate is our fate; why try to make a difference, to make things better? Why try to face the challenges of our age? We can only tend to our little world, to our personal space. The rest we leave to God or fate or simply to everyone else.
And, yet, the 'little ones' - as Matthew calls them - the little ones are eager to try. Throughout Matthew's gospel, the new disciples are often referred to as infants or little ones. While they are not literally children, they have a child-like hunger to learn more, a child-like courage to try. Think about the way children approach life: they soak up everything they can; they are eager to learn; they are naturally drawn to growth; they learn through play and practice and imitation; they are full of the hope and expectation that is embodied in Jesus himself. Well past the shelter of childhood, these new disciples are not naive - they know about the troubles of this world, for they are its citizens as well. They may not have starved, but they have known hunger. They may not be sick, but they love those who are. They may not have been imprisoned, but they know they could be at any time with one false move, one careless mistake.
There is a seduction in such a place, however. When one hears Jesus proclaim that one only knows the God if Jesus has chosen to reveal God to her or him, that sounds like the kind of exclusion being practiced by the religious authorities of the day. Worse, it can lead followers to presume a kind of privileged access that rarely leads people to feed the hungry, tend to the sick, clothe the naked and visit those in prison. Eugene Boring unpacks this verse well. He writes:
Is this an invitation to pride, to suppose that if we claim to get it, we belong to the chosen few? Or is it an invitation to resignation and despair, since God's revelation is God's own choice, and there is nothing we can do about it?...Who gets it? The passage closes with an invitation from the one who is himself meek and lowly in heart, an invitation to all who know themselves to be burdened and in need of salvation, an invitation to learn and become Jesus' disciples. Those who hear the invitation will know that they have the response-ability to answer the call, and when they do, they will understand that they must praise God, who has given them this gift of revelation (275).
And you can hear how endeared these infants are to Jesus. He presents his yoke to them, his mantle of discipleship, and offers assurance with this gift. "My yoke is easy, and my burden is light." As Boring notes, "This is not some slight of hand invitation, some deceptive recruiting strategy. "The 'easy' yoke of Jesus is not an invitation to a life of ease, but of deliverance from the artificial burdens of human religion, which Matthew sees as a barrier to the true fellowship of the kingdom of God (23:4)" (275). Quite simply, Jesus invites us into the paradox of faithful service in his love, one in which those seemingly insurmountable struggles of our world suddenly become life-giving callings when we dare to take up his yoke and follow.
At The Fund for Theological Education, we have the privilege of working with remarkable, diverse young people from over 30 Christian denominations who are responding to this invitation in creative, passionate, and Christ-centered ways. Like those early little ones, these young people have been shaped and formed in a culture that says following Jesus Christ is a foolish waste of time. Several Protestant denominations have seen their memberships decline precipitously in recent years. A huge number of clergy currently serving churches will retire in the next few years, and the jury is out as to whether we have sufficient numbers of pastors who are qualified to fill their positions. And as the cost of seminary education rises, so does the debt of its graduates. Why in heaven's name would anyone heed such a call today?
One Fellow who recently accepted a call to a parish tells the painful story of her confrontation with her father. When she told her parents she had been awarded a fellowship to explore theological education, her father became enraged. He growled back, "I have paid for four years at a private college for you, and you will not waste your life and my money in ministry. You can be a doctor or a lawyer or an engineer. You can even go into business. But you will not waste your life in the church!" It speaks to her courage and her faithfulness that she, as one of Jesus' little ones, is in the eyes of the wise, wasting her life and she is loving it.
As we turn our eyes from the fireworks of the fourth to the routines of Monday, gaze across the room, scan across your memory, meander through your church directory: who among you might just be one of those little ones, one of those disciples, to whom Jesus offers his yoke? When might you say to them, "You know, I see gifts for ministry in you." We can't wait for them to encounter a burning bush or to have a visionary dream, nor do I believe God expects us to wait. You, in fact, may be their burning bush.
The burden of the future of the church may feel like it is on our shoulders. In noticing, naming and nurturing Jesus' call to the "little ones," to the next generation of pastoral leaders, we reject the apathy of our age and help make God's kingdom known, even here; even now. For such an opportunity as this, thanks be to God.
Let us pray.
For the gift of our lives, O God, we offer gracious thanks. For the gift of those with whom we share in ministry, we offer thanks. For the opportunity to look to a generation who will rise in leadership of your church, we offer thanks and ask your prayers and blessings as we reach out to them so that they might lead us. In Jesus' name we pray. Amen.