Summary: Jesus' invitation to come to Him has an "or else" component to it.
Come Unto Me: An Exposition of Matthew 11:16-30
The Gospel lectionary text selection for what is called Proper 9, seems at first to be quite odd. The selections are Matthew 11:16-20 and 11:25-30, leaving out what is between. The first selection talks about the people rejecting the message of both John the Baptist and Jesus. The second passage is an invitation to accept and follow Jesus. But if one were to read from the beginning of Chapter 10 which starts with the selection of the Apostles and commissioning them to the end of Chapter 11, one sees an alternation of the themes of acceptance and rejection. Jesus starts by sending them out on a mission tour of the villages of Galilee. By what reports we have in the gospels, it was a success. All of the somber things Jesus warned them about did not happen, and they were rejoicing in the power they had over devils. Jesus, the wise mentor corrected this by telling them they should rather rejoice in that their names were written in Heaven.
Jesus told his Apostles the cost of discipleship from the very beginning. Things would not always go well. Jesus tells them of the many hardships and rejections they would suffer. They had not yet become aware of Jesus’ upcoming rejection, suffering and death, but they hear the words that to be a worthy disciple of Jesus Christ, one had to deny one’s self, one’s family, and one’s own life. They had to take up their cross and follow Jesus. I would guess that the disciples were quite relieved that Jesus’ dire warnings did not come to pass. But as it is said in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, “The ides of March had not yet come. But neither would they pass. They would soon experience what Jesus had warned them of. After all, the disciple is not above his master.
At the end of this gloomy charge, starting with 10:40, Jesus’s tone changes. Even though the suffering would be great, so would be the rewards. It is true that many would violently reject the Gospel. But many would accept it as well. This gives purpose to suffering. Even the smallest deed of offering a cup of cold water in the name of a disciple would be rewarded.
Chapter 11 begins with the disciples of John the Baptist coming and asking Jesus a message from John. Was he the Messiah? John was in prison and suffering greatly. Was his sacrifice worth it? Did he get it right? In a world in which the righteous are to be rewarded and the evildoers punished, it is only natural when you are confined in prison to wonder these things. The disciples would also face this doubt. Many Christians today languish in prison and labor camps. Many are executed.
Jesus answers John’s question in the affirmative. He had indeed been correct in identifying Jesus as the Christ. However, he had some misunderstandings of what the Kingdom was all about. It wasn’t to be an earthly kingdom based upon the worldly conceptions of power. Instead, the Kingdom Jesus ushers in at this time was to heal the sich, to cast out demons, and to give true comfort to the poor. The Kingdom which John the Baptist anticipated would come. Jesus will not only reign over Israel but over all people, Jew and Gentile. But in the meantime, the Kingdom is characterized by the cross. John would soon be beheaded for his preaching which serves as a warning to all followers of Jesus Christ.
After this, Jesus asks the crowd about the person and ministry of John the Baptist. He completely affirms John the Baptist. Perhaps some had thought Jesus was rebuking John the Baptist. After all, Jesus’ approach to ministry seemed on the surface to be quite different. John the Baptist thundered repentance and the coming judgment. He was a Nazarite. His diet and dress was radically simple. He was preaching out in the wilderness. Jesus, on the other hand, kept company with sinners, the very worst of them. He ate and drank with them. He had compassion on sinners. John the Baptist had piped a funeral dirge. He was accepted by many, but also rejected by many, especially religious authorities and those in power. He was too radical and populist for them. He played, and they beheaded him. Jesus, came playing the song of the wedding. The proper thing was to dance. But the same Pharisees who had rejected John for being too harsh, rejected Jesus for being too soft. The way Jesus worded their charge reminds us of Deuteronomy’s law that a worthless son who was characterized by being a drunkard and glutton was to be stoned by his own family according to Dr. Whitten. In reality, John and Jesus were totally on the same page, despite the surface differences. Both John and Jesus called people to repent because the Kingdom og God had come near. This is what the early church preached as well.