The Wise, the Prudent, and the Babies
When I first began attending Dallas Seminary, I noticed something happening among many of my fellow students. Two, things, actually.
On one hand, the academic atmosphere of the place seemed to make some students bloom into these intellectual powerhouses. It was a very heady and intoxicating to be handling the Scriptures in the original languages. It gave one a kind of mountain-climber’s high to read across centuries of Christian theology, to categorize, analyze, systematize, and criticize all the various theological schools and parties over the past centuries. Paul said that knowledge puffs up, and I’d guess the students I’m talking about were poster boys for this idea.
On the other hand, some students seemed to find their faith shipwrecked. Two things contributed to this. First of all, in seminary they met, for the very first time, a serious and compelling challenge to some of their most precious notions about the gospel and the spiritual life. Secondly, as they grappled with these challenges, they too found a vast vista of differing convictions spread out before them, running back over 20 centuries to the Bible which they had supposed was as easy to understand as a phonebook. And, so, they would throw up their hands in despair, thinking that it was now impossible for them ever to come to any solid conviction about anything ever again.
I thought about those fellow students when I read over the gospel appointed for today. Though you may not recognize them immediately in today’s gospel, these two kinds of students I met in seminary were just modern examples of the kinds of people Jesus was speaking about in today’s gospel lesson. To see how this is so, let’s turn our attention for a moment to the context in which Jesus’ words were spoken.
In the previous chapter of Matthew – Matthew 10, Jesus commissioned his disciples and sent them into the cities of the Jews to preach the gospel. From our earlier examination of that commission, you remember that Jesus warned them that they would face persecution, hostility, and rejection from many of those to whom they preached. At the beginning of the next chapter of Matthew, we read this:
1 Now it came to pass, when Jesus finished commanding His twelve disciples, that He departed from there to teach and to preach in their cities.
So, the disciples are out there preaching and teaching. Jesus is out there preaching and teaching. And what happens? Well, the next thing we read is that John the Baptist, who is already in prison, sends his own disciples to Jesus with a question: “Are you the one who was to come? Or are we to wait for another?”
You see, John had gotten word of the reception Jesus and his disciples were receiving, and it disturbed him. John was worried about the opposition to Jesus, about the way the leaders of the people were rejecting Jesus. And, John was further worried because the people to whom Jesus and the disciples preached were not receiving Jesus’ message. John couldn’t understand this, and so he sent a message to Jesus asking, “What’s going on? Are you for real? Or is someone else going to follow even you?”
Jesus answer has three parts. First Jesus sent a message of encouragement to John. It’s not in the gospel read a while ago, but you can easily find it in Matthew 11.
Next Jesus pronounced woes upon the cities where he had ministered, cities which had not believed in him. He singles out Chorazin, Bethsaida, and Capernaum for special mention. Indeed, Capernaum – which became Jesus’ second home once he had been run out of Nazareth – gets the strongest denunciation of all. 23And you, Capernaum, who are exalted to heaven, will be brought down to Hades; for if the mighty works which were done in you had been done in Sodom, it would have remained until this day. 24But I say to you that it shall be more tolerable for the land of Sodom in the day of judgment than for you."
What’s going on here? Why are these cities – especially Capernaum – so resistant to Jesus’ ministry? Why do they not repent? Why are they so disbelieving?
Well, we learn what’s going on in the next verses of Matthew 11, when Jesus breaks out in thanksgiving with these words:
"I thank You, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that You have hidden these things from the wise and prudent and have revealed them to babes. 26Even so, Father, for so it seemed good in Your sight.
Jesus is using strongly sarcastic language here. “Wise” and “prudent” are terms applied to the religious leadership of Israel to themselves, and so Jesus calls them these terms. And, “babies” is how those wise and prudent described everyone else. And, so, Jesus praises His Father that the message of the kingdom is hidden from the wise and prudent, but revealed to the babies, for this pleases God.
To understand Jesus point, I’d like to relate to you something my undergraduate Greek professor once told us. He was explaining to us one day after class that he used to read a children’s Bible to his own children. They were very young – not even able to read themselves. All they could do is look at the pictures and listen to their father reading to them. One day one of this professor’s children asked him what color eyes Noah had. This learned man was startled by the question, and so he drew his young son out about why he wanted to know. What he got was more questions, about details in the stories which were not included, missing details that had fired up the child’s natural curiosity.
Finally, our professor said something very much like this: “I suddenly realized that my son actually thought that these stories were true, that these things really happened. And, so, of course, I stopped reading him these Bible stories. I won’t let him read them again until he can understand that they are not history at all.”
Now, I think my undergraduate Greek professor and the religious leadership of the Jews in Jesus’ day have a lot in common. Both the modern professor and the First Century Jewish religious establishment had pretty well worked out ideas about how the universe works and what God’s place is within that universe. And, along comes Jesus, claiming to be that very God himself, and telling them things that are radically at odds with how they suppose things to be.
And, who listened to that professor? Why his son, of course. And who listened to those religious leaders in Palestine 2000 years ago? Why those whom they were leading, of course. Eventually, they would get the crowds to crying, “Crucify him! Crucify him!”
If you’re thinking ahead, you may be wondering – where is there any hope for the ordinary folks? Faced with competing religious authorities – Jesus on one hand, the Pharisees and the Sadducees on the other hand – what are they supposed to do?
Well, what they’re supposed to do is believe Jesus. We know that. But, the don’t. And, Jesus tells us why in the remainder of his prayer. ” 27All things have been delivered to Me by My Father, and no one knows the Son except the Father. Nor does anyone know the Father except the Son, and the one to whom the Son wills to reveal Him.” You see, it is not just a message that Jesus brings, it is the grace to receive that message. And, to judge by Jesus’ words in this prayer, the ones Jesus chooses to understand him are the babies, not those who deem themselves wise and prudent, nor those who agree that they were wise and prudent.
As we ponder the implications of Jesus’ words to ourselves, I suggest we take the following things to heart.
First we should be grateful to be among the babies. Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me, for of such is the Kingdom of Heaven. Truly I say to you, if one does not receive the Kingdom of God as a little child, he cannot enter it.” [Luke 18; Matt. 19; Mk. 10] And, here in Matthew 10 we learn that if we have received Jesus message as a little child – because one we trust has told us so – then that very acceptance is something which Jesus Himself has willed. Jesus has chosen to reveal the Father to us who are babies, and for that we can only be grateful.
And, what is it that we have believed? Really, it is very simple things, which small children are able to understand and accept.
15And He said to them, "Go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature. 16He who believes and is baptized will be saved; but he who does not believe will be condemned. [Mk 16:15-16] There is no rocket science in these words.
Paul said, “if you confess with your mouth the Lord Jesus and believe in your heart that God has raised Him from the dead, you will be saved.” [Rom 10:9] Again, this is not difficult, or abstruse, or complex.
The Apostle John write to those he pastored with these words, “Every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is of God, 3and every spirit that does not confess that[a] Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is not of God. [1 John 4:2-3] Where is the difficulty in that? It’s as clear as glass.
Paul, writing to his disciples in Corinth, said this: “1 Moreover, brethren, I declare to you the gospel which I preached to you, which also you received and in which you stand, 2by which also you are saved, if you hold fast that word which I preached to you--unless you believed in vain. 3For I delivered to you first of all that which I also received: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, 4and that He was buried, and that He rose again the third day according to the Scriptures …” [1 Cor 15]
None of this is difficult. None of this should give any child any difficulty at all. All these things are found summarized in the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds. They are there because they are the most fundamental statements of what we are to receive in order to enter the Kingdom of God. And they are not difficult. Babes understand them.
Third, we should be wary of falling off the horse on either side. . There are those who insist on a special, esoteric, and specialized knowledge in order to be saved or to be “truly spiritual.” And, their point of view has a kind of credibility, because there ARE difficult issues in the Christian faith. It is a mistake to suppose that everything about the faith is easily understood by the simplest child-like mind. There are great mysteries in the gospel.
For example, there is the difficult issue of understanding how God’s sovereignty can be real alongside human responsibility to choose. There is the very difficult idea that God is a three-in-one, a trinity. There is the mystery that surrounds the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist. I could add to this list all afternoon, and you would probably still find some more conundrums to add to my list.
But, it is one thing to say, “these are difficult things, who can understand them!” and quite another thing to say “only those who can understand these mysteries are really Christian.”
Of course, one can fall off the horse on the other side as well. Some Christians who wish to avoid falling into the left-hand ditch along the road, hurl themselves into the right hand ditch. They will attempt to reduce the gospel to some single point and to dismiss everything else. They will read Paul who said that knowledge puffs up, and then they will conclude that the culprit is knowledge itself and counsel ignorance as spiritually superior.
Finally, the counsel we should take is the one Jesus himself offers. 28Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. 29Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30For My yoke is easy and My burden is light."
Jesus here is speaking the language of a rabbi to his disciples. To attach oneself to a teacher in those days was spoken about as if one were to take a yoke. The references to labor and being heavy laden are probably not talking about physical labors or material burdens; rather they are talking about the restlessness of not knowing what is best to do, and why it is best to do it. That kind of person is the one to whom Jesus promises to give rest. “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me,” he says.
Why? “Because I am gentle and lowly of heart.” Jesus is not some cosmic, triple PhD, guru on the top of the mountain. He does not demand intellectual prowess in his disciples, he requires humility, for he is humble. His yoke is easy, and his burden is light, and by receiving these we will find rest for our souls.
May God our Father, who sent his Son to be lowly among us, grant that we may receive him as children, and find rest for our souls. May Christ who saved us from our sins, reveal to us His Father in heaven, who by His great love for us has given His own son to redeem us from our sins.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.