The Jesus whom Matthew presents to us sounds positively Johannine for an instant in Matthew’s eleventh chapter.
At that time Jesus said, ‘I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children.Yes, Father, for this was your good pleasure. All things have been committed to me by my Father. No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him. Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.
These words come fast on the heels of Jesus’ denunciation of those who will criticize any of his Father’s messengers. They will find John the Baptist’s severe austerity equally as off-putting as Jesus’ party-going. Criticism becomes a convenient and effective tool in the hands of those who simply will not hear.
It is in the wake of this negative appraisal that Jesus’ words turn fondly and with a tone unaccustomed in the three ‘synoptic’ gospels towards the ‘little children’.
Jesus’ reference to children is clearly not limited to those whose lives, measured chronologically, are just beginning. To the contrary, Jesus seems to exegete the identity of these dependent young ones as including some very adult experience. They are ‘weary and burdened’, in need of rest. This rest includes, but is perhaps not limited to ‘rest for our souls’.
For this kind of person, Jesus is ‘gentle and humble in heart’.
No doubt his touch, his rhythm, his pace, his openness to distraction from his intended course by those who needed him, filled out the self-description that Matthew’s quasi-Johannine Jesus offers here.
Those who will willingly take his yoke upon him and learn from him, Jesus tells us, will find that his yoke is easy and his burden light.
One might have derived from these pages a different conclusion regarding the demanding summons to follow Jesus. A close and sympathetic reading opens a space, at least for this would-be yoke-bearer, that requires discerning and textured processing of what Matthew is getting at.
If Jesus’ Father creates people in his image and likeness and then sends his son as a reliable, enfleshed manifestation of that very image and likeness, then to step into the reality for which we were created ought to bring a certain naturalness to our gait. True, Jesus demands a kind of allegiance that is full-orbed. Certainly, he requires of his followers a global, comprehensive renunciation of rights and entitlements, even of self-determination.
Yet the Matthean Jesus assures us here that, having given ourselves over to that reshaped loyalty, we will become strong under the burden of it, erect under its yoke. The appearance of humiliation, the prospect of a manner of slavery will—in actual experience—have merely veiled the welcome reality of its opposite.