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Matthew 11:20-30

Lesson Focus

Jesus invites us to abandon what we think we know about following him in exchange for a spot beside him, learning how to participate with him in proclaiming the Kingdom of God.

Lesson Outcomes

Through this lesson, students should:

  1. Understand the importance of humility and openness in perceiving God's truth: Students will recognize the negative consequences of pride and arrogance, particularly in the context of religious beliefs. They will explore the concept of humility as a key characteristic in perceiving God's Kingdom and the need for openness to allow Jesus to shape their worldview.

  2. Recognize the consequences of rejecting God's grace and call to repentance: Students will analyze the examples of Chorazin, Bethsaida, and Capernaum to understand the significance of recognizing and responding to Jesus' grace-filled call toward repentance. They will explore the implications of failing to acknowledge and follow the teachings and deeds of Jesus.

  3. Embrace the invitation to share in Jesus' yoke and learn from Him: Students will grasp the metaphorical meaning of sharing Jesus' yoke and the significance of working alongside Him. They will understand the benefits of accepting Jesus' guidance and teachings, allowing Him to shape their lives and provide rest amidst the burdens of life.

Catching up on the Story

Jesus has finished instructing his disciples on how they are to go about proclaiming the good news. They have been told to expect trouble and rejection, but they are not to worry as God will provide for their needs, even helping them know what to say.

The posture the disciples are to take is one of craftiness yet innocence. The disciples are to understand the times and culture so that they might proclaim the gospel in an appropriate manner. At the same time, however, they’re to engage in their mission with grace and peace. Antagonism has no place in the disciple’s proclamation.

At the beginning of chapter 11, the scene shifts. John the Baptist sends his followers to ask Jesus if he is the one Israel has been waiting for. Jesus doesn’t come right out and say that he is. Jesus does point to the work that he’s done. As far as Jesus is concerned, his work should speak for itself. As the chapter continues, it is clear that Jesus understands that those who should have recognized him by virtue of his deeds have not done so. Jesus has not been recognized as the Messiah, and as such, he’s in good company. Israel has a long history of rejecting those sent by God to call them back to faithfulness.

Woe to you…

Jesus isn’t done speaking forcefully to the crowds. More specifically, Jesus pronounces a woe, a pronouncement of judgment, on the places that have witnessed Jesus’ miraculous works of power. As we might expect, Jesus’ chastisement is for these cities’ refusal to repent. My guess is that we’ve all heard sermons or Sunday School lessons focusing on sinners’ need to repent and the consequences for not doing so. Perhaps this passage or similar ones have been used to motivate you to receive Jesus and become a Christian. Judgment and the threat of penalty have been a regular part of the Protestant Evangelical playbook.

I have often heard well-meaning folks declare that Jesus speaks of hell and judgment more than he does of anything else. This claim is patently false. Regardless of the truth of this and similar statements, attention must be paid to whom Jesus is addressing. Jesus does preach judgment but does not do so to pagans (Bruner, 521)! Specifically, for this passage, Jesus’ words of judgment fall on Jewish cities where Jesus has already proclaimed the Kingdom of God. Jesus’ proclamation of the Kingdom of God includes mighty deeds of power.

The cities of Chorazin and Bethsaida knew enough of scripture to understand who Jesus is and what his deeds of power pointed to. Jesus was not calling gentile sinners to repentance, but God’s chosen people. Their failure to see, hear, and truly understand what was before them, their failure to repent and follow after their long-awaited Messiah, will be the basis for their judgment. One of my favorite commentators puts it like this,

“It is the religious of Israel, the disciples of Jesus, and the spiritually privileged of Galilee who received the message of judgment from Jesus. Judgment is a message for spiritual people—and ever since Matthew’s Gospel, it is a message for Christians—for Christians who smile and wink when they hear what Jesus says; for comfortable Christians—in a word, for unreal Christians” (Bruner, 521).

To illustrate his point, Jesus compares these two towns in Galilee and to Gentile towns, Tyre and Sidon. If the message that had been preached and the deeds of power done in Chorazin and Bethsaida had been done in a Gentile city, they would have long since been moved to repentance. Their repentance would have been quick and decisive as they don the apparel of contrition, sackcloth, and ashes.

If you were in the crowd that day, you would have found it unimaginable that the people of two Gentile cities would be judged less severally than the people of God. It’s scandalous!

In his infinite wisdom and knowledge, the reality remains that Jesus can definitively proclaim that given the same evidence as Israel, Gentiles would have turned to participate in God’s plan of redemption for the world more eagerly than those who had already been called and blessed.

To add insult to injury, Jesus condemns Capernaum, the central location where Jesus conducted his ministry. The city had the reputation of boasting about its importance as a city, claiming they had been “exalted to heaven” (Hare, 126). Jesus will have none of it, declaring that the notoriously immoral city of Sodom would have changed its ways and have escaped God’s judgment had they seen what Capernaum had seen.

God’s judgment will indeed come, but it likely will not come to those whom the church generally believes it will come. Judgment is never Jesus’ first word nor the last word, either (Bruner, 523). Judgment always comes after the grace God extends to bring us to repentance. Judgment results from the arrogant refusal of the called and blessed to respond to Jesus’ grace-filled call toward repentance. Judgment results from us not taking Jesus seriously or at his word.

A Confession

After pronouncing a woe over those who should have seen and understood what Jesus was up to, Jesus begins a prayer. What’s normally translated as a word of thanks in verse 25 is a confession. Instead of “I thank you, Father…” we can translate the address as “I confess/acknowledge, Father….” The implications of this translation decision are subtle but important. Jesus is not thanking the Father for hiding things from those who believe themselves wise and intelligent in the faith. Instead, Jesus is stating the way things are. Nor should we believe that God is intentionally hiding the grace of the good news from people.

We all know proud and arrogant people. They can be the hardest people to work with because they always believe in their opinions. They always believe they’re right, and no amount of rational conversation will get them to change their tune. Unfortunately, it seems that the march of time has not changed people’s inclination toward arrogance, particularly when it comes to religion. While not all Christians in North America are this way, the fact remains that we have become known as proud and arrogant people who are often tragically deaf to the grace-filled words of Jesus. If the things of God are hidden from us, it is because we have not allowed ourselves to see properly.

If God has revealed his Kingdom to “infants,” who are those infants, and what characteristics do they possess that allow them to see clearly? If pride and arrogance are the attitudes that trip us up, then humility and openness are what God desires. This does not mean we cannot be confident about how God has called us to live, but it does mean that we are constantly seeking to allow Jesus to reveal the way forward as our context and culture change. It means that the lens through which we need to view the world and our place in it is the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ.

Viewing life through a Jesus-colored lens is precisely the point of verse 27. The Father has given everything and all authority to Jesus, and no one can come to the Father except through Jesus. I think this has little to do with gatekeeping or even authority to judge but has everything to do with Jesus’ authority and ability to reveal the will and way of the Father to creation. It is one thing to know Jesus; it is another to allow Jesus to shape how we engage with the world.

A Shared Yoke

As we come to the final verses of chapter 11, an invitation is extended to those ready to renounce their spiritual pride and arrogance to be taught the Jesus way. Jesus invites all of us, for who is not weary and carrying the heavy burdens of life to receive rest? The image that Jesus uses, ironically enough, is not very restful! While the invitation is to rest, that rest looks like giving up our ideas about what it means to follow God in exchange for help in doing it the right way.

Jesus encourages us to take his yoke as our own. For us in the nonagenarian world, yokes are likely foreign to us. A quick internet search will reveal that a yoke is an instrument for carrying heavy loads efficiently. For humans, a yoke is shaped to fit naturally around the back of our necks while distributing weight evenly on our backs and shoulders. Two heavy objects attached to either end of the yoke balance each other, enabling the person to carry the objects for longer and with less energy than if we would carry those objects individually. It’s a way of working smarter, not harder.

Yokes aren’t just for people. However, they’re used with beasts of burden like horses and oxen. Often a yoke is made to harness the pulling power of two animals. Together, the two animals can work better and more efficiently than just one. In this way, a yoke becomes easier and lighter to bear. In both cases, with humans and beasts of burden, an uneven yoke or a yoke poorly shaped will lead to wasted energy and a decline in productivity or the inability to complete a task.

So What?

The key to understanding this passage lies in Jesus’ yoke image. When we become proud and arrogant, thinking we already know what God has done and will do in the world, when we don’t allow our preconceived notions or ideologies to be challenged by Jesus, we unnecessarily burden ourselves. Put another way, cities like Charozin, Bethsaida, and Capernaum, and the people in them, have set about carrying their heavy loads without a properly shaped or constructed tool. They’re working harder, not smarter if you will. All the while, Jesus has come along to show them the correct way, and they refuse to listen. They’re like petulant teenagers who think they’ve already figured out the world. Proud. Arrogant. Blind.

The one whom the Father has given all authority and all things is here, though, still willing to show us how it’s done. If we turn back to the yoke image, we’ll notice that Jesus offers to share his yoke with us, and it is a superbly crafted yoke, well balanced, made of the strongest stuff, and padded in all the right places. It’s not just that the equipment is the right tool for the job; it’s that Jesus invites us to work alongside him. He’ll teach us how to adjust the yoke just right. He’ll teach us how to balance the load. He’ll teach us how to walk without stumbling, but when we do stumble, and we will, he’s there to help us regain control. He’ll help us to stand up, don the yoke and continue our journey together.

We can make this metaphor fit many different scenarios, but I think one particular scenario is specifically important for us today. Jesus is talking to the church. We tend to be proud, arrogant, and unwilling to listen to or learn from Jesus. If we don’t change, it will be worse for us on the day of judgment than for Sodom. That’s the judgment, but as we have said, judgment isn’t the first or last word. The last word is an invitation. It’s an invitation to largely forget all we’ve learned about what it means to be Christian in exchange for a spot next to Jesus in the yoke.

Discussion Questions

Read the text aloud. Then, read the text to yourself quietly. Read it slowly, as if you were very unfamiliar with the story.

  1. How does Jesus' message of judgment in this passage challenge our traditional understanding of who will be judged?

  2. Why do you think Jesus directed his message of judgment towards Jewish cities rather than gentile cities?

  3. In what ways can pride and arrogance hinder our ability to perceive God's truth? How can we cultivate humility and openness in our faith journey?

  4. Reflecting on the examples of Chorazin, Bethsaida, and Capernaum, why do you think people who witnessed Jesus' miraculous works failed to recognize Him as the Messiah?

  5. How does Jesus' invitation to share in His yoke resonate with you? What does it mean to you to work alongside Jesus and allow Him to shape your life?

  6. Discuss the concept of repentance in this passage. What is the significance of repentance in the context of receiving Jesus' grace and responding to His teachings?

  7. How does this passage challenge our preconceived notions or ideologies about following God? In what ways can we allow Jesus to challenge and reshape our understanding of faith?

  8. Reflecting on Jesus' prayer of confession, what does it reveal about God's desire to reveal His grace to us? How does this challenge the idea that God intentionally hides the good news from certain people?

  9. Explore the metaphor of the yoke used by Jesus. How does understanding the yoke concept enhance our understanding of discipleship and working alongside Jesus?

  10. How can we avoid becoming like the cities mentioned in this passage, refusing to listen and learn from Jesus? What pract