“But to what will I compare this generation?” Jesus asked. Good question, I thought. So I looked at the many places in the New Testament in which the words “this generation” appeared and discovered that Jesus often describes it as a faithless and corrupt one. “To what will I compare this generation today?” I wondered. Would Jesus call us a faithless and corrupt one as well?
Jesus was talking to the religious leaders of his time, which included the Pharisees, a group of Jews who kept strict adherence to the laws of God, to the Torah - the first five books of the Hebrew Bible, and to the ten commandments.These leaders also included the scribes, who were the men who interpreted the laws, sometimes with great precision and detail.
Now, Jesus was claiming that they were a faithless and corrupt generation. He claimed that they did not obey God’s commandments, nor did they listen to the wisdom of the Torah or their prophets. Jesus called these leaders hypocrites, pointing to the inconsistencies in their words and actions. Relying upon the letter of the law, rather than the spirit of the law, they laid heavy burdens upon their own people, who were already feeling burdened by the Roman government. In one exasperated response, Jesus said, “You faithless and perverse generation, how much longer must I be with you? How much longer must I put up with you?”
My Dad, God bless him and may he continue to rest in peace, was an imperfect and yet faithful man. Sometimes I would hear him complain about a relationship, saying “I can’t win for losing.”
This is what Jesus was saying in today’s gospel. You people are like “children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to one another, ‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn.’” John the Baptist called people to repent, and yet the religious leaders called him a demon. Jesus was a friend of tax collectors and sinners, eating and drinking with others, and yet, they called him a glutton and a drunkard. As my father would say, neither John the Baptist, nor Jesus, could win for losing.
William Barclay states that “Jesus was saddened by the sheer perversity of human nature. To him (adults) were like children playing in the village square. One group said to the other; ‘Come on and let’s play at weddings,’ and others said, ‘We don’t feel like being happy today.’ Then the first group said, ‘All right; come on and let’s play at funerals,’ and the others said, ‘We don’t feel like being sad today.’ They were what the Scots called contrary.’ No matter what was suggested, they did not want to do it; and no matter what was offered, they found a fault in it.”
Are we like this in our own generation? Do you know people, regardless of their political affiliation or national status, who behave in the same way? Think about the on-going arguments we’re having around our world, and the various tensions we have in our own relationships. Barclay claims that “The plain fact is that when people do not want to listen to the truth, they will easily enough find an excuse for not listening to it. They do not even try to be consistent in their criticisms; they will criticize the same person, and the same institution, from quite opposite grounds.”
“Or, if people are determined to make no response they will remain stubbornly unresponsive no matter what invitation is made. Grown men and women can be like spoiled children who refuse to play no matter what the game is.” Contrary people don’t want to play; they just want to push their own agendas, or exert their own power.
Jesus upheld God’s commandments, and still challenged the people in his own generation. He said, “The scribes and Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach. They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them. They do all their deeds to be seen by others...and to have people call them rabbi.” (Matt 23:1-8)
We lay burdens upon ourselves and upon others with regularity. Perhaps it’s a new or old law that unfairly restricts our freedom or prevents us from getting the help that we need, or the joy that we could share. Recently the governor of New Jersey was criticized for closing the state’s beaches to the public because lawmakers were unable to agree upon a budget, and then the governor was seen vacationing with his family and friends, on the beach, at a summer beach house, owned by the government.
Perhaps there is an on-going battle in your personal relationships; you just can’t seem to see “eye to eye” or understand the perspective of another person. Or maybe you’re having a battle within yourself. One voice will say to you, “Do this” while the other voice says, “Don’t you dare.”
St. Paul writes to the Christians in Rome about these inconsistencies, saying that he is often guilty of doing things that he does not want, and even hates. We don’t always understand what we or others do or say. We are inconsistent human beings. We are contrary people, faithless at times, even corrupt, and perverse. And while laws are good for us, for they help us to control our behaviors, they will not save us. Who will rescue us then from our very own selves? St. Paul responded, “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!”
Being faithful is both difficult and joyous; it means that there is room in our lives for both weeping and dancing, for obedience and challenge. It means that we must repeatedly repent of those things that we have done and left undone, knowing that in Christ we are forgiven and set free. It means that true personal freedom comes to us from God, no matter our circumstances or the power of others.
Jesus offered an invitation to the generation of his time as well as to ours. “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, 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.” Come to me,” Jesus said, “when your very own contrary selves start to get the best of you."
Jesus said that his yoke is easy and his burden is light. A yoke was “a rabbinic metaphor for the difficult but joyous task of obedience to the Torah. When Jesus claims that his yoke is “easy” he is referring to the Greek word which means “well-fitting.” According to Barclay, “In Palestine, the yoke was carefully adjusted, so that it would fit well, and not gall the neck of the patient beast. The yoke was tailor-made to fit the ox.” Are not our burdens tailor made for us? And can we not find a yoke that fits us well?
“There is a legend that Jesus, the carpenter from Nazareth, made the best ox-yokes in all Galilee, and that people from all over the country people came to him to buy them; (perhaps) the sign above the door of (Jesus) may have been ‘My yokes fit well.’”
Love makes even the heaviest burden light; and so Jesus gave us a new commandment, “to love ourselves and others as he loved us.” Barclay tells the story of how a man came upon a little boy, who was lame, and then carried him upon his back. ‘That’s a heavy burden for you to carry,’ said another man. ‘That’s no’ a burden,’ came the answer. ‘That’s my wee brother.’”
This generation was then, is now, and will be forever, in part a faithless, perverse, and corrupt generation. And yet we are also a faithful generation, a group of contrary people, who believe in the power of God to make all things right. “Come to me,”Jesus says. “Take my yoke.” For through Him, we shall find rest for our souls, and our burdens light. Dance then, wherever you may be, for he is the Lord of the dance, said He. And whether we are laughing or crying, playing at funerals or weddings, our hope for salvation continues to rest in the hands and the heart of God.