Great Expectations | Matthew 11:16-30
We expect great things. Sometimes we expect great things from ourselves. Mostly, we expect them from other people.
We like to think that we are right, and we tend to suspect that other people are wrong, no matter who they are. Maybe they are well intentioned but misguided. At worst, well, one might want to keep the children away from them.
Here’s an oddity—we seem most inclined to disagree with the people who are most like us. The unknown—a new comet in the sky, a new species of primate in the Congo, a poisonous salamander along the Amazon—may cause fear or loathing or admiration, but never disagreement. To disagree, one must have some knowledge of the other’s position. To disagree vehemently requires intimacy.
To disagree self-righteously requires religion.
In Matthew 11, Jesus is talking about expectations and burdens. That’s the same thing, by the way—an expectation placed on someone’s shoulders transforms into a burden. We are good at placing the burden on other people, though some of us are quite good at putting burdens on our own shoulders.
In the story, John the Baptist is in prison for a prior disagreement with the regional ruler, Herod. It seems that neither of them had met the other’s expectations. Then John sends followers to see whether Jesus is living up to John’s expectations. One may forgive him such an inquiry—it would have been difficult to remain positive in John’s position.
John was a prophet. Ok, he was a pretty weird one out in the wilderness, but he was a prophet. And people expected great things of a prophet.
Jesus talks to a crowd of people about their expectations of John. It seems that the people of Jesus’ day were critical. They were doubtful and slow to believe anyone who spoke to them about God.
Imagine. And this in a day when nearly everyone believed in God. Or gods. Something.
Then Jesus does an odd thing—he starts talking to the crowd about knowing God and about carrying burdens, as if one thing has to do with the other. This is a crowd of the faithful. They are gathered to listen to Jesus talk about God, make public prayers, do a little teaching and preaching. They are familiar with John the Baptist. These are church folk, good synagogue-going folk.
Jesus looks at them, and he see them carrying the burdens of their own religious expectations. He offers to trade with them, to give them a lighter burden, a better set of expectations.
Lighten up, he tells them.
We burden ourselves. In religious life, we love to heave on burdens. Useless stuff. Guilt. Anxiety. The tools of societal control and individual failure. We expect ourselves to be more faithful, more decent, more caring, more involved, more giving, more of all of that to our friends and to our family and to all kinds and sorts of people, real and imagined, who might benefit from our behavior, at least in our own minds. It’s a wonder we can walk under the load. To prop ourselves up, we lean on the notion that we are right. About anything. Everything.
Then we hand out the burdens of our expectations to other people, most of all to brothers and sisters of faith. It’s no wonder people look askance at religion.
No? Then how do we expect a pastor or a priest to behave? Anything short of perfectly? How about other religious folk—teachers, choir singers? As we sit in our miasma of faithful love, what do we think of that family of misfits who arrive late and whose children fidget loudly and well throughout the service? Don’t pretend that we have no expectations of them. Don’t pretend we aren’t carrying burdens of our own making.
We gave up God. We started carrying religion. It’s easier to carry those ideas than it is to love a stranger.
Jesus makes an incredible offer to the people in that crowd. Come, he says, and I will give you a lighter burden to carry. Come, and I’ll give you rest for your souls. What do we do? We hand out weighty expectations, heavy judgment, and loads of guilt.
Further along in this gospel (23:4), Jesus says, “They tie up heavy and hard to bear burdens, and they lay them on the shoulders of the people; but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them.” He’s talking about us. If you’ve read this far in a reflection on faith, he was talking about you.
We expect other people to think the same way about God that we do. We expect them to live as we do. We certainly don’t care for a weirdo who wears odd clothes, lives in the desert, eats bugs, and above all has the temerity to make us think for ourselves. That’s what really got John the Baptist in trouble, you know. The clothes, the bugs, well, folks could go along with that. The re-thinking part? We don’t like that sort of thing.
We’d rather carry that weight than trade in our burdens.
What about us? Maybe going out in the desert and living on locusts and wild honey wasn’t such a bad idea. Eating bugs may be easier than living up to our own expectations. We might want to trade those in after all.