Skinning Cats

Fifth Sunday after Pentecost
Matthew 11:16–19, 25–30

Anybody here ever skinned a cat? Neither have I, but I have it on good authority that there is more than one way to do it.

In one sense (and I hope only one sense), the proclamation of the good news of the reign of God is like skinning a cat: there is more than one way to do it. That in itself is good news, although it is often difficult for us to hear it as such.

We’re not alone. John the Baptist has his own doubts about the possibility that God might work in unfamiliar ways, ways that do not seem compatible with his. The people to whom he and Jesus bring the good news also have trouble with this notion. For them, and for many of us today, cat-skinning is to be done in one way and one way only. Their way. Our way.

John is an apocalyptic prophet and a firebrand. He believes that the “day of the Lord” that the prophets have been talking about for years is now right around the corner, and he urges, cajoles, demands that the people repent before it's too late. He sets up shop in the Jordan River valley in Judea, baptizing those who come to him and telling them to get right with God before God comes to institute what Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan call “the great divine clean-up of the world.”

The gospels portray John as expecting a messianic figure to implement God’s wrath in a fiery apocalypse. According to Matthew, he says,

Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire (Matt 3:10–12).

Fire is a big thing for John.

Matthew goes on to relate that John recognizes in Jesus the fulfillment of his messianic expectations, and only agrees to baptize him because Jesus insists on it; he thinks himself unworthy of the honor. Clearly, even fifty-odd years after Jesus’s ministry, when Matthew writes his gospel, John still has enough of a following to make this kind of transparent propaganda necessary—not only to assert Jesus’s superiority over John but also to have that acknowledgment come straight from John’s own lips.

Whatever the historical case may be, it’s clear that John sees things differently from his erstwhile disciple. Jesus may have come up under John’s tutelage, but he takes a decidedly different approach to the task of proclaiming the good news of the reign of God. So different, in fact, that even in Matthew’s narrative, in which John gives a full-throated endorsement of Jesus in chapter 3, by chapter 11 he has begun to have his doubts. From his prison cell he hears rumors of Jesus’s preaching, healing, and organizing work and sends word through some of his disciples, asking Jesus, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” (Matt 11:3). Jesus skins cats in a way John doesn’t recognize, and he’s not sure he likes it.

Jesus answers John’s question by listing some of his activities: “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them” (Matt 11:4–5). It’s no accident that he chooses these particular activities; when John hears them he will automatically think of numerous prophetic oracles from the Hebrew Bible that mention these phenomena as indications that the day of the Lord has come, that the messianic age is dawning. Jesus is telling John that they are working on the same mission. Though their methods may differ, they are both skinning cats.

Jesus then talks to the crowds around him about John. He refers to him as “a prophet … and more than a prophet” (Matt 11:9), and later says, “If you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah who is to come” (Matt 11:14). He is referring to a popular notion, derived from a verse in the book of Malachi, that the prophet Elijah will reappear sometime in the future to act as a forerunner for the long-expected advent of the Messiah. Without coming right out and saying it, which could prove quite dangerous, Jesus confirms that he is indeed the “one who is to come,” the Messiah.

But his messiahship has not met with favor, just as John’s ministry did not. Jesus has encountered resistance practically from the beginning of his work. It comes from self-appointed spiritual hall monitors who object to the way he plays fast and loose with the Sabbath laws, the way he claims the authority to forgive sins and expound new teachings, and especially the way he flouts custom and the accepted social pecking order by sharing meals with every Tom, Dick, or Levi who comes along. He’s a dangerous maverick who needs to be brought in line.

The thing is, the same people who find Jesus’s approach so objectionable also rejected John’s more rigorous fire-and-brimstone style. They disapprove of both preachers’ cat-skinning methodologies. Jesus compares them to children who can’t agree on what game to play. One group wants to play Wedding and the other (the weird, maladjusted ones, apparently) want to play Funeral. The Wedding group says, “We played the flute for you, and you did not dance;” and the Funeral side shoots back, “We wailed, and you did not mourn” (v. 17). Jesus makes the comparison explicit by saying, “John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon’; the Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!” (vv. 18–19). These people refuse to be satisfied by either approach, so they're going to take marbles and go home.

Jesus concludes his observation about this childish behavior by saying, “Yet wisdom is vindicated by her deeds” (v. 19). He tells them the same thing he tells the messengers from John: you want to know who I am and what I am about? Open your eyes and ears. See that the signs of the reign of God are showing up all over. Look at the fruit of my work and make up your own mind. When Luke tells the same story, he quotes Jesus as saying, “Wisdom is vindicated by all her children” (Luke 7:35). John and Jesus are both the children of wisdom, even though they appear very different. There is more than one way to skin that cat.

But just because the sophisticated theologians and upstanding moral arbiters reject the message, that's not the end of the story. Jesus is committed to going to those who will hear and respond to his message, no matter what station in life they occupy. That is, after all, what gets him in hot water with the Pharisees in the first place: his utter disregard for the dictates of the honor code and his infuriating willingness to welcome and eat with the wrong sort of people—tax collectors, sinners … riffraff. What infuriates them even more is that Jesus doesn’t give a flying flip what they think. In fact, he rejoices that he has been accepted by this rabble. He offers thanks to God “because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will” (vv. 25–26).

He doesn’t mean literal infants, of course, but rather those whom elsewhere he calls “little ones” or “the least of these.” He’s talking about the poor, the marginalized, the put-upon, the losers. Jesus thanks God that the reign of God is coming to refugees, schizophrenics, undocumented immigrants, victims of persecution, serfs, proletarians, transgender persons—all who find themselves perpetually on the bottom of the totem pole. In the Sermon on the Mount he calls them the meek, and tells them to rejoice, for they will inherit the earth.

He can say this because he too is meek. In verse 29 he says, “I am gentle and humble in heart.” Jesus is not out of place among these infants, these poor ones. The Incarnation does not mean that for thirty years or so God went slumming. It doesn’t mean that Jesus left his gated community in Upper Arlington to live in public housing in Franklinton as some sort of social experiment to see how the other half lives. It means that God identifies with the dregs more than with the elite. It means that the life of God is inextricably bound up in the lives of the most vulnerable, the most hated, the least likely. Jesus does not sympathize with the meek; he is one of the meek. If we truly want to follow him we have to go into those places that may frighten us or make us uncomfortable, but where he is right at home.

Can we do that? Are we willing to try? Jesus embraced lepers; are we willing to invest our lives in those living with AIDS? Jesus cast out unclean spirits; are we able to stand alongside those with mental illnesses or addictions? Jesus ate with tax collectors and sinners; are we ready to become friends with people who have questionable morals or who don’t meet the standards of “respectable” society? Do we have the will to go into the prisons, the shelters, the bars, the alt-right Internet forums, armed with nothing but the love of God and a determination to find the image of God in every person we encounter?

It’s a tall order, I know, but Jesus specializes in tall orders. Love your enemies? Take up your cross? Become a servant to all? It’s not for nothing that he tells the messengers from John the Baptist, “Blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me” (Matt 11:6).

But the challenge doesn’t stop there. One of the lessons of Jesus’s parable of the children playing in the marketplace, and of the contrast between Jesus and John, is that different or seemingly incompatible approaches to proclaiming the good news may be equally valid. This can be hard for us to hear, and it can be even harder for us to let go of resentment, much less rejoice, when Christians who hold views and take stances that we find objectionable do work that advances the reign of God.

The church that refuses, on biblical grounds, to ordain women or accept LGBTQ persons into their congregation may have a very meaningful and long-standing relationship with a sister church in Haiti, and may do admirable work in cooperation with them. The church Bobbi Hoersdig told us about in the Council of Ministries meeting yesterday that has a giant portrait of Vladimir Putin on its wall may also participate in a community ministry that feeds hungry people in their neighborhood. It can be hard for us to accept that God loves those people just as much as God loves us, and is willing to work in and among them to accomplish God’s purposes, but I’m afraid it’s true. They may refuse to dance when we play the flute, but they still bear the image of God and are our sisters and brothers. We can grind our teeth and clench our fists all we want, but I think God is trying to remind us that there is more than one way to skin a cat.

Does that mean that we surrender our convictions, lower our standards, join hands with people whose politics and theology we find abhorrent, and sing “Kumbayah” around the campfire? I don’t think it does. Jesus may have eaten with the tax collectors, but I have a hard time imagining that he gave them a pass for collaborating with the empire that was crushing his people in the mud. He may have gone to the homes of Pharisees when they invited him, but that didn’t stop him from excoriating them for their hypocrisy and self-righteousness. He may have forgiven the woman caught in adultery, but he also told her, “Go and sin no more.”

We cannot back down in the stands we take for inclusion, racial reconciliation, and social justice; we must seek always to become more open to God’s radical love, and to keep prodding our sisters and brothers to do the same. But we must remember that they are our sisters and brothers, and we should try to learn to rejoice when God does something remarkable in and through them. In verse 27 Jesus says, “No one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.” The choice belongs to the Son, not to us. The fire and anger of John and the compassion and healing of Jesus may both serve God’s sovereign purposes. Wisdom is vindicated by all her children.

Our passage ends with a gracious invitation. To anyone who will hear and respond, Jesus says, “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. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (vv. 28–30). This is some of the most beautiful language of grace in all the Bible.

Notice that he doesn’t say, “Drop your burdens and I will carry them for you.” He offers rest, but he also offers a yoke. The meek ones, the last and the least, will always have burdens to carry. That comes with the territory in life under the domination system, and the powerful consider it their duty to make the burdens as heavy as possible. Jesus, however, comes to interrupt the domination system and lighten the load. He does that by offering an easy yoke. The powers don’t mess with yokes, generally; it is in their interest to make us all carry our own burdens. Divide and conquer.

But Jesus subverts their intentions by giving us a yoke. Note that a yoke is meant to be used by a team of oxen—one or more pairs of animals connected to one another so that they pull together. A good yoke distributes the weight equally, making the work easier. Jesus is telling us the same thing that Paul will later tell his churches with his metaphor of the body of Christ: we are in this thing together. We bear one another’s burdens. We forgive each other’s debts. We rejoice with those who rejoice and mourn with those who mourn. We need one another. Not divide-and-conquer but cooperate-and-share characterizes life under the reign of God.

That’s what the church is about. That’s what grace is about. That’s where we find rest for our souls. And that’s really good news.

Robert Turner