The Freedom of Obedience
A TV show I watch called Louie is about a single dad with two daughters, and in one of the episodes, they’re driving and one of the girls starts to complain that she’s bored. “I’m bored, bored bored bored bored bored!” she says. “Why aren’t you answering me!” And finally Louie gets fed up and says, “It’s because ‘I’m bored is a useless thing to say. The world is an amazing place and you’ve seen none of it.” And I certainly know what he’s talking about. When I used to work with youth they would tell me they were bored, and I’d say, “You have a phone that can play any game made before 2005, i.e. my entire childhood is in your pocket. You’re not allowed to be bored.”
Jesus, in our story from the Gospel of Matthew, has a similar problem and response. He and John the Baptist have been sandwiched between two opposite criticisms. They rejected John because he wanted them to repent in dust and ashes, and that was too hard, he must have been crazy. And now Jesus has come along, eating and drinking with tax-collectors and sinners, and they say he can’t be from God either, because they’re having too much fun!”
Jesus compares them to children, sitting in the marketplace with nothing to do. They refuse to dance and celebrate, but refuse to mourn and weep. And Jesus says to them, “Look, you have no excuse. If John was a madman for wanting you to fast and repent for your sins and proclaiming God’s judgment on the sinful people, you can’t be angry at me for refusing to fast and welcoming sinners into the kingdom.”
Have you ever been in a situation like this? Damned if you do and damned if you don’t? It doesn’t matter what you do, folks will tell you you’re doing it wrong? Somebody always has something to say. Or worse, have you ever caught yourself doing it to someone else? My dad always says, “If you ask someone to do something for you, you’ve got to let them do it their own way, you can’t sit over their shoulder and nitpick at them.” I try to follow that, I really do. But I’m not so good at it.
“Would you mind cutting up the squash?”
“Sure, how do you want it cut.”
“Oh, any way is fine….” (Then a few seconds later) “Oh but don’t do it like that!”
For most of us, I think we’ve been on both sides of this story. We’ve been judged, and we’ve passed judgment. We’re not that different from the folks whom Jesus was talking about. They weren’t happy with the way things were. They could see what was going wrong with the world. The way the rules had been twisted and abused to protect the few at the cost of the many. The way it was getting harder and harder for regular folks to keep their heads above water. But when people came around to try to do something about it, when John came proclaiming repentance, and when Jesus came proclaiming that God’s kingdom was at hand, they balked. They balked because as uncomfortable as it may be to live in an unjust society, it’s more uncomfortable to change it. They would much rather sit back and judge it.
And in order to justify their inaction, they tried to discredit John the Baptist and Jesus. They called John an extremist, because he said if you have a little extra you should give it to someone who doesn’t have any. And they called Jesus a punk, because he said if the righteous folks don’t want to come to the party, bring on the unrighteous. The kingdom is coming whether they’re ready for it or not. They called them names because they would rather do nothing than face the uncertainty of change.
But Jesus had more words for those who would ignore John’s message and his. He pronounced “Woe!” on the cities where he had performed signs and done ministry and proclaimed the kingdom. Woe to them because how could you see the deed of power that he had done, or heard his message of the Sermon on the Mount, and then go back home to your life as if nothing was different? He declared that those who chose the certainty of an unjust life to the uncertainty of the struggle to change it would face another certainty: God’s judgment.
Now we have to remember that wrath and judgment are not God’s nature, but tools that God uses to open our eyes and ears and draw us in to repentance. God’s judgment is not to cause brokenness but to uncover our brokenness that it may be healed. It’s like the doctor who rips off a band-aid. It hurts, but it’s the only way to see and deal with the wound that’s underneath. Jesus reminds us that to ignore the world around us and criticize anyone who tries to fix it is just as bad as participating in it. If you’re not doing something to right the wrongs of our world, you’re a part of them. “Wisdom is vindicated by her deeds,” he says.
Which brings me to Paul’s letter to the Romans and freedom. This weekend a lot of us celebrated our nation’s birthday. And on that day we like to give thanks for our freedom, we talk about how great it is to be free. And it is. But in our country we tend to define freedom as freedom from. We are free from people telling us what to do, or say, or believe. We’re free from anyone telling us where we can work, where we can live, or who we can worship.
But Paul talks about a different kind of freedom. Paul talks about freedom for. Paul doesn’t talk about freedom from doing what we don’t want. He talks about freedom to do what we do want, and that’s a lot harder to do. “I do not understand my own actions,” he says. “For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing that I hate.” Have you ever been there? You wanted to be healthy and save money, but you’re tired and hungry and cooking will take forever, so you end up having drive-through burgers again. You wanted to get stuff done today but you ended up just hanging out on the couch all afternoon. You wanted to be forgiving and generous, but you got so mad and carried away that you gave that woman a piece of your mind, even though it probably wasn’t her fault in the first place.
Being freed from everything doesn’t mean that you’re freed for anything. When you say you’re free from things, you’re saying that you are your own master. But more often than not, we aren’t very good masters. We become like Paul, doing exactly the things we don’t want to do. We end up being a slave to our own weakness.
So it comes to us to choose a different master. The people of Jesus’ time chose stability. Their fear of discomfort made them choose to live in it forever. Others choose moral certitude. We’d rather be right in theory than take the risk of being wrong in practice. Still others choose money, or success, or power, but in the end they all consume you, because there will never be enough, and the more you get the less it seems to solve your problems.
But Jesus offers us another way. He offers a different master, one who loves us. One who is Love itself. God wants what is best for us, he wants what we want but cannot get for ourselves. This is how Jesus can pass judgment in one moment and then say that his yoke is easy in the next. For in service to God we find perfect freedom, through him all things are possible for us.
 Saunders, Stanley. “Commentary on Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30” WorkingPreacher workingpreacher.org. July 06, 2014. <http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2099> Accessed July 5, 2014