Identity Most Royal: Dr Katherine Abetz
Reflection on Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30 (Identity most royal)
I want to begin with a picture from the Psalm of the day which is Psalm 45, celebrating the marriage of a king. The first half of the psalm describes the king in all his royal glory. But the lectionary directs us to the second half which is about the bride. She is wearing a dress embroidered with gold. She is followed by her escort of maidens. ‘Forget your people and your father’s house,’ says the psalmist. There is a promise in this for the bridal couple: ‘Instead of your fathers shall be your sons; you will make them princes in all the earth. I will cause your name to be celebrated in all generations; therefore the peoples will praise you for ever and ever’.
Something similar is at work in Matthew 11, although it may not be obvious on a first reading. To set the scene: John the Baptist sends a message from prison, asking for reassurance that Jesus really is the Messiah, the king who is to come. Jesus sends a message back with a prophesy from Isaiah: ‘Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk etc.’ This is the kingdom come to fruition. The king is here. Like the Psalm, the lectionary focus is on the ones responding to the coming of the king. The picture is different, not a wedding this time but an invitation to a children’s game. The result is different too. The bride finds her identity in the royal marriage. Jesus’ audience is reluctant to join the dance.
I’ve given this reflection the title ‘Identity most royal’. These days we hear a lot about identity. Often the assumption seems to be that identity is centred in the individual. Others are then invited (even coerced) to gather around and support the individual’s identity. But the bride does not find identity in herself. Her identity is in the marriage. She has chosen to identify herself with her husband to be. God’s blessing is promised: their joint name will ‘be celebrated in all generations’. In other words, all generations will find identity in celebrating this marriage. This is about communal identity, not individual identity.
Jesus’ audience has a choice. The king has come but many decline to identify with him. Jesus thanks the Father for hiding ‘these things from the wise and understanding’ while revealing them to babes. If children are invited to join a game, they usually do. Perhaps their elders are engaged with their own affairs. If so, they are missing something. ‘Take my yoke upon you and learn from me; for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light,’ says Jesus.
If we want a vivid description of what the choice is like, we can turn to the apostle Paul who wrestles with the choice from Romans 7 to Romans 8. (The end of Romans 7 is another set reading.) ‘Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?’ says Paul. ‘Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!’ As I said before, identity comes from those we associate with. This can be a case of transferred allegiance. The bride in the psalm is exhorted to transfer her allegiance from one people to another, from her father’s to her husband’s house. Similarly Paul transfers his allegiance from the law of sin to the law of the Spirit of life.
Are we willing to join the royal dance? When Jesus’ audience scoffs at him, Jesus says: ‘Wisdom is justified by her children.’ Who is this king who heals the blind and makes the lame walk? None other than the Wisdom of God! As we dance with Jesus, we dance with God. There cannot be any identity more royal than that!