Historical Cultural Context
A literal translation of verse 27 in today’s Gospel makes its familiar proverb stand out with greater force: “No one knows a son except a father, and no one knows a father except a son and anyone to whom a son elects to disclose him.” Our culture says, “Like father, like son.”
Jesus reminds us that his Father is like a Mediterranean patron, a godfather. This is the meaning behind the title “Father, Lord of heaven and earth,” which tells us that Jesus’ Father is truly in charge of human existence, of all creation. Jesus is his broker, who mediates between the patron and the clients.
As everyone in the Mediterranean world knows, a patron is someone who freely selects clients and then decides to treat the clients “as if” they were family. Thus any image of father in the New Testament which does not entail the biological fact of parenthood ought to be properly understood in terms of patronage.
What is peculiar about this patron? Who are his “favorites”? Infants, but not literally: rather, the simple or powerless people, those unable to do or obtain anything for themselves.
Children in the ancient Middle East were the weakest and most vulnerable members of society. About 30 percent died at birth or soon after. Thirty percent of live births died by the age of six. Sixty percent did not live past their sixteenth birthday. They had little status within the community or family, and until the age of maturity, the child was considered equal to a slave. In a famine, the elder would be fed before the children.
Jesus contrasts the “powerless” as primary objects of his Father’s patronage with the “wise” and the “intelligent.” These latter are much more capable of looking after their own destiny than infants might be.
In fact, these people might have the wherewithal to be patrons themselves. It would be easy for them, like the greedy farmer with the bumper crop (Lk 12:16-21), to refuse to be patrons and hoard their surplus for their own purposes. Certainly one group of wise and intelligent people Jesus had in mind were the Pharisees.
The Easy Yoke
This image provides Jesus with a natural segue to the topic of yoke, a word used metaphorically to describe those things that control the lives of people.
Peasants always had a yoke. For the most part, their lives as tenant farmers were governed by the wills and whims of the landowners.
Their lives as rustic folk whose subsistence means allowed them to live only from day to day were controlled by religious leaders who grew fat on tithes that they hoarded in the Temple instead of redistributing to the needy.
In the village setting, Pharisees laid the yoke of their 613 commandments upon their followers and others who sought their advice about how to please God.
Jesus teaches and demonstrates a way of life, a yoke, that differs markedly from the one other Judean leaders taught. He promises a yoke that is easy and a burden that is light (Mt 11:30). The peasants found this enormously appealing.
Modern believers must realize that the Pharisees are not portrayed fairly in our Gospels. Still, no one would deny that their arrogance, pride, and playacting often cast a shadow on the wise instruction they offered.
Modern reformers and spiritual leaders could well take a lesson from Jesus’ principal challengers. Spiritual elitism repels many more than it attracts. The best guides are those who practice what they preach.
John J. Pilch
John J. Pilch is a biblical scholar and facilitator of parish renewals.
Liturgical Press has published fourteen books by Pilch exploring the cultural world of the Bible
**From Saint Louis University