Over the years as a Church musician I have played with numerous instrumentalists of varying skill levels. I have always appreciated the willingness of those who volunteer to serve in this way, and the gifts that they bring to the Church, and I have been grateful that they were prepared to stretch themselves and put themselves “out there” in this way. I have noticed, though, that there are different ways that musicians approach music. Some have learned to read notation, and are very good at getting their fingers in the right place, and striking the right note at the right time, but lack a sense of connectedness, of ‘feeling’ when they play. They obey the rules, and avoid mistakes, but their playing, as technically good as it is, feels wooden and even a little heartless. In a sense they don’t really play music at all, because, after all, music is not, at its heart, about the rules and about getting technicalities right. Music is about capturing the heart and giving yourself over to an alternative way of being.
Which is not unlike what Jesus was trying to say about the law in Matthew 11. After sending his disciples out to preach, Jesus follows them into the villages they have been visiting. When messengers come from John the Baptist to allay John’s doubts, Jesus uses this opportunity to explore the responses of people to both John’s teaching and his own. The metaphor he uses is of people refusing to respond to music – neither dancing nor mourning, in spite of the call of the notes that would usually touch and influence human behaviour and emotions. Neither John’s abstinence nor Jesus’ enjoyment were acceptable to those who refused to “hear the music”. They had the law – they knew the rules, and could play the right notes at the right time – but they didn’t have the heart. There was no musicality, no ‘feeling’, no giving of themselves to the rhythms and movements. They had the steps, but they didn’t have the dance.
As I’ve noted before on this blog, Matthew is presenting Jesus as the new Moses, bringing to people the fulfilment of Jeremiah’s prophecy of the new covenant where the law is written on the heart. Essentially, Matthew is saying, the law was always meant to be about the heart. But, it’s easier to make it about the rules. It’s easier to get it into the head, to check the rules off on a list, and to keep it all clean and simple. It’s easy to make the law about technicalities. But, Jesus, is calling for people to allow the law to become what it was meant to be – a song to sing and improvise around, a rhythm to dance to, and see where it leads, an indication of the notes that lead us into the magic of the music. This is what it means for Jesus to fulfil the law (Matthew 5:17). He moves it beyond technicalities, beyond the head alone, beyond checklists and turns it into a doorway to life, an invitation to encounter God, and a completely alternative way of being that liberates and celebrates and welcomes. The law, for Jesus, is not so much about punishing wrong as it is about strengthening our innate capacity to bring life – to do what is right. It’s about going beyond the steps and losing ourselves in the dance.
Which is why the message of Jesus is hidden to those who refuse to lose themselves, those who are too “grown up” to release technicalities. This is why it is children who see it, because they haven’t become bogged down by rules yet. They are still moved by the music and they can’t help but lose themselves in the rhythms. For children there is joy in feeling the body and the soul moving in new ways, there is wonder and awe, play and energy in the dance, and the steps are just the way to get there.
A few years ago when the Washington Post invited world-renowned violinist Joshua Bell to perform some of the world’s most beautiful music on his Stradivarius in a subway station as part of an experiment, the only people who stopped to listen were children. In every case, adults forced them to move on. This is what Jesus is trying to show us. And this is why, when the weight of the technicalities get too heavy, when we can no longer avoid the reality that we cannot live up to our own rigid perfectionism, Jesus invites us to come to him, to take on a yoke that is easy and a burden that is light. He invites us to lay down the constant, unrelenting pressure of technicalities, and move into the freedom, the joy and the wonder of the dance.
It’s a tough invitation. We might get some steps wrong. We might step on some toes. We might look a bit childish. But, if we can find the humility and the courage to lose ourselves in the music, we might just discover that we don’t dance alone, and that the One who leads the dance is the One we’ve been longing for all along.