In Compline, one of the prayers is for “we who are wearied by the changes and chances of this life.”[i] I have been feeling that prayer these last several weeks – or even months. The longer we stay in our homes, the longer this pandemic wages illness and death upon us, the longer the spread of virus takes away the everyday privileges we never fully appreciated, and the longer civil unrest forces us to look at our demons and sinfulness, we become more and more weary. We do not have to ponder too long why cases of the pandemic are soaring this summer. People who are wearied by the changes and chances of this life are so grief-stricken they are becoming reckless, self-centered, and indignant.
So, you can imagine my full-bodied relief when I heard the last verses of our Gospel lesson today. “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” Those words from Jesus are sweet comfort to us, who just want a break, who just want some semblance of normalcy, who just want peace. Jesus’ words are a warm embrace in a time of touchlessness. Jesus’ words are a balm to our country who this very weekend honors a liberty that many of our neighbors are reminding us is not felt by all our citizens.
But as scholar Thomas Long says, “What Jesus offers, however, is not a hammock, but a yoke.”[ii] I know we want to linger on verse 28, but immediately after that comforting embrace, Jesus says, “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.” In the shift between these last verses, Jesus does a bit of a bait and switch. He beckons us into his comforting arms, but also places a burden on our shoulders.
I confess, I have been a bit cranky about that switch. Can’t we just have one week, one Sunday, one moment, where we abdicate responsibility, where we take a sabbath from all this work, where we binge watch television and eat crappy food? Isn’t that what Jesus means when he says he will give us rest?!?
Fortunately for all of us, I had my tempter tantrum early in the week, and have had some time to sit with this yoke of Jesus’. You see, when I am being honest, I know binge watching television or eating junk food is not actually restorative. I feel stiff and tired after sitting for hours. And when I eat unhealthily, the lingering stomachache or sluggishness is not actually as comforting as the comfort food implies.
What Jesus is suggesting today is not a restful, self-centered, time of abdication. What Jesus is suggesting is we find rest in the things of life that matter. As one scholar suggests, “we will find rest for carrying the burden of the gospel by living out the unique mission to which Jesus calls each of us.”[iii] That yoke we may be skeptical of this week, is not actually a ploy or a trick by Jesus. The reason Jesus says his yoke is easy and his burden is light is “because [his yoke] is the way of God, and [his yoke] is profoundly satisfying to the human soul.”[iv]
Jesus uses some strong imperatives today: come to me, take my yoke, learn from me. But Jesus is not being bossy. Jesus is reminding us, in his ever so firm, but pastoral way, that the ways we are seeking rest and relief from weariness are not the ways to life. The way to life, of true refreshment, of renewed spirits is through the yoke of Christ. How is that possible? As one scholar reminds us, “The easy yoke means having something to do: a purpose that demands your all and summons forth your best. [The easy yoke] means work that is motivated by a passionate desire to see God’s kingdom realized. [The easy yoke] means work toward a certain future in which all of God’s dreams will finally come true. To accept the yoke of the gentle and humble Lord is to embrace the worthy task that puts the soul at ease.”[v] Jesus reminds us today that the rest we seek is not mind-numbing, emotion-numbing, spirit-numbing relief, but purposeful, meaning-filled, reward-making clarity. When we harness ourselves to Christ, the burdens no longer feel like burdens, the work no longer feels like work, and the desire to be done turns to a desire for God’s delightful sense of purpose and meaning. That is the kind of profound satisfaction Jesus offers today. Thanks be to God!
[i] Book of Common Prayer, 133.
[ii] Thomas G. Long, Matthew (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1997), 132.
[iii] Emilie M. Townes, “Theological Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 3 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 214.
[iv] Long, 132.
[v] Lance Pape, “Homiletical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 3 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 217.