Pentecost 5A 20
Matthew 11: 15-30
“Come to me all you who are heavy laden and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your soul. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.’
What do you think when you hear these words? Does it sound lovely, and a bit platitudinous? Does it make you feel angry because somehow the promise does not seem true for you in your life?
And in this moment, this strange Covid season which is pushing all the other things out of the picture, how do we hear it?
This passage begins with an exhortation from Jesus to listen, if we can. He is quoting Isaiah 6, in which the message is to those who have ears but don’t listen and those who have eyes and don’t see. Jesus is very fond of quoting Isaiah. He underlines the prophetic nature of what he is saying by this habit of quotation, sometimes flagged for us in Matthew but at other times like this one, just so much part of Jesus’ discourse that it goes unflagged. And that is still the call for us today, to both see and hear. To look at the world around us and see the true picture, to be able to see the little ones, that Jesus was talking about at the end of the chapter before. To hear the cries of those who are permanently disadvantaged and to see the truth of our white, colonising privilege, among other things.
This week should have been Naidoc Week, but it has been postponed like so much else. The Black Lives Matter campaign has highlighted for us as a society the inherent racism in our culture, the gap which has not been closed, the constant and institutionalised difference in the value of black lives as against what we think of as ‘ordinary’ Australians. And at the same time the Covid pandemic has become the defining feature of our current experience so that the Black Lives Matter protests which should be waking up our society are commented on only insofar as they are, or are not, a vehicle for the spread of the disease. The latest round of discussion on the Closing the Gap initiatives has had a small amount of coverage, but nowhere near as much as the woes of various football codes. And of course, the Covid pandemic is creating its own group of ‘little ones’, people on the margins. When this all began there was a lot of rhetoric about all being in this together, and of course it is true that the virus shows no particularity, but as things have progressed in all countries it is the poor and disadvantaged that end up paying a higher price. And that we have seen this weekend with the lockdown of public housing towers, filled with people who are refugees or immigrants, people who can’t afford to rent in a leafy suburb like ours, now confined and not allowed to leave their homes for their own good. These are the little ones that Jesus would have gone to in his world.
But what has all this to do with an easy yoke and a light burden?
This passage follows on from the sending out in the last chapter. This section begins with John the Baptiser’s disciples coming to Jesus. John is imprisoned and he sends his disciples to find out if Jesus is the promised one. Perhaps John feels as if he will die happy if he knows that the ‘coming one’ is here. Jesus’ response is to tell John’s disciples to report to John what they have seen and heard- ‘the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them’. We have tended to see this as a healing ministry, which of course it is, but what we miss is the big picture stuff. All those that Jesus healed had formerly been excluded – on the margins of society and unable to take part in temple worship because of their disabilities. This is social justice in action. And the poor, who Jesus blesses, are included in this message. Jesus is conveying to John that he is fulfilling Isaiah’s prophesies so, of course, he is the coming one. John who would have, like
Jesus, have been able to recite the book of Isaiah, would have immediately recognised this. Jesus is referencing Isaiah again.
Then Jesus has a go at the crowds that surround him. He tells them that they have rushed to see John the Baptist as a spectacle without understanding what is going on. He tells them that J the B is the last great prophet, and is Elijah- who was supposed to come back to wind things up. All of this is making a claim about who Jesus is.
And then we come to the bit we read today. Jesus is telling them that they are not responding properly to him that they are like children playing games, who cannot be satisfied because they can’t recognise him for what he is.
And then he suddenly says something very interesting, “Yet wisdom is vindicated by her deeds”.
Wisdom is not something that you attain, but rather part of the person of God, as you will find if you read the wisdom literature, like Proverbs. Jesus is aligning himself, in fact claiming that he is, “Wisdom”, a facet of God, who incidentally, is given a feminine aspect.
Then Jesus has a bit of a rant at the cities who have witnessed his acts of power because they don’t recognise what he has done for the poor and those in need. His prophetic work has gone unnoticed. I find it really interesting that Jesus is both an advocate for those on the margins and a practical help. He heals where he can for those in his immediate path, and at the same time makes public his agenda for the poor and the little ones who need particular justice and mercy. Jesus is calling into our world, ‘Black lives matter’: these are my little ones, the marginalised, those who need both justice and mercy.
And then after aligning himself with his Father God he says, ‘Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. 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.’
A number of things leap out at me when I hear these words. The first is that while Jesus is promising rest for the soul, he is not promising rest. The yoke, which you use to carry things, is going to fit you well, but you are not laying it down altogether. You will still be carrying a burden. And the reason that it will be easy, is that you have learnt to be humble and gentle and that is how you will find rest for your souls. So, this is not talking about doing nothing for the rest of time, but rather ways of working that will refresh you and mend you and give you joy, not that Jesus mentions joy but I think that is the implication. And the yoke will be your yoke- designed for you, because it is Jesus’s yoke, and you are indwelt with the Holy Spirit. You will become Christ for the world when you take this yoke upon you.
And I believe that the job we are being given, the work that will be easy, is caring for others. Jesus, in the previous chapter, has sent out his disciples to heal the sick and bring the good news to all. We are to share in Jesus’ ministry to others. And I believe that for some of us, at least, that includes having a prophetic voice for our world.
Now, I don’t know about you, but I don’t always find that the burden of this caring is light. But perhaps that is because I am still in the process of learning gentleness and humility, which Jesus says are the tools for doing the job. That doesn’t seem quite logical to me- surely strength and confidence and my righteous anger are the right tools but not according to Jesus. And Jesus says that he chooses to reveal this wisdom to us, to the infants, and not to the wise.
We are called to see and hear, and to use an image of Jesus’ own, to be salt and light in our world. And when we do, when we take up the burden and carry the yoke that is given to us, then we will find rest for our souls.
We need to speak out in our society for the black lives that matter, and for those on the jobseekers allowance. We need to speak out about the environment and those seeking refuge, for the homeless and the marginalised, for the mentally ill and the destitute. We need to advocate for those locked in towers during the Corona Virus Pandemic. And at the same time, we need to act, as Jesus did, to help, to heal where we can or to support those who can do that. It may be that trying to do everything on my list is impossible but I should be aware of the needs and respond with what I can. And somehow to learn the gentleness and humility that will equip me and sustain me and enable me to bear the yoke lightly and find rest for my soul.
In this strange season my prayer is that we will take up the yoke and carry the burdens for others.
Vicar Roberta Hamilton