Preached at St Anne’s, Damascus, MD, 7/3/11, Matt 11:16-19,25-30
magine for a moment lifting out a small piece of the stained glass window behind me, and holding it in your hand to study. That small shard of glass is fascinating to look at, the way the light reflects through, how those beautiful gradient colors can attract the eye….. Our Gospel selection today is like that magnificent shard of glass. The language is wondrous to behold and so very familiar. And like that shard of glass, the Gospel can give us an entirely new way of seeing our world.
Today’s Gospel selection is like our imagined single pane of stained glass: drawing our minds to some remarkable simple and surprisingly complex truths: that God loves all of us. Jesus loves all of us. The Holy Spirit is available and a part of all of us.
As remarkable and simple and complex and life altering as those basic truths are, there is much more in our Gospel today than those groundbreaking truisms. In order to appreciate that wider picture, we need to take that shard of stained glass we have been imagining, and return it to the window itself, and then take a step back and gaze at the window as a whole. We will see something different. Nothing that alters those radically important truths about love, but a deepening understanding of them, giving light to the nuance within.
Taken all on its own today, our Gospel reading seems a bit disjointed. First, we have Jesus criticizing “the crowd” and then referencing an idea of their not being aware of what is taking place around them. Then Jesus is praying and thanking God for “hiding these things” from intelligent people and allowing “infants to understand.” God is then acknowledged by Jesus as Father and the one who knows who Jesus truly is, and Jesus announces himself to be the Son of God. Our Gospel ends with the well known, and compassionate words, Come to me, all you who 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.
To understand these seemingly incongruous themes in our Gospel story, we need to look at what transpired just prior to the beginning of our selection today. Jesus has been arguing with Pharisees, yet again, and getting nowhere. The Pharisees had been speaking about the people being called upon to carry the heavy yoke of the rules and regulations they prescribed in their writings on the Torah. These leaders of the synagogue taught that the people had to bear these heavy burdens…..with those burdens actually being equated to servitude. Jesus saw these human-made rules and regulations set down by these officials as unfair and unnecessary, and had told the Pharisees that exact opinion in no uncertain terms.
These are strong, emotional and dangerous interactions between Jesus and the Pharisees. The Pharisees have, in effect, cast Jesus out because he would not opt-into their legalistic and self-created moralistic view of how society should operate. And Jesus is plenty annoyed by their interaction with him. His “we played the flute for you and you did not dance” is meant to be a devastating and withering criticism of the Pharisees. This is why our Gospel today has Jesus thanking God for not revealing the truth to “these” – “these” being the Pharisees, but instead revealing the truth to “infants.” “Infants” here do not mean children. Jesus is referring to people who are not so filled with intellectual pride that they cannot see the truth that is right in front of them: that truth being the reality of who and what Jesus is to the world….. Jesus is renouncing any form of spiritual or religious or moral pride that gets in the way of faith and trust and a childlike heart, filled with humility. The ability to recognize Jesus is not based on obeying burdensome and wearying human-made rules and regulations, but an ability to be open and unpretentious to God’s revelation.
The human-made rules and regulations of the Pharisees, Jesus is saying, had become a burden, a “yoke” on the people. A yoke was an expertly crafted piece of farm equipment. If these yokes were not made correctly, and “to order” for a particular animal, the device would chafe the animal’s skin raw, eventually causing serious injury and making the animal useless. A correctly fitting yoke allows the oxen to be able to work with heavier loads: making the work “easy.” Tied to this is the practice that when animals were used with yokes, there were usually two of them, yoked together. Part of that practice was to put an older, more experienced animal with a younger, less mature one. Jesus is that older more mature animal to whom we are yoked when we take this yoke from Jesus, and learn from him. He is right there next us as we do the work of the kingdom.
Jesus takes the Pharisees heavy and burdensome rules and regulations and turns them on their head. Jesus says they do not, should not, lead to servitude. Jesus’ use of the word “easy” is his attempt to challenge the Pharisees, for the Greek word utilized (“chrestos”) is defined not only as “easy” but also “good” and “kind” and “well-fitting,” with Jesus right along side of us.
By inviting the weary and those carrying heavy burdens to come to him, Jesus is referring to those bogged down in the complex, human-made laws of the Pharisees, bogged down so much that they were unable to appropriately live their lives. Jesus is offering a better way, one where what a person is called to do will be tailor-made to that individual. (No one size fits all.) This personalized yoke that is central to our Gospel story, is tangible proof of how much Jesus loves and cares for each one of us.
“I will give you something that fits you”, Jesus says, and continues, “If you wear this yoke that I have made for you, I will give you rest.” “Rest” in Greek here has a different connotation than a life of ease and retirement. “Rest” as Jesus is using the term means doing away with artificial burdens and misinterpretations of the law, the things that actually get in the way of salvation. Rest, as Jesus uses it here, means that our putting on this personally fitted yoke will lead us to salvation.
All of this was radical when Jesus proclaimed it and this remains radical today. If understood in this way, we may ask the question: “Who are today’s Pharisees making rules and regulations about who can and should be part of a community?” I am not going to answer that question: I think the Gospel is calling each of us to explore that point and to ask questions. This Gospel does make me wonder about people who point to the Bible and then point to individuals and groups and say with certainty, “they are excluded from the kingdom.” Such certainty, in particular on this weekend where this country celebrates our independence and our inclusiveness, such certainty must be thought of as suspect, when this Gospel passage is read with the complexity and nuance and openness we have just explored.
I do not pretend to have answers. I do not believe our faith is really all about having easy answers. I do believe, and I have faith, that God can be found in the questions. I have faith and belief that Jesus is in the questions. I have faith the Holy Spirit is leading us through the questions toward the creation of the kingdom, here and now…..Wearing the yoke of Jesus makes the burden of our uncertainties easy; that yoke allows our questions to become opportunities for grace-filled moments…… Amen.
Copyright 2011, The Rev. John F. Dwyer. All Rights Reserved
Art: At the Gloaming, 2011, jfd+