Well, this is quite a Gospel we have this morning. We have children wailing in the marketplace. We have Jesus described as a party boy, “a glutten and a drunkard.” And we have have God hiding truth from the wise and intelligent, and revealing it to infants.
So I’ll be honest, when I sat down earlier this week to think about what this all means, I found myself wondering: what does this mean!? It’s actually mostly about how people didn’t get John and Jesus. That’s what the little parable about the children is about, and the stuff that follows. But it’s not as straightforward as some Gospel readings, and I found myself doing something that I very rarely do, which is going back to my files and looking to see if I ever had anything good to say about this Gospel.
And what I found is that—you know we have this three-year cycle of readings, so these particular readings come up every three years—and in the time I’ve been preaching I’ve only preached on this particular set of readings twice. And the first time was in the summer of 2011. It was a sermon I preached here in this church, and I thought, well, that’d be fun, to read it and see if anybody who was here then remembered it. But that didn’t seem right. And in the other sermon, I completely chickened out and I preached on the Epistle, on Romans, on Paul talking about doing the thing I don’t want to do.
But this year I really wanted to wrestle with this Gospel, and my eye was really drawn to that last part, as I suppose it is most of the times we read this particular Gospel: I will give you rest. You know, that’s so appealing.
And one of the things you can do, when you’re trying to figure out a Scripture passage that’s difficult or confusing, is to look at it through the lens of this question: What do I find most surprising in this passage?
And the more I thought about it, the more I realized that that section is the part that I actually do find most surprising: “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 … my yoke is easy.”
These words are soothing. They’re what we want to hear from Jesus. But if you look just a little ways back in Matthew, what you find Jesus talking about how you have to take up our cross to follow him. Which seems to be really in conflict with the idea that my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.
What is a cross, if not a heavy burden? And how is carrying a cross going to be easy and restful?
So, one interesting thing about these words—my yoke is easy—is that if you dig a little deeper, is that they can be seen as a very brief summary of one of the major themes that runs through the Gospel of Matthew..And that theme is the ongoing conflict between Jesus and the religious authorities of his time, the Pharisees. They shared the same basic beliefs, but they did not agree about how people ought to practice their faith.
So you have the Pharisees, who are not as bad as they’re sometimes made out to be. They actually were striving for holiness, but they thought that strict observance of the Law was the best way to holiness. They were especially concerned, as we see in some of the stories about Jesus, with Sabbath observance, and the reason for that is that observing the Sabbath—God’s rest—is a sign of God’s covenant with Moses. So it was important to them.
Jesus, on the other hand, is sort of a religious reformer, and he’s more concerned about bringing people back to the true purpose of religious practice. The answer to the question, why do we do what we do in our religion? What’s the purpose of our rituals and our observances? And he thought that religious practice should lead to deeper relationship with God, and we that should be transformed through that relationship.
So: transformation through observing the Law, or transformation through deeper relationship with God. So Jesus heals on the Sabbath what he saying is not that we should do away with all the rules, but compassion for a fellow human being is more important than following the rules, if those rules actually add to human suffering. That’s not right.
My yoke is easy.
So I want to say something about that word yoke, and it’s really crucial to understanding this passage, this phrase. It’s not always easy for us to connect with the little agricultural references that Jesus sprinkles in his preaching to these first-century people. I would be surprised if anyone here happens to have a yoke tucked away in their garden shed.
So you probably know that a yoke is used to connect two animals together and then attach them to the plow or the cart or whatever it is that they’re supposed to be dragging. So to be yoked to Jesus, is to have him helping to carry our load, to pull our load.
But also, those people listening to Jesu—they would have recognized that the image of a yoke was often used by religious teacher to mean obedience to the Law. To be yoked to the Law was to be formed and transformed by that observance.
And Jesus is saying you should be yoked to me, and let your relationship with me be the thing that transforms you. And you will find rest in that relationship.
So that basic disagreement—you agree on what you believe, essentially, but you disagree on how to live it, that should be something we can relate to, because I think that we see that very strongly in our times. There’s an ongoing disagreement about what’s the best way to practice the Christian faith.
We hear about people “proof-texting,” which is where you take a verse from Holy Scripture out of context and use it to try to proof a point. You turn it into a little “rule,” but out of context. And that is opposed to looking at the big picture of Holy Scripture, which is the story of God’s love for the world and its people, beginning with creation and culminating in the life, death, Resurrection of Jesus Christ. And taking into account not just those rules but all of the places in the Old Testament and the New where the message is a repeated call to serve those people whom society rejects: the poor and those on the margins.
So that I think is the disagreement that we live with and have to navigate today.
But I don’t want to just focus on what people are doing wrong, because I think that’s a trap we so often fall into. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard people complain about “those other Christians” who are getting it all wrong.
I think we ought to be looking at ourselves, and saying, what are we doing right? What could we be doing better.
We ought to be asking ourselves, why do we do what we do, to practice our religion. How does what we do here in church this morning bring us into a deeper relationship with God? How will we be changed by the hymns that we sing and the prayers that we say? By receiving the bread from God’s table, which you know is more than just an appetizer to Sunday brunch? How will we be different when we go out of here again?
If we’re not changed in some way, then I think maybe we’re missing something important.
Take my yoke upon you, Jesus says; my yoke is easy. And I think we can find rest in that deep, deep relationship with Jesus, no matter what’s going on in our lives that seems hard. By trusting that God is with us, always.
But this constant presence—this relationship—it should change us, too. And in the end, I think that is why we do what we do.
Preached at St. James the Greater Episcopal Church, Bristol PA.