Matthew: the teacher’s gospel
We’re continuing on our way through the Gospel of Matthew in this season of growth in discipleship. Matthew is often called the “teacher’s gospel” because – as you might guess – his emphasis is on the teachings of Jesus. We started out the season a few weeks ago hearing about the calling of the original Twelve disciples and some of the instructions Jesus gave them as they went out, then, to teach. And then we began diving into the teachings.
When we started, I said that the purpose of the gospel is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. But it seems that we’ve been stuck in “afflict the comfortable” mode since we began. Frankly, some of the instructions sound rather discouraging:
- I’m sending you out like sheep among wolves
- When your message is rejected, shake off the dust from your shoes and move on.
- Don’t think I came to bring peace on earth. I came not to bring peace, but a sword.
But today, at last, we come to a “comfort the afflicted” passage, one of the most familiar and loved passages in the Bible: “Come to me, all you who labor and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” Sounds a bit like the words on the Statue of Liberty: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”
I don’t know about you, but after hearing three Sundays in a row about the challenges and costs of discipleship, I’m ready for some rest. This verse is like the cup of cold water that Jesus talked about last week. It’s like those other familiar and well-loved passages that tell us: “Don’t be afraid.” “Come to me, all you who labor and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest” is both refreshing and reassuring.
And don’t we just need this right about now? 4+ months of quarantine; discouraging news about the rise in number of those infected; people not following protocols, roll-back of plans for reopening; disturbing videos of police violence; protests from both sides of the political divide; millions of people out of work, and a contentious presidential election looming ahead. Given all this, it’s no surprise that a recent survey by the National Science Foundation at the University of Chicago for the COVID Response Tracking Study concluded that Americans are more unhappy now than at any time in the last 50 years. Personally, I don’t think I would have responded to the survey that I’m unhappy. But weary – that I can relate to. And from what I hear from most people I talk to, that’s not an uncommon condition.
A recent article is entitled Are You Experiencing Coronavirus Quarantine Fatigue? It asks if you’ve felt irritable, stressed, anxious, eating more, eating less, unable to sleep, unmotivated or less productive, having racing thoughts, or just on edge in general. If you’ve experienced any of these, you’re most likely feeling the effects of quarantine fatigue. Part of the fatigue is feeling overwhelmed by the uncertainty, unpredictability and the unknowns in all of this. So, “Come to me, all you who labor and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest” is a welcome word from Jesus.
Take my yoke, please?
Then he goes on. The very next thing he says is, “Take my yoke upon your shoulders and learn from me.” Now isn’t that a curious thing to say? I mean, who wants to have a bar laid across their shoulders like a beast of burden? Of all the imagery we have for Jesus, this one of a farmer yoking draught animals together in order to pull a heavy load is not very appealing. Plus, the yoke was a symbol of servitude in the Bible, and of the burden of slavery or taxes, while freedom from oppression was described by the prophets as breaking of the yoke.
Jesus isn’t making sense here, especially on this holiday weekend, when we celebrate freedom. But, he’s still not finished. He comes right back with a further description of both himself and this yoke: “Take my yoke upon your shoulders and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble of heart. Here you will find rest for your souls, for my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”
How odd that we would find rest for our souls by taking on a burden. But it begins to make sense when we know that in the rabbinic literature of Judaism, the yoke is actually a symbol of great importance, referring to the study of and obedience to the Torah. It’s a symbol of devotion to the kingdom of heaven, which is also the primary message of Jesus’ teaching.
As a Jew, Jesus would have known this imagery very well. He wanted those who were burdened by the cares of the world to learn from his gentle instruction, and in doing so, to find rest for their souls. This kind of rest isn’t the kind we get when we take a break to lie down on the sofa for a while (although that kind of rest is good, too!). This rest that Jesus offers is a deep and abiding peace, in which we find wholeness and fulfillment.
Jesus: Wisdom Teacher
What we see in these verses is a portrait of Jesus the Wisdom teacher. Our pursuit as followers of Jesus is learning the lessons, but at the same time it’s a pursuit of wisdom, internalization of the lesson which enables our self-reflection and increased self-awareness, increased God-awareness, and consequently obedience to the word of God – not as a harsh requirement or dreaded burden, but as a life-giving gift.
Now, we need to understand the difference between conventional wisdom and Jesus-wisdom. Conventional wisdom is an idea so accepted it goes unquestioned, even if it’s wrong (like ‘if you work hard, you’ll succeed’). With Jesus-wisdom, which he communicated through parables, sayings, and sermons, we are invited to see things differently. For example, in his day, conventional wisdom said that sinners and outcasts were to be avoided and rejected, while the wisdom of Jesus said everyone is welcome at the table in the kingdom of God. Conventional wisdom said you should always strive to be #1, while the wisdom of Jesus says the first will end up being last.
Undoubtedly there were plenty of people around Jesus who considered themselves learned and wise. And Jesus is not anti-intellectual. His problem was with closed hearts and minds. He’s clearly frustrated in this passage and he calls out those who condemn both him and John the Baptist. People criticized John for being all gloom and doom and no fun. He wore weird clothes and preached messages that some of them didn’t want to hear. Now it appears that they’re criticizing Jesus for just the opposite: he eats and drinks with sinners. He’s having entirely too much fun. There’s no pleasing them. But he says, ” Wisdom will be vindicated by her own actions.”
I’m sure we could come up with examples of conventional wisdom in our day. One would be that your worth is determined by the work you do and by how well you measure up to social standards. But in Jesus-wisdom, your primary identity comes from being centered in the sacred, in your relationship with God. That’s the primary identity that Jesus himself modeled. “Everything has been handed over to me by you. No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son.” This reminds us of John’s gospel, when Jesus says, “The Father and I are one.”
This wisdom teaching – which can bring about a profound change in perspective – comes from a profoundly different experience of reality than what our culture/ conventional wisdom teaches us. That experience is our direct connection with the spirit of God. So this way of Jesus that he calls us to is a way that is deeply centered in God and not in culture.
Your primary identity is a child of God
So what can we make of all this in relation to our world-weariness today? It sounds overly simple to say tend to your primary identity as a child of God. But that is the message. It sounds simple, but we know that when conventional wisdom tries to tell us a different message or something in our social or cultural setting exerts a pull on us or we’re still in lockdown and have no idea when it will end – it’s a challenge to hear a word of wisdom from Jesus.
That’s why the teachings are so important. When we are bound to God’s word by the yoke of Jesus, we become so steeped in Holy Wisdom that it becomes second nature to us. At the very least, we are aware that there might be an alternative way of seeing than the one we’ve always known. And we can enter into a time of questioning and discernment with an open heart and mind. That applies to how we make decisions in our own lives and families, but also in our church, our communities, our nation, and our world.
There’s another way of thinking about the purpose of a yoke, and that is as a device that both restrains and enables. It is simultaneously a burden and a possibility.
I admit I am powerless over . . .
I think this is what St. Paul was talking about in our second reading. Paul is obviously in agony over something within himself. This heartfelt passage reminds me of Step 1 of Alcoholics Anonymous and every group that offers help for addictions of all kinds: “We admitted we were powerless over (fill in the blank).”
He sums up Step 2 and 3 in his closing sentences: “Who can free me from this body under the power of death? Thanks be to God – it is Jesus Christ our Savior!” He might have said, “I came to believe that a Power greater than myself could restore me to sanity. And I made a decision to turn my will and my life over to the care of God.” Step 3 says “as we understand God.” But Paul is sure of where his freedom lies: “It is Jesus Christ our Savior!” As he wrote in his first letter to the Corinthians: “God has given you life in Christ Jesus and has made Jesus our wisdom, our justice, our sanctification and our redemption . . . so that your faith might rest not on human wisdom but on the power of God.”
What are you free for?
By following Paul’s understanding of freedom, we don’t negate our Fourth of July celebrations. But his understanding of Jesus-Wisdom should cause us to reflect, not only on what we are free from, but what are we free for. How does conventional wisdom want us to think and act; are those ways in alignment with the wisdom that comes from Christ.
I may be free, as some people claim, from wearing a facemask when I’m around other people. But who and what am I free for? I may be free, as my neighbors were, to set off fireworks into the wee hours of the morning. But if I take into consideration what I am free for, would that have changed my behavior? I believe so.
So even though our holiday celebration is colored by our divisions, our anxiety, and our weariness, we follow Paul’s advice in another place, “We do not lose heart.”
Prisoners of hope
And while Zechariah was not proclaiming the Wisdom of Jesus, we can take his words as our way of discipleship: “Return to your stronghold, O prisoners of hope!” Our stronghold is the word of God; our yoke is the teachings of Jesus, who whispers now to you and to me, “Come to me, all you who labor and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon your shoulders and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble of heart. Here you will find rest for your souls for my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”
Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem! Look!
Your ruler comes to you; triumphant and victorious,
humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.
This ruler will cut off the chariots from Ephraim and the warhorses from Jerusalem;
and the battle-bow shall be banished.
This ruler shall command peace to the nations; stretching from sea to sea,
from the River to the ends of the earth.
As for you, due to the blood covenant with me, I am returning your prisoners from their waterless pit.
Return to your stronghold, O prisoners of hope! Today I declare that I will give you back double!
Does anyone not feel the depth of moral conflict Paul describes in this passage? In everyday life, we struggle to stay on the right track and often fail miserably to be the disciples we hope to be. We want to be patient with our loved ones in this time of pandemic and have equanimity in responding to what is beyond our control, and yet we are impatient, angry, and sometimes behave less than admirably. No one fully knows our worries and cares and sense of struggle, but they matter to us, and often leave us feeling spiritually weak. Like Paul, we seek assistance and assurance. It is written . . .
I don’t understand what I do – for I don’t do the things I want to do, but rather the things I hate. And if I do the very thing I don’t want to do, I am agreeing that the Law is good. Consequently, what is happening in me is not really me, but sin living in me. I know that no good dwells in me, that is, in my human nature; the desire to do right is there, but not the power. What happens is that I don’t do the good I intend to do, but the evil I do not intend I do. But if I do what is against my will, it is not I who do it, but sin that dwells in me. This means that even though I want to do what is right, a law that leads to wrongdoing is always at hand. My inner self joyfully agrees with the law of God, but I see in my body’s members another law, in opposition to the law of my mind; this makes me the prisoner of the law of sin in my members. How wretched I am! Who can free me from this body under the power of death? Thanks be to God-it is Jesus Christ our Savior!
Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30
“What comparison can I make with this generation? They are like children shouting to others as they sit in the marketplace, ‘We piped you a tune, but you wouldn’t dance. We sang you a dirge, but you wouldn’t mourn.’ For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He is possessed.’ The Chosen One comes, eating and drinking, and they say, ‘This one is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.’ Wisdom will be vindicated by her own actions.
Then Jesus prayed, “Abba, Creator of heaven and earth, to you I offer praise; for what you have hidden from the learned and the clever, you have revealed to the youngest children. Yes, everything is as you want it to be. Everything has been handed over to me by you. No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son – and those given that revelation.”
“Come to me, all you who labor and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon your shoulders and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble of heart. Here you will find rest for your souls for my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”