Some words from our gospel reading this morning:
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.
I sometimes wonder, when I listen to those words, whether Matthew, either had a problem with his hearing, or if he had a problem with his memory. Are those really the words that Jesus said, did Matthew hear correctly, had the years dimed the memory or, lets be honest (given that the text isn’t in Mark or Luke,) did Matthew just make it up and wasn’t on one of his better writing days?
Looking around at the world – violent protests in Hamburg, continuing atrocities all across the middle east, the inequalities exposed through queues at food-banks and the Grenfell fire, not to mention individual agonies that don’t make the headlines such as a loss of dignity at having been made redundant, pain borne though illness, hearts broken by relationships unfulfilled, anguished grief at the death of a loved one, and it seems to me that Matthew was either a little hard of hearing, getting a touch forgetful in older age, or just on an off day.
If it wouldn’t be too presumptuous, perhaps I could suggest some small alterations:
Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will set you to work in my vineyard, toiling during the heat of the day, for the harvest is ready but the workers are few. Take up my cross, and learn from me – for I am gentle and humble in heart – and you will discover yourselves sent like sheep among wolves.
I wonder, as you listen this morning, which of those versions resonates the most with you? Maybe, it’s actually a combination of the two? Certainly, from my experience, being a Christian hasn’t meant that I have an easy life, it hasn’t protected me from grief and loss. It hasn’t meant that I have never been sick or in pain. Yet, that doesn’t mean to say that neither I do find great comfort and peace from my faith - sometimes in the midst of the more difficult times.
Our scripture tells us that Jesus says that if we follow his example and learn from him we will find rest for our souls. Legend has it that just one disciple – those who were best placed to learn and follow – died a natural death and the church’s year is littered with the memorials of martyrs so it seems to me that Jesus can’t have been saying that in becoming a Christian we suddenly get a supernatural force-field around us that protects us from every mean and malicious, vile and vindictive thing that might wish to harm us.
What then, might be the rest that Jesus offers and how might his yoke lighten and ease our load? Well, lets start by having a look at the meaning behind two of those words; rest and yoke.
Firstly, rest. The word that Matthew uses for rest is most often used to refer to a temporary rest. It has the suggestion of taking a bit of a breather on a long journey, or maybe of creating some space or time out during a busy schedule for rest and relaxation. We might think here of the notion of a spiritual retreat where the idea isn’t an escape from the world, but time away before reengaging with the world. Jesus is not inviting us to a lay-about rest of an easy chair, feet up in front of the TV, with a couple of beers on the side. (Not that there is anything wrong with that from time-to-time.) Instead, it is the disciplined rest of a purposeful life. Jesus does not promise clock-watchers an early quitting time, but offers disciples energy, vision, and purpose. Each of the four gospels mention Jesus finding time to be quiet and to pray. Jesus knew the risks of burn-out and the need to rest and recover. He took time to refill so that he was ready once again for the work of giving himself to the world in love.
So, if that is rest, what about yoke. Our reading describes the yoke as easy. This, though, isn’t really the best of translations. The Greek word for easy is chrestos (noticeably just one letter different than Christ). It appears in six other places in the New Testament and, in the NRSV at least, is variously translated as good or kind. The Theological Dictionary of the New Testament further comments that chrestos is always understood relationally in comparison to something else. In the context of our reading then, Jesus’s yoke is good or kind in comparison to other yokes.
Yokes would have been a familiar sight to Jesus’s audience, a wooden bar that rested on the neck of a pair of oxen’s so that they could be used to pull a plow. A good, or perhaps kind yoke needed to follow the contours of an oxen’s neck so that it didn’t rub or chaff. Similarly, a well-made yoke distributed the load evenly, making the task easier. It is not that the task disappeared, but rather that the equipment helps us cope with it better. (Various of you will know that I enjoy cycling – I was reading the other day about a curate in Hull who cycled 400km in around 24 hours . If he’d ridden on a old heavy bike with limited gears, taken his duvet, cans of tined food and put them all in a suitcase pulled behind him he wouldn’t have got very far very quickly. However, he had a suitable bike, energy bars, emergency foil blanket, all of which were safely stored in a well-designed bike bag.) It’s perhaps also worth noting that often a young ox would be harnessed next to an experienced, older ox. The young animal would learn to pull the plow or cart in rhythm with his mentor and model.
Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart says Jesus. Another translation puts it ‘learn from me for I am friendly and humble in heart.’ We’ve looked at rest and yoke. What than does Jesus mean by friendship and humility? Firstly, something that I don’t think it means. Those that remember my last sermon and my arguing for the value of being embodied won’t be surprised when I say I don’t think that it means dwelling upon our sin – which might come from a simple reading of our New Testament lesson when Paul writes to the Romans, ‘For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh.’
There isn’t time this morning to dissect our reading from Romans – one commentator that I read started by stating ‘Only a very bold commentator would claim complete understanding of the precise line of the argument in this section.’ What I will say, though, is this, that this passage in Romans (rather like the letter as a whole,) is basically about God. And the key thing that Paul argues is that God has been made known in the sending of his son. This, to bring us back to the gospel, is why those words about humility and friendship need to be understood in relation to the christology that precedes them – the words about the relationship between the father and the son.
Humility cannot be about guilty self-absorption, which can run so quickly into self-hatred. Neither can it be about ascetic demands that say we should mortify ourselves in some way; the opening of our gospel reading contrasted the fasting of John the Baptism with the feasting of Jesus. Instead, what I think is meant here is something about the human attitude that in love retreats into the background for the sake of the other. Jesus says learn from me, from my example. The example of the Lord of Lords who was born in a stable and the King of Kings who rode into Jerusalem on a donkey. Linking such humility with friendship, Ulrich Luz writes, ‘The yoke of Christ consists not of a special asceticism, not in special fasting, but in loving one’s neighbour and disdaining wealth. In his poem Tintern Abbey Wordsworth writes about ‘that best portion of a good man’s life, / His little, nameless, unremembered, acts / Of kindness and of love. Martin Luther wrote ‘Learn, learn, learn to be friendly, and you have performed infinite works.’
Perhaps this, though, is where the tensions that I raised at the beginning come in. For yes, while Jesus’s invites us to rest, it is not rest of a life of Riley, for at the same time he also calls us into loving service of others. Some of you may have heard me say before, that more and more what I believe in is paradox, and that the task of faith is to live creatively within the tensions that a paradox produces. The gospels are full of paradox; we must loose our life if we want to find it, whoever wants to be first must be last, whoever wants to be greatest must be the slave of all, to name just a few.
It seems to me that it is paradoxical that in the call of Jesus there is both cost and comfort (as an aside, like feasting and fasting, all the best paradoxes aliterate). Famously, St. Augustine wrote, “Our hearts are restless until they find rest in thee.” More recently the Jesuit priest Anthony D’Mello wrote, “If you find your rest in Christ you will never rest again.” Both I think are true.
The invitation to take Jesus’s yoke upon us and to learn from him is not an easy one. There will be times when it feels like toiling in the heat of the day; it is after all the way of the cross. But ultimately, it is also the way to life, a life in all its fullness; a life of pain and pleasure, grief and glory. A paradox expressed in these few lines of poetry that I close with:
For in that place, my heart finds refuge. Space
to condense, distil. To rest, repair and fill.
Before every sinew is stretched, stretched
to breaking point again. Sacrificed
in the service of a love that was nailed
open, and knows no other way.