“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.”
These are words of comfort, words of hope. This verse is certainly very familiar, and is used in a number of different circumstances in church life: words of invitation and assurance… words of welcome at Communion… words of comfort at funerals… Even at the beginning of summer, when we have been working hard all winter long, these seem to be rather appropriate for this holiday weekend in July.
Compared to some of the more difficult passages in the Bible, it is a welcome and refreshing change. Instead of digging through the text to pull out the meaning like we did with Paul last week, Jesus throws it out front for us:
“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” Umm… there you go… there’s the good news! I’m not sure if I can really add to that… Sermon’s done!
If only we could get away that easily. As much as we are tempted to wrap these words around us like a comforting blanket, there’s the back story that we often forget. Jesus was drawing upon the conventional wisdom of the day. He was quoting from an older tradition as a way of providing a counter-argument to the Pharisees. As much as these were words of comfort, they were also words of confrontation and challenge… in a situation that was far more complex than maybe we first thought.
The Pharisees have been made out to be the bad guys in any of the stories that we have of Jesus. They are always the ones sneering, making snide comments, and looking down their noses at those that they deem unworthy. They’re an easy bunch to dislike, and have become very much the villains whenever Jesus needs to make a point.
The trouble is, Pharisees very much understood themselves as doing their best to be faithful to God, and sought to make sure the rest of society understood that. They were the ones who sought to unite the people of Israel to be faithful, so that all of Israel would worship God and ultimately be freed from the oppression of the Romans. They understood the covenant very well, knowing that they were God’s chosen people, and lived it out in righteous living.
These were the upright people. They were the people like you and like me who were trying to be what they believed God wanted them to be. They wanted to include everyone, but over a period of time, the rules would get tighter and tighter. They became the moral police in society, insisting that everyone had to get the commandments right if God was to intervene and free Israel from Roman domination.
Yet at their core, they were good people, and believed strongly in God, and in their place in God’s story. They were faithful, and were always the first to be there. Think of them like respectable, church attending folks… The trouble is, this is where it starts to get a bit uncomfortable, because we would like to think of ourselves as good, church-attending folks. “Waitaminute” and before we know it we start to hear these words in a new way… and maybe not in a comforting sense.
Jesus was addressing this kind of self-righteous self-assurance that the Pharisees had developed. One of the reasons why Jesus seemed to lock horns with the Pharisees so often is precisely because they were the ones that cared most passionately about their relationship with God. Jesus argued that the Pharisees had gone off the rails. Their efforts to be faithful to God’s commandments created two classes of people, those who could and those who couldn’t do it. Those that saw themselves as the ones who could, some began to look with contempt on those who could not… At very least those who could not felt that they were being condemned and excluded, because they felt could not live up to the heavy expectations.
To both the Pharisee and the outcast, Jesus was reminding them of things that they had forgotten… Somewhere along the way, they had lost something. Like children playing to an audience that no longer seemed to care, the fun and joy of faith it seemed to have been sapped away. All that was left was this bitter, critical eye that could find no good in anything… including stuff from God. When John the Baptist showed up, they criticized him for not eating or drinking… when Jesus showed up, they criticized him for eating or drinking. Nothing was ever good enough… to the point where no one was even able to see God right there among them. The load of expectations was far too great.
It was into this that Jesus said,
28“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. 29Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.30For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”
This invitation is to those whose expectations were so great, that the load had become too heavy. Jesus tells us that we don’t have to do it all ourselves. When he says that his yoke is easy, maybe a better word for it is “kind.” Like the great wooden bar that oxen wear when they pull a wagon, Jesus tells them that his yoke is not so heavy, and is a far kinder load. Why? Because Jesus is already carrying it, God is there helping us bear the responsibility in our life of faith. We’re not left alone to carry something that is truly beyond our ability to lift.
Jesus tells us, that as earnest as the Pharisees were trying to be, the load is not as heavy as they make it out. “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me…” he says… “for I am gentle and humble in heart.” For those who felt that they weren’t good enough, this was radical, life-changing news. A great burden is lifted from their shoulders, because they realize that God is present with them. They didn’t have to carry absolutely everything that the law prescribed, because such a load is too much for one person to carry. That sense of relief is tangible… and by comparison is far more restful than what they had felt before.
I think at the beginning of summer, any Biblical text that talks about rest is a welcome one. Over the next two months many of us will be off to cottages, driving vacations, and perhaps even flying to exotic locales. The only thing is, the “rest” that Jesus promises to the weary is not the rest of inactivity. This isn’t a vacation from the law, but more a lesson in God’s grace. It is a far less heavy way of responding to God’s call than what both ancient and modern Pharisees try. As Christians God still calls us to live out the love of Christ, it’s just that the yoke… the load itself is not something we bear alone. In fact, by lifting such a burden, we actually have the ability and energy to go out, living in the grace that God. More than anything else, that’s the exciting part!