Matthew 11:16-19, 25-end
Rev Cheryl Collins
May I speak in the name of God, who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
Last week’s Church Times comes with a special supplement in which the great and the good of the Church of England reflect on ‘What are the lessons of the pandemic?’
Sadly, the Church Times failed to contact me for my reflection, but this week’s gospel reading reminded me of what is probably the most important lesson for me.
‘Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me- watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.‘ That’s the contemporary Message interpretation of Jesus’s invitation to ‘Come to me, all you are weary’ and ‘take my yoke upon you.’
While there was nothing to rejoice in and everything to mourn in the reason for lockdown, in some ways it has been a liberating time for me. I got to stop rushing from one meeting to the next and focus on my favourite priestly tasks- spending time (albeit on the phone) with all of you, and spending time wrestling with the Bible to try and find food for our journey together in this most challenging of times.
But after a while I had to face the truth. I had imagined that, freed from many of my burdens (evening meetings I’m looking at you!), I would be able to relax. I wouldn’t feel the burden of other’s expectations of what I should be doing and whether I was doing enough. However, I was forced to confront the reality that I generate many of those expectations and much of that burden from inside myself. I am wired to worry.
And I know that I’m not the only one. Many of us struggle with worry and anxiety about ourselves, about the world we live in and about whether we are in some mysterious way ‘enough.’ So today, the good news is for us.
A yoke is about work. Oxen were yoked up together to pull farm machinery. In first century Palestine Rabbis talked about the ‘yoke of the Torah’ the work that one must do to translate the commandments of God into one’s own life. That was the role of the Rabbi, to interpret the Torah, the commandments of God into clear, everyday instructions- for instance when the ten commandments tell us not to work on the Sabbath, what exactly constitutes work?
Rabbis followed one another in schools of interpretation, some suggest that they actually referred to ‘taking the yoke of Rabbi X’. These wandering scholars attracted bands of disciples who followed the Rabbi and collected his teaching as precious pearls of learning. But this was not an entirely passive experience, the Rabbi and his disciples would debate a point of law and when the Rabbi felt the student had understood God’s intention he might say ‘You have fulfilled Torah’. If he felt the disciple had totally failed to grasp the point he might say ‘You have abolished Torah.’
Jesus has told his disciples that he has come, not to abolish Torah but to fulfil it. However, he has not fitted neatly into people’s expectations of what a Rabbi or even the Messiah should be. Both John the Baptist and Jesus confused their contemporaries because on the one hand they did seem to speak with authority, but on the other hand they weren’t following the expected script completely. They danced to another tune, one their contemporaries didn’t want to dance to. Instead, Jesus invites people to look beyond their own expectations to the results of his ministry. Sadly, many people were unable to do that, they were stuck within their existing framework of expectation.
It seems that those who were most open to the message of Jesus were those who had already experienced failure according to the rules and expectations of religious life at the time. If the scribes and Pharisees laid down the rules by which a person’s standing before God was judged, then they were definitely on the reject pile. They recognised that however hard they tried they could not fulfil the myriad requirements of the oral law- the mass of interpretation that unpacked the Torah. They needed someone to help them, even someone to save them. As Paul put it in Romans ‘Who will rescue me from this body of death?’
In response we hear the invitation of Jesus to ‘come to me’. When we recognise our failure, when we find ourselves overwhelmed by the burdens we lay upon ourselves or upon one another, Jesus is here for us. We do not find rest in the struggle to be perfect, as if God’s love depended on our activity. We do not find rest in the expectations of society which urge us to constant achievement and conformity to cultural ideals. We are exhausted by the seductive cycle which promises rest if only we can buy the latest leisurewear or car or expensive foreign holiday. But every time we think we have ‘made it’ we look up and find another hill to climb. There is no rest for us in either of those places.
But Jesus offers rest, not in a programme of activity but in a person. Oxen were traditionally yoked together for their tasks and Jesus offers to be our yoke-fellow, to bear our burdens and walk alongside us. The companionship of Jesus brings refreshment and rest to the weary.
Jesus lives out what perfect fulfilment of the Torah looks like in a human life, not a careful following of rules but the freedom to live out of the abundance of God’s love. Jesus keeps giving himself away because he knows that in the Father’s love there is always more. He is able to let go of anxiety and free us from the prison of our own expectations.
It would be easy to claim that the scribes and Pharisees only existed in Biblical times or in the Jewish faith. But that would not only run the risk of anti-Semitism, but also be completely inaccurate. We make the same mistakes when we allow ourselves to be caught up in rules about when we should genuflect (that’s the religious version of a curtsy for the uninitiated) or how sound our doctrine of atonement is (apparently penal substitution is the only way to go.) We make rules and use them to judge and exclude one another.
Every metaphor we use about Jesus reminds of his abundance- bread of life, living water, good shepherd, light of the world. When we take our anxieties to Jesus, he is always more than enough for our needs. It’s just that sometimes we get stuck worrying about what we should be doing for Jesus instead of coming to Jesus and find rest for our souls in him.
What was the lesson of the pandemic for me? Spend more time letting Jesus fill me and less time trying to fill everyone else from my own meagre store. Point others to Jesus too, so we can all find rest for our souls. Together, let us learn from him the unforced rhythms of grace.
Amen Lord, may it be so.