What opposites did you notice in the reading from Matthew? [Discuss.] Here are some of the ones I found:
dance/mourn (verse 17)
John—fasting, no drinking: He has a demon
Jesus—likes a good meal with others: He’s a glutton and a drunkard, friend of tax collectors and sinners
Wise and intelligent/infants (v. 25) Louise
Weary and heavy laden/rest (v. 28) Dennis
Here’s another pair of opposites that is hinted at:
Yoke of Roman oppression—crushes people
Yoke of Jesus—fits well, good, kind, connects them to Jesus and God, shares the load, leads to life, work worth doing, a burden worth bearing. (29-30)
First of all, do you believe Jesus when he says that his yoke is easy and his burden is light? I think following Jesus in the work of justice and compassion can be the most challenging, applecart-upsetting work there is. How might this yoke be easy? How is it light? Who is Jesus’ audience for this message? And what does he mean by “rest”?
Let’s explore these questions. When we take on the yoke of Jesus, we are taking off the burdensome yoke of Roman oppression that was crushing the Jews, taxing them off their land. When you lose your land, of course, you lose your ability to grow your own food, feed yourself and your family. You may be reduced to looking for day labor, like the guys who stand outside of Home Depot out on Aurora and hope that someone will come along and say, “I could use three people to dig ditches today.” And that’s a good day: digging ditches. We don’t know the background of these men—they’re usually men—except that many of them are undocumented immigrants, fleeing a terrible situation, and are trying to earn money doing honorable if back-breaking work. They may be doctors or professors in their home countries, teachers, businessmen, chefs. They are oppressed. They are weary and heavy-laden. Imagine Jesus saying to them, “Come to me, and I will give you rest.” Okay, sign me up!
So that’s Jesus’ audience: people who have been stepped on for ages by the Romans, people who are living on the edge, trying to keep their families from starving. And Jesus’ good news to them is that God’s invitation comes not to the “wise and intelligent”—that is, the well-educated, well-off, well-resourced elites—but to the infants, the ones who are just trying to survive.
Jesus’ invitation is to the oppressed, the “infants,” not the “wise and intelligent.” Notice that he doesn’t say the opposite of “wise and intelligent” is “stupid.” It’s “infant,” one who is open to learning new ways. Even as I hear Jesus’ invitation to the infants, I realize that I might be considered among the “wise and intelligent” category, and so might many of us. We have had an education. Most of us are financially comfortable. We have homes, enough food. We may not be millionaires, but compared to many people around the world, we are well off.
And most of us are White. We don’t have to worry about being pulled over for Driving While Black. Most of us were born US citizens and don’t have to worry about being deported. In fact, we are coming to the realization, if we didn’t know it already, that we are part of the American Empire.
Now that is a heavy burden to bear. Who wants to identify with the role of the oppressor? I don’t see a lot of hands saying, “I do! I do! Pick me!”
Jesus says, “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” (Matt. 11:28-30). There are heavy burdens of being oppressed, and there is the heavy burden of being cast as the oppressor. I don’t want this role. What can I do? I can take on the yoke of Jesus.
When I take on the yoke of Jesus, I take on the work of justice for the oppressed.
When I take on the yoke of Jesus, I take on the work of undoing racism.
When I take on the yoke of Jesus, I take on the work of standing with and for the immigrant.
When I take on the yoke of Jesus, I take on the work of feeding the hungry.
This doesn’t sound restful. What kind of rest is this? Jesus says, “You will find rest for your souls.” That’s not the same as rest for our bodies. The work is there to be done. When we hold back and look at it but don’t engage, our souls are talking to us. Our souls are heavy-laden, because we know we’re not stepping up. We know we are enjoying the benefits of White privilege and of relative financial ease. We know we are benefitting from colonial, imperialistic practices that allowed us to own this land by taking it away from Indigenous people who already lived here. We know that we benefit from a society built on fossil fuels, even as those same products create climate change. We know we benefit from cheap food produced by underpaid migrant workers who are vulnerable to being cheated or abused, sprayed with pesticides that make them sick, and most recently forced to work as essential workers even at the risk of their health and their very lives. We know these things, but we don’t want to see them. They are heavy burdens indeed. Jesus invites us to see them.
Our souls are weary from trying to not see these truths, or our souls are overwhelmed from seeing these truths and not knowing what to do. “Come to me,” Jesus says, “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.”
Everyone chooses their yoke. We all yoke ourselves to something. David Holwerda writes that a yoke “both restrains and enables. It is simultaneously a burden and a possibility. The question confronting humanity is, whose yoke or what yoke does one put on? No one lives without a yoke” (The Lectionary Commentary: The Gospels, quoted in Kathryn Matthews, https://www.ucc.org/worship_samuel_sermon_july_5_2020).
Those who are most overwhelmed and paralyzed by the problems of the world are those who see those problems and do not engage in any of the solutions. Those who say yes to the yoke of Jesus say yes to working not for the empire of Rome but for the realm of God. And we do not bear that yoke alone. Picture two oxen pulling a plow. They are yoked together to share the burden. Jesus invites us to take on the yoke, to yoke ourselves to Jesus, to share the burden, to pull together in the work of love, forgiveness, reparations, antiracism, justice, fair wages, fair immigration laws, a sustainable climate. So much to do. Let’s take up Jesus’ invitation to find rest for our souls in the yoke of Jesus. Amen.