The new royal couple, William and Kate, have gotten a lot of attention in their first visit to North America, to Canada and California. Have you been watching? I have to admit that I am a royal family follower. Charles and Diana were married not long after I was married. William was born the same year my daughter was born. I got up early in the morning to watch Charles and Diana’s wedding. I got up early in the morning to watch William and Kate’s wedding.
But what if, instead of going to the prestigious places arranged for them, waving and shaking hands, and thrilling everyone who can get near, William and Kate bypassed all those invitations and went to the homeless shelter, and to the streets where drug addicts hang out? Would we be as attentive? Would we be disappointed? Would we care at all?
If Jesus came today we might think that he would be greeted as just as royally. But would he be doing the parade routes, kissing the babies? Or do you think he would be in the shelters and in the streets?
In the brief passage we read today, Jesus had begun to take a turn in his ministry, a turn that would direct him towards Jerusalem and toward the cross. It was already clear to Jesus that the people in power, the scribes and Pharisees, the privileged and even learned in the faith, were not following him. They were beginning to question and criticize him and soon would plot against him. They certainly did not understand who Jesus truly was.
Just before the passage we read today, Jesus had lambasted cities of Israel who were not repenting, despite his messages and deeds performed in their midst. Jesus even compared these cities to Sodom, the city for which Abraham pleaded with God, and yet could not find one righteous man within it. Remember that God told Abraham to take his family and flee the city, and to not look back. Lot’s wife looked back, and became a pillar of salt. Sodom was destroyed as Abraham and Lot and the rest of his family fled. (Genesis 18-19). “If the deeds done in you,” Jesus said to the cities of his time, “had been done in Sodom, it would have remained until this day. But I tell you that on the day of judgment it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom than for you.” (Matthew 11:23-24)
So Jesus was not happy, and his ministry did not seem to be going well, at least among the more powerful. And yet he stopped to pray a prayer of thanksgiving, though one that seems odd to us. Jesus thanks God the Father that God has hidden knowledge from the “wise and intelligent.” He was referring to the scribes and priests, the powerful and wealthy, those with access to learning. And he gives thanks that God has revealed knowledge to “infants,” to those who do not have access to education, who know little about faith. “No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him,” he said. This sounds like an esoteric revelation, a revealing of secret knowledge. Yet scholar Tom Long does not think this is what Jesus, or the writer of the Gospel of Matthew, intended. The theology of this passage is complex, says Long, and it is centered on the very intimate relationship between God the Father and Jesus the Son. It is not that God does not want to be known. Jesus’ mission is to bring the saving knowledge of God to the whole world.
“Ancient theological writers,” says Long, “were not constrained by our need for tidy and systematic logic. Matthew believed both that people were free and responsible, on the one hand, and that God was in complete control of human history, on the other. We need to pit human freedom and God’s omnipotence as logically incompatible opposites. Matthew, however, could hold these truths together.” (Long, p.131)
Jesus was not saying that God gives secret knowledge to some and holds it from others. The receptivity of the knowledge of God lies more on our side, perhaps because of the freedom of will that God grants us. But, “It will be harder for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven,” said Jesus elsewhere in Matthew. “Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of the needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” (Matthew 19:23-24)
An old saying says, “Power tends to corrupt; absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Sometimes those with power and prestige turn away from a reliance on God and rely more on their own powers and abilities.
So maybe it is easier, in a sense, for those who have less, whose lives are harder day by day, to grab on to the hope of the Bible’s message of salvation. Those who are willing to be dependent on God, or who have little choice to do so, can be like children, and may find the truth of Jesus’ message easier to comprehend. “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven,” Jesus also said. “Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” So much of what our world teaches us about achievement and success goes contrary to the teachings of Jesus.
It is easy to see why the powerful would reject a faith that insists that we are weak but God is strong. While it is not true that all powerful people reject or misuse religion, we can certainly understand these words of Jesus about the powerful when we see all of the corruption exposed in the lives of our national and world leaders. Many of the most powerful and inflential in our country and our world claim to be Christian or ardent followers of some other religion, and yet have succumbed to temptations that are certainly not compatible with faithful living. One of the great struggles of modern life is to live out the Gospel in all aspects of one’s life, in the business and political world as well as in our private lives. It is true that the more money we have, the more tempting are the distractions of the world, because we can afford them, while the poor cannot. But not all of the world’s temptations are good for our spiritual lives, and in fact, some of them can be harmful. And they are certainly not good when the pursuit of worldly goods or thrills becomes more the god we worship than the God we proclaim here.
Jesus saw such a world in his own time as well. Those in power and with influence were not living out the Gospel message. But the weak and downtrodden were responding to his call. And so Jesus gave thanks for those who were hearing and responding. And then he gave them an invitation. “Come to me,” he said, “all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” “For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”
I have always liked this passage, and felt comfort from it, until I started to look a bit deeper. When we are tired and weary, does a yoke sound comforting? For our Mexico team, a hammock at the end of the day sounds good. For us, perhaps the super comfy beds at the Hilton appeal, or the swimming pool in this hot weather. But we definitely would not look for a yoke to make us feel better! A yoke is a wooden or metal, or a combination of both, device used to join oxen or draft animals so that they can pull a plow or cart with their strong shoulders. Someone behind the animals directs them with reins. A yoke is more a symbol of servitude. Sometimes in history slaves have been put in yokes, perhaps most often as punishment, to make them more obedient. In the OT, sin is a yoke upon us (Lamentations 1:14 – “My transgressions were bound into a yoke; by his hand they were fastened together; they weigh on my neck, sapping my strength; the Lord handed me over to those whom I cannot understand.”)
Being yoked to the pagan god Baal was a sin (Numbers 25:3,5). But ancient Judaism also saw the yoke as a symbol of obedience to the law and wisdom of God (Long, p.132).
Usually there are two animals yoked together, and someone at the reins. So it could be that Jesus saw us, you and me, as yoked, with him at the reins. But it also could be that Jesus is yoked with us, with God the Father is at the reins. In that way, Jesus helps us to bear the weight of the burdens put upon us. Jesus’ yoke is not hard, as it would be to pull the weight of a plow or cart. Jesus’ says that his yoke is easy, and his burden light. A burden is also a heavy load, something to be carried or borne. It can be a duty or responsibility as well. But Jesus’ burden is light. And we realize here that Jesus does not promise to take away the burdens of worldly living. Yet, he tells us, when we follow God’s loving ways, those burdens are somehow much lighter, and even more joyful, to bear.
So the world, according to Jesus, is not necessarily easy. The more we know of worldly ways, the more power and prestige we gain, the more we can be tempted away from faithful and loving ways of life. There are indeed burdens to bear in life, our own personal trials and those of the world around us. God does not take the burdens away from us just because we follow God’s way. And yet when we live as Jesus’ disciples, when we come to a place such as this and confess our weaknesses and our reliance upon God, when we come to a table not to satisfy our hunger but to take a bit of bread and wine to remind us of the saving acts of Jesus on our behalf, but perhaps most especially when we reach out to help others even in the midst of our own struggles, then we may be pleasantly surprised to find that life does not seem quite so hard or so burdensome as it once did. With Jesus, there is still a yoke, yes, but it is easy, and there are indeed burdens, but they are light, and together with Christ, we can bear them.
Thanks be to God! Amen.
(Book referenced – Matthew, by Thomas G. Long [Westminster/John Knox Press, KY, 1997].)