As I contemplated this reading from Matthew 11 and then did some external reading relating to it, I was reminded that one always reads it on a Sunday near the Fourth of July, the day we Americans celebrate our independence from Great Britain. It is a time of celebration for many, but not all. Why? Because not everyone in the land has benefited equally from this independence. That was true then and it’s true now. The blessings of liberty have not been shared with everyone. Native Americans were pushed off their lands. Africans were brought to the nation to serve as slaves. Women had few rights and no vote until well into the 20th century. Despite our spotty history, there is an urge to equate America with God, and God with America, and so on this day we are expected to celebrate nationhood as we gather for worship. But is this the wisdom of God? Especially when some amongst us use their “religious liberty” to undermine the liberty of others?
It is with these questions in mind, that those of us living in the United States come to this passage. I expect that most of us place ourselves amongst the weary whom Jesus invites to come to him (Mt. 11:28). But we can’t get there without first stopping to consider the opening lines of the passage. Jesus has just finished responding to questions from John the Baptist, who is now imprisoned. Jesus lifts up John and his ministry, and then compares his ministry with Johns, noting that neither of them proved pleasing to the elites. John was too much of an ascetic. After all, he ate bugs, wore animal skins, and probably didn’t smell very good. Jesus, on the other hand, went to parties. He spent time with tax collectors and other riffraff. To this generation, both John and Jesus were embarrassments. To Jesus, this generation is fickle. They’re like children playing games -- “sitting in marketplaces and calling to one another,” complaining about John’s demeanor and that of Jesus.
Does this describe us? As a nation? Consider the political mess we find ourselves in. No one gets along, nothing gets done. The Courts giveth and taketh – those unelected judges whom everyone loves to hate. Yes, whether left or right, no one is happy. If you don’t believe me check your Facebook feed. People are angry. As to why? Well, let’s just say, they have their reasons. But it’s not just the political nation. It’s true of the churches as well. The preacher goes too long or too short. The worship is boring or the church is given over to entertainment. There are too many gray hairs or there’s just too much loud music. We just can’t help ourselves. We are full of complaints. No matter what or who God sends our way, we’re not happy. But, Jesus says: “wisdom is vindicated by her deeds” ((vs. 19).
There is something about us as human beings that resists God. Paul puts it this way: “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate” (Romans 7:15). Paul is too modest – we should understand why we do what we do – we want to be in control of our lives and our destinies. The Gospel of Success is attractive. Why bother with God, when we’re on the way up? After all, God helps those who help themselves! But, as David Bland, points out playing these childish games can be costly: “They deprive everyone of the rich spiritual blessings God holds out for those who repent and actively participate in the coming of the kingdom” [Feasting on the Gospels--Matthew, Volume 1: A Feasting on the Word Commentary, p. 289].
We skip over a section of Matthew 11 to finish the passage. We start with the diagnosis of our terminal condition. The section omitted by the lectionary offers a word of judgment on unrepentant cities. You can read it at your leisure, should you decide to do so. It might be useful to stop and consider the judgment of God.
Having raised the question of why “this generation” resists the realm of God, Jesus offers a word of welcome to the weary, to those who are in no position to control their own destinies. To those who are, in their own minds, “wise and the intelligent,” there is no promise of help. But for those who are infants – the innocent, the marginalized, the ones open to learn and to grow -- Jesus has a word of welcome.
I need to stop and consider this contrast, for am I not numbered among “the wise and the intelligent”? Am I not numbered among the self-satisfied? After all, I’m fairly well educated (I have a terminal degree in theology). I live in a decent home. It’s not a mansion, but it’s a nice house in an upscale suburban community. I tend to be put off by anti-intellectual rants. Ultimately, this word is not one that celebrates the American individualistic ideal. It should prove challenging to preach on the 4th of July, for it calls on us to put our trust not in ourselves, but in God. That can be disturbing!
The section of this passage that is most attractive comes with Jesus’ invitation: “Come to me all you that are weary and carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” We want this invitation to apply to us, but does it? Are we numbered among the infants or the “wise and the intelligent”? Are we willing to stop playing games?
So who is it that Jesus is speaking to when he invites the weary who need rest to come to him? At one level, Jesus is speaking to those who would be his disciples. After all, for the past several chapters, Jesus has been talking about discipleship and its costliness. It is a promise offered to those who are willing, able, or simply must, surrender all to Jesus. This is, in reality a summons to leave behind the games and get serious about discipleship. Then, there will be peace and there will be joy.
As we think about who is numbered among those receiving this offer of gracious rest, we must take into consideration those living on the edges – the infants of society. I can’t help but think at this moment of the children from Central America being kept in detention centers. They will likely be processed and sent home, while we sit here unwilling and unable to take steps that would alleviate the problems of immigration in our country. As William Goettler reminds us:
Rest is not offered to the strongest and the most powerful. Rest is offered to those who have been made weary by a world that fails to comprehend the burden of injustice. The yoke is made easy by the heavenly powers coming to aid those whose ways the world fails to understand. [Feasting on the Word: Year A: Pentecost and Season After Pentecost 1 (Propers 3-16), p. 216].
The promise of rest is given to those willing to surrender all to Jesus – to take upon themselves the yoke of Jesus. The yoke is that contraption that is placed on oxen so that they can be hooked up to the plow or the wagon. It is a sign of submission. Are you ready? Are you willing?
What does it mean to be a disciple of Jesus in this time and place? Living in the United States, in a nice middle class community, with a decent paying job, and plenty of education, how do I embrace the realm of God?
Jesus says that his yoke is easy. His burden is light. But I have to give up my sense of self-sufficiency and be willing to follow Jesus. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer puts it:
Where will the call to discipleship lead those who follow it? What decisions and painful separations will it entail? We must take this question to him who alone knows the answer. Only Jesus Christ, who bids us follow him, knows where the path will lead. But we know that it will be a path full of mercy beyond measure. Discipleship is joy [Discipleship (Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, Vol. 4), p. 40.]
For some in our midst, they’ve already lost control of their lives, and Jesus is already drawing them to himself. But for others of us, it is different. It is a choice to be made. It is a surrendering of one’s self to a future we can’t control. As I read Bonhoeffer’s own words, I’m reminded, as Charles Marsh lays out in detail in his biography of Bonhoeffer [Strange Glory: A Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer], that Bonhoeffer had discover what this meant the hard way – for the call to discipleship would take him on a dangerous journey that ended in death, but it also led to new discoveries about the ways of God in the world. Therefore, it is good to remember that standing behind this invitation is a tradition in Jewish life of discipleship.
Put your neck under her yoke,That yoke, in Jewish tradition, was the study of Torah. It is in the study of Torah that we experience serenity. Jesus is inviting us to join him in learning the ways of the kingdom, so that we might find our rest. So, will we continue playing games and resist the call? Or will embrace it by submitting to Jesus’ leadership. As Bonhoeffer points out, we may not have knowledge of the destination. We may not have all the answers to all the questions. But as we move forward, we will learn. We will grow. We will be transformed. And we will know rest. Of course, we must first let go of the need to control our destinies.