July 05, 2020
We have been on quite a challenging ride in our Matthew readings these last few weeks. Matthew’s gospel is interesting to ponder.
It is speculated to have been written around A.D. 60 in Antioch to a Jewish audience. When we understand the location and timing of the writing along with the purpose of a Gospel it helps us as we read: Antioch was a trade center near water. It was culturally diverse and politically tense – the Romans officially began occupation of it in A.D. 64. Into this diversity of culture and tension politically Matthew writes to Jews about the good news of Jesus Christ – seeking to show who Jesus is as each gospel does to its particular audience at the time of its writing.
What is the good news we hear today?
First, it is showing us that our God reveals God self to us. This is something we often hear. But today, there is a bit of a twist. Jesus says, “I thank you…because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned and have revealed them to infants.” Infants. Our God is so big and so unlimited – God reveals God’s self to all – no limits by our developmental or mental, emotional, or physical abilities. What good news.
This passage also shows us good news about who God reveals God’s self to. Here, Jesus invites the weary and carriers of heavy burdens. Jesus does not invite those who just want to learn, those who are self-sufficient, but those that need and are dependent; kind of like the infants Jesus referred to earlier.
The words here for weary and heavy laden have much imagery. Weary is struggle, toil physically – exertion leading to exhaustion. Burdened is like an overloaded beast of burden. This is to load up, to carry more than is intended.
The Jewish audience written to would be a people who are burdened with keeping the law, towing the line, living up to black and white expectations. Weary and heavy laden indeed. In real time they would be trying to understand what it means to follow Jesus in contrast to the bearing the weight of the law.
Eugene Peterson in The Message, a bible translated into contemporary language provides this semantic for these familiar verses that help us understand the quandary of the Jewish person seeking to understand following Jesus:
“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.”
We hear the word picture today in our translation in the New Revised Standard Version: “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.”
As we take in this word picture of coming to Jesus and being yoked to him, we see it looks like a close relationship, as Peterson put it: “getting away” with Jesus. But it also looks like connection: being yoked to Jesus.
Yokes were more familiar then than now. They were put on animals that carry heavy loads. It is a kind of harness attached to the animal’s neck and attached to what is being carried. The most familiar picture is of 2 animals yoked together and tied to their load. Connected to each other and connected to their load.
Jesus is not giving the yoke of the law, but he is also not saying following him is free from all restraints. Jesus is saying, I am not putting heavy loads on your shoulders like the pharisees…though there is still effort.
So, a yoking of two animals together, was really a bit like locking them neck and neck together. Then these two animals together were connected to, tied to, their load. Quite practically, there was more power with two animals and more work able to be done. The load could be carried.
A part of what Jewish ears may have resonated with in this image is that the weight of the law likely felt like it was borne alone – not shared with anyone else or God. The load may have felt like there was no chance of moving toward something new, and certainly not something “free and light.” Good news to take in. What a beautiful image to consider – yoked to Jesus. Connected. Doing the things of life together.
If our load to be carried is not the weight of the law as Christians what might it be? In broad strokes in scripture we see the simple but large descriptions of loving our neighbor as ourselves, of taking care of creation, of advocacy for others to name a few. Peterson calls these the “unforced rhythms of grace” of the life recovered in Christ. These imply effort of time, money, willingness to be inconvenienced – to even get tired, or do things we do not want to do…but, as we are connected to God -yoked - even when our will is crossed to do something we do not want to do, we can experience a lightness to it, a rest in it.
If we are yoked to Jesus, we have power, connection, and maybe a bit of limitation – we lose our ability to walk away. To do it alone. To oversee our direction. Yoked.
We just had our 4th of July holiday this weekend. In American’s minds we see freedom - as a generalization - as freedom from responsibility. Freedom from inconvenience, from commitment, from cost. Jesus, though gentle and humble in heart confronts this today. If we are not yoked to Jesus and carrying our load of commitments and responsibilities which are a part of freedom, we are not yoked to anything except ourselves and flinging through our daily life – not connected by yoke or rope to Jesus or load. Not a pretty sight.
Today we are offered – invited – as the tired and weary, the heavy laden – those not carrying loads heavier than intended, to come. We come into a relationship, but we must count the cost and make a commitment. We come and we stay. We journey with Christ, again from Peterson: “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.”
Invitation. Cost. Commitment. And generous offer. The offer: rest. Real rest. And that word for rest in the Greek it means rest. Rest like we think of today in our time and in our place. Renewal, relief, refreshment.
If we come, we are responsive.
If we stay, we learn and experience rest.
If we stay, we live freely and lightly…and our quality of life increases and our contribution to society happens.
Because that is what the Christian life is about.
This is good news indeed.
Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 3
Strongs Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible
The Expositors Bible Commentary: Matthew