Scripture: Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30
Have you ever heard the quote “truth will only make you unpopular”? (Wolfgang Berchert) No. Not likely. It doesn’t really speak to a popular desire. It’s true, but it doesn’t give the warm fuzzies.
But have you heard (this is for all those educators) “Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I learn.” (Benjamin Franklin) or “live, laugh, love” (on much home decor lately) or “Come to me all you who are weary and I will give you rest?” More than likely, yes. It’s because these speak to something many people need or want to hear.
In today’s message, many readers would leave this Scripture with a feeling of comfort, hearing Jesus’ words to come to him - all who are tired from heavy burdens - and he will give you rest. These are words that are so relatable to people - they feel the need to hear them at their core.
In recent weeks, we have heard a lot from Jesus on sending forth the disciples - pep talks for them on how to apply wisdom in knowing where to stay and which towns to “dust off.” Now, we hear Jesus speaking to the crowds and spreading his message - one that wasn’t always welcomed.
We need to remember that sometimes we have in our minds images of these wonderful gatherings where children and adults come around a picnic to hear Jesus speak of love from a hillside. We need to remember, though, that very often Jesus and his message were not well-received by all...his message meant to upend the status quo. His message went against many temple/religious rituals (where people were exploited or told they could buy their way to heaven). His message went against many of society’s practices (where the sick, the poor, the “least” were forgotten or pushed aside).
So, here we are...hearing Jesus deliver his message and reflect on how that message is being received.
I love his first observation...the comparison of how John the Baptist and Jesus came with two different styles and both are criticized and turned away by sophisticates and “know-it-alls”!
Thomas Long (Matthew, Westminster Bible Companion) notes that “Every generation wants something good for itself. The problem is the packaging: John and Jesus do not look like saviors...the wrong diet, the wrong music, the wrong companions, the wrong words.” Each generation is looking for their hope and their salvation, and not always quick to recognize what the real thing is, even if it’s Jesus himself! (Kathryn Matthews, Sermon Seeds, ucc.org)
Jesus then reflects on and gives thanks for how it is the “infants” who understand and actually receive this message. We aren’t talking about literal 1-2 year olds; though, they certainly have great insights into this world. Jesus is talking about ordinary people, the otherwise “unknowns” of the world. The Message version of the Bible says “You’ve concealed your ways from sophisticates and know-it-alls, but spelled them out clearly to ordinary people.” And for that, Jesus rejoices!
Jesus rejoices because the message is one that reaches the weary and tired - specifically, Jesus was talking about being weary of injustices and tired of religious rituals (remember lots of temple requirements in those days). While many of us may be weary from not being able to travel like we want to right now or socialize with friends how we want to, Jesus was addressing a more specific weariness regarding social inequities and religious elitism. We certainly have those inequities in today’s society as well - seeing how minority populations are unequally affected by the pandemic is simply one example! We don’t have to search too much further to see how mental illness, race, sexual orientation, and so much more is used to discriminate and perpetuate those inequities as well.
What do we do with these observations of Jesus - how can we reflect on them?
First of all, it should be humbling. It is humbling to remember that Jesus wasn’t interested in his message just traveling through the circles of the elite and neither should we. Jesus’ message is for the people - the ground floor - the ordinary.
His message is for the human being - not the title. I say that because there are a lot of powerful titles in this world - CEOs and lawmakers and celebrities - and behind every one of those titles is a human being. But the title alone does not make them wise, as we hear repeatedly from the Christ.
A person can be in a powerful seat in society AND be wise enough to humbly take in Jesus’ message. I HOPE, actually, that a lot of people in powerful positions take in Jesus’ message.
However, Jesus’ message is for the person, no matter what their title may be. And so, it’s humbling.
Second, I’m especially drawn, like many, to these last words of Jesus, saying that his yoke is easy and burden is light.
Now, a quick reminder…the “yoke” that is talked about here is y-o-k-e, not y-o-l-k. Important difference. I will admit as I was reading for sermon prep, I read one person’s reflection on how many people have actually have seen or held a yoke...and my mind immediately went to runny egg yolks, which I have every morning. I rationally know that this is not what the Scripture is talking about and, yet, that is the imagery that was in my head. (Maybe I was hungry.) The yoke here is the piece that connects animals doing work, often plowing. So, think of two cows or oxen side-by-side, pulling a plow and they have a wood harness of sorts over both of their necks - it keeps them in line and in rhythm with one another. It allows them to share the burden of the work. THAT is the yoke Jesus is talking about.
In remembering that, we remember that we are sharing this yoke - spreading this message is not something to carry alone. You are not a one-person Gospel-sharing machine! That one animal is not shouldering the entire responsibility of the plow by themselves. The job is big enough and important enough to share in it.
Also, we remember that sharing in Jesus’ yoke provides a freedom from oppression and injustices. It’s the part of the message that wasn’t always received by the “wise” of society.
I believe that freedom from oppression is the “easy” and “light” that Jesus speaks about. When we are all free from discrimination and oversight, we are lighter as a society. Think of being under the weight of oppression for so long - perhaps centuries and generations of racial oppression, for instance. (Unfortunately, not a hard thing for many to imagine.) Jesus’ message says that oppression needs to be lifted, and in that we will find freedom, and in that the yoke is easy.
If we’re honest, though, that yoke doesn’t always feel easy and light because it’s hard work to obtain the freedom, right? Rachel Held Evans (Evolving in Monkey Town: How a Girl Who Knew All the Answers Learned to Ask the Questions) beautifully observes that "The yoke is hard because the teachings of Jesus are radical: enemy love, unconditional forgiveness, extreme generosity. The yoke is easy because it is accessible to all--the studied and the ignorant, the rich and the poor, the religious and the nonreligious."
In hearing Jesus’ words today we are reminded that the message is for the people, the people of then and the people of today. In the end, be wise. Know that Jesus’ message of caring for the poor, the sick, the outcast is one that brings with it a freedom that is easy and light for all, not just the people at the top. You are not alone in the work to achieve it.