Sermon: "My Yoke Is Gentle and My Burden is Light"
St. Paul’s Episcopal – Brookings
Fr. Larry Ort
Genesis 24.34-38, 42-4 9, 58-67; Psalm 45.11-18; Romans 7.15-25a; Matthew 11.16-19, 25-30
In the verses preceding today’s gospel reading, John the Baptist while imprisoned, having heard of Jesus teaching and activities, sent his disciples to Jesus to ask if he were the Messiah. As you may recall, Jesus did not give him a straightforward yes or no answer – he instructed his disciples to go and tell John what they heard and saw, how the blind see, “the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them” (Matthew 11.2-5; NRSV). Jesus then added, “Blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me” (Vs. 6; NRSV) and he praised John’s ministry, noting that john the Baptist was more than a prophet – he was the messenger who came to prepare the way of the Lord.
Jesus, reflecting on John the Baptist in light of prior generations, noted, “no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist, yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he” (Matthew 11.11; NRSV). Then Jesus makes a statement that appears nowhere in the cycle of the Revised Common Lectionary: “From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force” (Vs. 12; NRSV). Jesus was undoubtedly referring to John’s arrest by Herod Antipas for having rebuked Herod for divorcing his wife and marrying his brother’s wife.
Jesus further reminded the crowd, prior to John, they had the law and the prophets but if the people were willing to accept it, John the Baptist is the prophesied “Elijah who is to come” to prepare the way of the Messiah. Jesus then added, “Let anyone with ears listen!” (Matthew 11.14; NRSV)
Now that we have set the broader context, let’s look at the content of today’s reading. Having addressed John’s mission in light of prior generations, Jesus asked, “But to what will I compare this generation?” Jesus then said, “It is like children sitting in the marketplace and calling to one another, ‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn’” (Matthew 11.16-17; NRSV). What is Jesus saying? At a Jewish wedding, it was customary for the men to play the flute and the women to dance; and at a Jewish funeral, it was customary for the women to wail and the men to mourn. Children imitated these actions in their games – the boys would play the flute and criticize the girls for not dancing; the girls would wail and criticize the boys for refusing to mourn.
Jesus is saying, like these children, the people criticize John the Baptist and Jesus: “For John came neither eating or drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon’; the Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ Yet wisdom is vindicated by her deeds”, or alternatively translated, “vindicated by her children” (Matthew 11.18-19; NRSV). Wisdom is vindicated by results – Jesus ministry brought forth healings, repentance, and changed lives.
Our lectionary reading then omits verses 20-24, a section the NRSV entitles “Woes to Unrepentant Cities”. In this section Jesus reproaches “the cities in which most of his deeds of power had been done, because they did not repent” (Matthew 11.20; NRSV). Had the deeds performed in Chorazin and Bethsaida been done in Tyre and Sidon, “they would have repented long ago”; and as for Capernaum, had the deeds done there been done in Sodom, it would still be standing. Hence, Capernaum will not see heaven but will be brought down to Hades (Matthew 11.21-24; NRSV).
Jesus then prayed, “I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will [or was well pleasing in your sight]. All things have been handed over to me by my Father; and 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” (Matthew 11.25-27; NRSV).
How are we to understand this? Are we to forsake wisdom and intelligence? Hardly! Wisdom and intelligence are gifts from God, but all too often, our refusal to acknowledge them as gifts leads to arrogance. Jesus’ words may be seen as a criticism levied against the Sadducees and the Pharisees who were caught up in their knowledge and power such that they could not see the validity of Jesus’ ministry. True wisdom leads the highly educated person to realize how much they do not know and how little they understand.
Wisdom and education should promote epistemological humility. As I recently pointed out to another audience, both fundamentalism and modernism suffer from the lack of epistemological humility. Fundamentalists assert their claims while refusing to consider other points of view; modernists maintain that we can dismiss much of the Christian faith as simply myth. One of the reasons I so appreciate the Anglican-Episcopal position is it seeks a balance among tradition, scripture, faith, and experience. There is an openness to mutually exploring other points of view.
Those who respond to Jesus’ invitation to a new life are like infants in that, unlike the arrogant and sophisticated, they understand and acknowledge their need. Think of the small child in challenging or frightening situations who willingly reaches out and takes the hand of an adult.
Having said these things, Jesus then extended an invitation: “Come to me, all you that are weary and 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” (Matthew 11.28-30; NRSV).
Is Jesus saying our life as Christians will be easy? I think most Christians would dispute that. I think most of us would admit to feeling weary and carrying some pretty heavy burdens. What about the loss of a job, a failing marriage, a terminal illness, financial ruin? Even if one is fortunate to escape such things, one certainly knows others who are living through them and suffers with them.
So how are we to understand Jesus? Let’s begin with “yoke.” In our culture, one rarely encounters a yoke. Merriam-Wester provides the following definition: “ a wooden bar or frame by which two draft animals (such as oxen) are joined at the heads or necks for working together” (https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/yoke). A young inexperienced ox is teamed with an older experienced ox. As they are yoked together, the young ox learns its duties from the older ox. Understood from this perspective, Jesus invites us to be yoked with him, to learn the Way of Love from him.
In the Jewish culture, the law was traditionally seen as a yoke. But even further, one invited to study with an elderly rabbi was said to take his yoke upon him. Heavy demands accompanied the rabbinical yoke and the yoke of the law. Here is how James Warren, in referring to the imitation of Christ, sums it up:
Jesus played the same basic game as the Rabbis, therefore, gathering students who would imitate him in everything, trying to become as much like him as they could. But Jesus’ yoke was “easy” and the burden of carrying it was light. For he would put no obstacle in front of his students. He would not weight them down with the impressive heaviness of his own accomplishments, seeking their admiration, and looking to them as mirrors to reflect back his own glory. He did not want anything from them in an acquisitive sense. He did not want to be their scandal, leading them on to become like him, only to turn against them when they actually began to rival him. It is because Jesus is like this that imitating him is safe … There is no risk of getting caught up in violent exchange with Jesus, for regardless of what we do to him, there will be no imitation coming back at us from his side of the field to inflame, validate, or feed the passion of rivalry. Through his nonviolent compassion, servanthood, humility, generosity, and love Jesus becomes the model for a new humanity (http://girardianlectionary.net/reflections/year-a/proper_9a/).
Jesus said his yoke is easy; the Greek word for “easy” is “chrestos” which everywhere else in scripture is translated as “good” or “gentle.” When we are yoked with Jesus, we are yoked to love as opposed to the law. In this respect, Jesus’ yoke is easy, it is good and gentle.
But what about severe illness or death? That is not an easy yoke! When yoked with Jesus, we stand in a relationship of immense love. Yes, we will experience difficult times, but Jesus’ yoke is easier than other yokes. Once again, we recall the words, “All that we have is a gift from Thee, O Lord, and of thine own have we given thee.” Even our relationships are gifts from God. We enjoy them for a time while knowing they shall end. Our natural propensity is to curse tragic loss, and rightly so, but when yoked with Jesus, we are called to transform our cursing into thanks and praise. The Holy Spirit, the Comforter, grieves with us. Our deep grief is an expression of immense love.
“Come unto 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 my yoke is gentle, and my burden is light.”