Psalm 145:8-14 | Matthew 11:25-30
Our gospel reading today brings us another of those well known, often quoted texts; the sort of thing that gets printed in greeting cards and on religious posters and calendars. And for good reason, too; “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest” is a great promise, a word of reassurance, of comfort, that we so need to hear in a world full of burdens, full of weary people.
And yet I wonder if we sometimes manage to read both too much and too little into these words; if we take away a message which is only superficially comforting, and miss the real offer that Jesus is holding out to us.
Because as anyone who has striven to live the Christian life; committed themselves to living as part of the kingdom of God; and persevered for any length of time knows all too well, it isn’t all easy, all comfort, all rest. The truth is that, though there are times when God’s spirit in our lives and God’s people around us do lift our heavy loads for us, times when we do find rest in the comfort of our faith and our community; there are other times when it just aint so.
And there is plenty in the gospels which tells us that it won’t be so: “foxes have holes and birds have nests, but the son of man has nowhere to lay his head” “if anyone would follow me, he must take up his cross daily” “if they persecuted me, they will also persecute you”. And we know that for those who chose to become followers of the way, life was anything but easy – persecution, discrimination, rejection, and even martyrdom were the daily fare of the early Church.
So if Jesus told his followers clearly enough that being his people would not be easy, not be safe, and not be comfortable, what is it that he is offering here, promising here, in words which seem to say exactly the opposite?
What are the heavy burdens that Jesus is talking about?
There’s actually only one other place in the gospels where Jesus uses that phrase, the image of someone carrying a heavy burden. And that is when he speaks of the scribes and the pharisees: “They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others”. And from all we know of Jesus’ words about the pharisees, what he’s talking about is the proliferation of religious laws; details of tithing, of sacrifices, of food laws and sabbath laws. The heavy burdens placed on people’s shoulders by the pharisees were not the natural hardships of life, of making ends meet, of dealing with health and work, drought and flood: no-one could blame the pharisees for those things! The burdens that the pharisees added to all that life already threw at the people were the burdens of religious duty.
And if we read on, the very next story, in Matthew chapter 12, gives us a beautiful illustration of just this:
At that time Jesus went through the cornfields on the sabbath; his disciples were hungry, and they began to pluck heads of grain and to eat. When the Pharisees saw it, they said to him, ‘Look, your disciples are doing what is not lawful to do on the sabbath.’
The sabbath law was an important part of first century Jewish culture; but in this attitude, the pharisees took a gift – a day of rest – and turned it into a burden. Did they really believe that the commandment “on that day you shall do no work” was intended to rule out plucking corn to eat as you walked through the fields?
If you hear Jesus’ words again, but with that image now in your mind, they take on a rather different – and rather more pointed – aspect. You who have had so many religious rules and laws and requirements laid upon you that you can no longer carry the load: come to me, take my yoke, for it is light. I will not weigh you down with such rules.
What the pharisees had done was, sadly, simple human nature. The whole of the law, the Torah, the way of life to which God’s people had been called, was meant to be life giving, blessing, freeing; it was meant to describe a quality of relationships, a sense of justice, a holy reverence, a culture of reconciliation; and yes, there were laws, rules, to govern that society, to give shape and description to what it meant to be God’s, but they were never the point, the laws were a means to an end; the sabbath, as Jesus said, was made for people, not people for the sabbath.
But it’s always easier to look at the rules, the black-and-white: easier, because it allows us to draw lines, to decide who is in and who is out. Rules enable us to include and exclude, to say who we are, and by implication, who is not us.
But even when we are not using rules to decide who is in or out, we still like them, still find security in them; rules give us a sense of control, a way of measuring how we are doing.
And so we too make rules for our faith. That you’ll come to Church, at least most Sundays. That you’ll put something suitable in the offering plate (or make sure it’s covered by direct giving). That you’ll read the Bible and pray each day – or each week. That you’ll come along and support things the Church is doing. That you’ll put your name down on the rosters.
And none of those are bad things! It’s not that these rules in our faith are harmful. God gave the law to the people of Israel, because they needed it.
The problem is not with rules per-se, but with two dangers that seem to be always there alongside the rules.
The first is the temptation to impose our rules on others. When we feel we have the right to tell others (either directly, or more likely, in our approval or dissaproval, acceptance or rejection, of the choices they make) – when we tell other that if they are ‘true’ Christians, this is how they must worship, this is how they must organise their families, this is who they may or may not fall in love with, this is what they should think, or say, or vote. This is not to advocate anarchy, every community needs to have its rules, its limits; but whenever we do impose a rule on our community of faith, we must know that we place a burden upon others, and that there is the risk it will be too heavy to bear.
But the greater danger, I believe, is the second: that we mistake the rules for the reality. That we think or feel that as long as we are keeping the rules of “Good christian living”, we are living the lives Jesus called us to.
The pharisees were very good at keeping the rules – later on in the gospel, Jesus will berate them: “woe to you, you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness”.
What we do is make things that should be easy, hard, and things that should be hard, too easy. We take rules which were supposed to be there to help us, and we make of them heavy burdens for ourselves and others; and then we have no energy left to lift the real heavy loads of our faith: to fight for justice, to love stranger and enemy, to forgive those who do us wrong, to protect creation, to speak for the voiceless, to feed the hungry, care for the sick, visit the prisoner, protect those who cannot protect themselves.
We don’t need the heavy burdens of religious rules. Living the radical, world changing lives that Jesus calls us to is hard enough, and will take all the energy we have, and all the help we can get from one another and the grace of God.
Let’s not burden ourselves – or one another – with the stuff we don’t need to carry.