This is an interesting image, and I can see why the church has installed it at Compline, the bedtime office. If we have taken Christ’s yoke, we often do need a reminder that he has already taken responsibility for all that we are carrying around with us. And when you open your Prayer Book and read that verse before bed, there is a sense of letting everything go into the arms of God. You may even find that making that act of trust each night means you sleep better. I recommend it, just as I recommend all the other aspects of the Prayer Book system. Page 127, before bed. Give it a try.
In reading Matthew 11 this week, though, I was struck that if we look at the context in which that image sits, we hear it differently than if we just read those few verses in isolation. We use the word "burden" informally to mean something that troubles us. And in that sense, some of us today may be very aware of carrying a burden right now. Maybe you’ve just heard that your job is being cut, or that one of your children keeps getting in fights at daycare. Maybe you struggle with anxiety, or maybe your spouse is clinically depressed. There are so many things that hurt people in a fallen world, and over the centuries Christians have taken comfort in the fact that Jesus does, indeed, help you with those kinds of things. But I don’t think this section of Scripture is so much about that, if you read it in full.
The excerpts of the 11th chapter of Matthew we read today, and even more the chapter as a whole, suggest to me that the idea of the burden here is talking less about personal troubles, and more about whatever keeps you from taking what Jesus calls his yoke. If we’re going to take on that sweet belonging to and being commanded by Christ, that divinely given stance where the human heart can at last find lightness and rest – if we’re going to receive that, the kind of burden in view here is whatever keeps you from receiving it. It’s a swap. Would you rather wear a yoke, or carry a burden?
Almost this entire passage, including the parts we just heard, is about people who oppose and misunderstand and complain about Jesus in one way or another. They may be active opponents or passive ones, but they don’t want what he offers. Depending how you count, the chapter has perhaps 6 examples of that; we only heard 2 today. But even in what we did hear, notice that what Jesus is reacting to as he speaks of the crowds is this refusal of him, this refusal to comprehend and accept the work of God. We also heard Jesus lead into the section about taking his yoke with comments reacting to the same refusal. There he teaches about how we human beings will not and cannot know God without help from God. People will say no unless God shows them different. And only then does he go into the invitation to people who are carrying extra weight, saying he has something better.
So all these people who are saying no, why do they do that? Well, essentially because they’re carrying something already that precludes approving of Jesus and accepting what he is talking about. What Jesus offers cannot be had unless human beings first lay down whatever we de facto come in valuing more than him, answering to more than him. Isn’t that really the heavy, exhausting burden that Jesus has noticed in all these stories that lead up to his announcement that we can get free? It takes a terrible toll on human beings to answer, not to the genuine, tender, insightful God who is God, but to something less. To anything less! We can’t see that, usually, until God himself actually shows us, but it’s true.
Look at the text we read, at the burdens just these 2 of the 6 examples are carrying. The ones Jesus compares to “children in the marketplace” who are calling each other out for not celebrating or mourning on demand with the group: What are they answering to? Why do they mock Jesus? Because they are carrying a prior commitment to be in the majority, to do the appropriate thing at the appropriate time. Each of us knows many people who answer to that demand. If that comes first for you, that burden will keep you from ever fully shouldering his yoke. It’s a swap. Would you rather hold onto that burden, or wear Christ’s yoke?
Or look at the critiques against John the Baptist that Jesus mentions. “John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon.’” These people too have prior commitments that mean they can’t recognize God at work because John seems to them too moralistic, too extreme. But then the same people make the polar opposite critiques against Jesus. “The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’” So John was too focused on morality, but Jesus isn’t moral enough. John didn’t enjoy life enough, but Jesus enjoys life too much. Plus, scandalously, he’s “a friend of tax collectors and sinners.” To them, Jesus seems to invest in losers; he is willing to be seen with the wrong people. So what’s the prior commitment they’re carrying? What do they answer to? Let’s call it a religiosity that will never make waves: a self-managed life where a decent amount of faith fits in, but in which you’re at no risk of being swept away by love. What comes first is morality, respectability, self-regulation. So again: It’s a swap. Would you rather hold onto those burdens, or wear Christ’s yoke?
In the excerpts of the chapter we read, those are some of the prior commitments that people answer to and that stop them from being able to access what Jesus offers. But of course you and I have our own, don’t we? No human being comes to Jesus without prior ideals and assumptions on their shoulders that have to be laid down. They vary from person to person and time to time, but in a fallen world we all de facto have put ourselves under the weight of things we answer to more ultimately than we answer to God. Some of them are big and obvious: the esteem of a mentor or a parent, addictions, success at work. Those are the easiest to recognize. But most burdens we need to trade in, really, are quite trivial and ordinary, assumptions we carry around about what’s a given without ever having examined them -- which makes them more powerful and spiritually dangerous. We barely see them. It takes an intervention from outside to show us. It takes the Word of God breaking in to reveal that what we have been taking as the natural way things are is in fact a spiritual burden that is crushing us and from which Jesus has come to set us free.
You cannot realistically answer to Jesus if you are already answering to something else. And if you think you are not already answering to something else, I suggest you do the experiment of asking God to show you what all you answer to, other than him. What are the routine non-negotiables to which God plays second fiddle in your life? Any goal and any love that pragmatically preoccupies you and sets your agenda more than God; anything other than God that you feel has to be there for life to go on as it should. What are you carrying around that you don’t even realize keeps you from finding it plausible that Jesus is qualified to be your master? What unnoticed assumptions are on your shoulders that make it hard for you to imagine the freedom of Jesus’ yoke? You won’t figure this out by yourself on your own steam. The Holy Spirit has to show you. If you have the courage, you might ask him to.
Take my yoke says Jesus – such a physical, routine, human image, isn’t it? He doesn’t say buy my product, display my bumper sticker, vote for my platform. He says: drop all your other masters, put the yoke over your head, adjust it onto your shoulders, be mine, and start plowing. Wear my ownership of you practically, so everyone can see it, and engage in my work with your very next step.
Unlike a bumper sticker or a purchase, you can’t obey this command passively, you can’t obey it while actually de facto answering to all sorts of other masters, you can’t obey it just in your brain. That’s not Christianity. Following Jesus happens in your body, as Deacon Caleb pointed out last week. It happens in “Being” something, to mention the title of the Rowan Williams book we’re reading together this summer at Emmanuel – Being Christian. It happens in small and large actions that cut against the grain of all those other masters we hardly realize we’re already answering to. It happens in making that swap: our burden for Christ’s yoke.
Make the swap once, and you’ll discover you have many more places where it needs to be made; but you’ll also discover there is no better master than this one, the Beloved we’re designed for. No one truer or kinder, nobody better to answer to than Jesus.