Jesus responds to our hopelessness by inviting us into his open arms
Liz Stuart, 5 July 2020
Romans 7: 15–25a; Matthew 11: 16–19, 25–30
I’ve often thought it must have been a spiritually wearying time to be alive during the Reformation in this country. One minute you were a Roman Catholic, then you were expected to be a sort of Protestant, then a harder sort of Protestant, then back to being a Roman Catholic, then a sort of Protestant again. Wearying. I wonder what Jesus made of it; I wonder what he makes of it still.
We may get a hint from our gospel reading today, where Jesus playfully exposes the contrariness of human nature. He uses the imagery of two groups of children playing in a marketplace. One group’s playing at weddings (flutes and dancing were associated with marriage), but their mates on the opposite side of the square won’t join in. They’re playing at funerals, wailing like professional mourners, but their friends aren’t joining in with them either.
In Jesus’ day, some people found John the Baptist just too ascetic and concluded that he must be of the devil. Jesus they found too sybaritic, too joyful, too indiscriminate, and dismissed him as a glutton and a drunkard – which according to the book of Deuteronomy are characteristics of a rebellious son, who should be stoned to death (Deuteronomy 21: 18). Their restless, contrary, unsatisfiable hearts prevented them from seeing God right in front of their eyes. And it’s not just them, it’s us. I don’t know about you, but I so identify with St Paul’s despairing analysis of himself that we heard in our first reading today. I try to do good, I try to be good, but I end up doing the opposite. I am spiritually hopeless.
Jesus responds to our hopelessness not by berating us, or even by demanding that we do better, but by opening his arms to us and inviting us into them, ‘Come to me, you who are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest’. Riding roughshod over our rejection and foolishness, and the weariness that comes from being contrary, Jesus does all the work, scoops us up into the heart of God to rest. The Greek word translated ‘rest’ here is used in different ways in the Greek translation of the Hebrew scriptures. It’s used for Sabbath rest, it’s used for God’s promises of salvation, for wisdom and for the peace of the soul. It is what we yearn for; but we can never achieve it by ourselves. It’s sheer gift, sheer grace.
Jesus says that his yoke is easy and his burden is light. Here he is conjuring up the image of an ox pulling a cart full of some sort of cargo. He is the ox and we are the burden – the burden he is pulling towards God. But his love for us is such that he characterises it as easy and light – easy and light! – to pull the whole of humanity in all its bitterness, and foolishness, and contrariness, into God. He’s glad to do it, because far from being the rebellious son, he is the Beloved Son who knows God’s heart intimately, and he knows that no one is a burden to God.
Jesus’ love for us is such that he characterises it as easy and light – easy and light! – to pull the whole of humanity in all its bitterness, and foolishness, and contrariness, into God.
And most people then and now just do not get it. They want religion to be a burden, they want it to be something they can control, something that they can achieve, something that involves learning. In the Wisdom tradition the Torah, the Law, was spoken of as a yoke and as a burden, but it was a burden that could bring rest and refreshment. Jesus saw how that burden was laid heavily upon the shoulders of some people during his lifetime and he sought to relieve it. In his day it was only those with the least power, those with the least control over their lives, those with the least learning, those who were burdened most, who understood who he was and what he offered: the open heart of God.
To those who understand that we are completely dependent upon grace – on Jesus bundling us up, laying us in that cart and dragging us into the heart of God – Jesus offers an invitation: ‘Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart’. This is an invitation to what Pope Francis has called ‘the revolution of tenderness’. To take on Jesus’ yoke is to regard human beings in all our contrary messiness with such infinite delight that they dance as light as a feather through our lives – objects of joy, not burdens to be borne, for no one is a burden to God.
Brennan Manning has noted, ‘The heart enveloped in the tenderness of God passes that tenderness around indiscriminately, making no distinction between the worthy and the unworthy’. And that is what we are called to do. Sometimes the revolution of tenderness rises to the surface; I think it has risen during Covid-19. But most often it has to work underground as a form of resistance to what is going on on the surface. The Church is La Résistance of the revolution of tenderness. Vive La Résistance! Amen.