July 5, 2020
Our scripture today comes from the gospel of Matthew. And what I think I’m going to do first is just read the passage and then we’ll see what we can make of it. So listen for the Word of God as it speaks to you today from Matthew 11.
READ Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30
I had a hard time finding my way into this passage this week. I think part of it was because the lectionary skips verses and just reading the passage the way it is presented makes it difficult to discern the context. Then there’s the last few verses… the famous verses of the passage… “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 light.”… these verses… I don’t know… they were like the 900lb. gorilla with all the baggage that is connected to them. I think we’ve pulled that verse out because we like so much the words “easy” and “light”… and “rest”. I like that word rest. Especially right now. I would like to know that word better. Wouldn’t mind some easy and light too.
But I digress.
With these verses, it seems the word that gets passed over is “yoke”… take my yoke upon you. Maybe it’s just me… easy, light, rest… these are not words I would usually associate with the word yoke… which I think of as an implement of work. The yoke wasn’t a fashion accessory. It had a purpose… to direct the wearer towards a specific work. Like plowing a field. I hear the word yoke and I think about the farmer putting a yoke on his ox in order to direct the ox to do the work of plowing the field. Kinda feel like the ox might have a word or two to say to the farmer if the ox were able to speak a word or two about the yoke that was put upon him.
This whole chapter in Matthew starts off with John the Baptist being arrested and put in jail. And while he is there he gets some of his disciples to go and ask Jesus if he is the one… is Jesus the messiah they’ve been waiting for or should they be looking and waiting for another. In this gospel John and Jesus apparently don’t know one another well. And Jesus sends back a message to John through John’s disciples saying, “Tell John what you hear and see; the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised and the poor have good news brought to them.” Now… if I were writing this gospel I might finish that up with something like… “So what do you think? Am I the one or do you need to keep on waiting?” Put a little snark into it.
But here is Jesus describing his yoke… this light, easy, restful yoke. I look at that list and I see hard, difficult, and impossible. What Matthew describes with this answer to John is not just the work of Jesus alone. What Matthew describes is the expectations for the church that developed in Jesus’ wake. This is the ministerial yoke we place upon ourselves. Or this ought to be the ministerial yoke we place upon ourselves. I mean… imagine if that description fit we churches that sit on every corner. Put into your mind the number of churches in Winston Salem alone and imagine if those churches reflected their devotion to Christ in that way… the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised and… and… the poor have good news brought to them. That is a mission statement that puts all other church mission statements to shame. Imagine if that was the yoke on all the churches… a yoke like the one that connects oxen together to go out and effectively work in the field. Imagine what such a yoke would mean to the work being done in the mission field.
Hard, difficult, and impossible. Why? Not because it can’t be done. Not because in our God given ingenuity… or our God given gifts and talents… we couldn’t collectively find a way. It can’t be done because we are still like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to one another, ‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn.’ Our expectations of what should be throw off the yoke of Christ for the yoke of our own choosing and our making. We still want Christ to react to what we are doing… to react and respond appropriately with blessings, praise and rewards for our actions. Yet discipleship means that we react and respond appropriately to what Christ does… that we react and set to work on those things that our Christian freedom opens for us. That’s what Jesus is getting at when he talks to them about John… John who did great work… John who if Jesus asked the crowd to describe what they heard and saw… could give a remarkable list illustrating God at work through this man. But no. No… John was weird. He came neither eating nor drinking and they say, “He has a demon!” John didn’t fit the expectations of the profile. Too weird with his camel hair clothing and honeycomb stuck to his beard. That’s not the way it should be. Out there in the river yelling about a baptism of repentance instead of bringing his message to the synagogue to the good and right people gathered there. If Facebook existed at the time then there would be meme’s galore about just because John is a wild man it doesn’t make him holy. Weirdness doesn’t mean he’s from God. Prophet Bob is much more in line with our prophet profile expectations. He’s the one to watch and listen to because he fits the profile. People like him. He’s popular and well respected among the right people. That Jesus fellow is always hanging out with the wrong crowd… a friend of tax collectors and sinners… a glutton and a drunkard. He doesn’t fit the profile. He doesn’t fit our expectations. Messiah Bob hangs out with all the right people… has forged all the right connections and gives us the ministry we want. Messiah Bob is appreciative of us and knows how to work the crowd well. Now Messiah Bob… his yoke is easy and light I’ll tell you what.
There’s a difference between recognizing a revelation of God and being the one to dictate the revelation to God… wouldn’t you say?
Yet wisdom is vindicated by her deeds. Talk is cheap. Makes me think of that great verse from James… “But someone will say, ‘You have faith and I have works.’ Show me your faith apart from your works, and I by my works will show you my faith.” Truly I tell you, if we were able to convert talk into energy we would have enough power to fuel the planet until the end of time. Talk. Spin. Lies. The energy it takes to tell itching ears what they want to hear. All the flute playing in the hopes of a dance. All the wailing trying to get you to mourn with them. It obscures the real truth of God that is sitting right in front of us. I swear… one of the things I observe so much today from all ends of the multi-spectrum is how hard people work to make others believe their point of view… their understanding is not only right… but the right one above and beyond all other ways of seeing. It’s a hard yoke to carry because part of carrying it is the effort it takes to deny the observable truth of actions and results in favor of ensuring that this yoke is the end all and be all and only real yoke despite what your eyes see and your ears hear. Those other yokes are yokes in name only. This is the one true yoke. To use our faith language as a means to understand… imagine… say… the Pharisees yoke and what it took to bear that yoke without question. Imagine the weight you have to bear just to keep that yoke squarely on your shoulders even if by the works being done... the promise of that yoke wasn’t being borne out. Imagine how often wisdom would have to be murdered to hide her deeds in favor of the expected outcome… or to faithfully toe the party line.
In contrast… in contrast then, I can see how the yoke of Christ would give rest. That in comparison the yoke of Christ… taking it upon your shoulders and learning from it… humble and gentle in heart… I can see how you might find it to be restful for the soul… because the yoke of Christ allows wisdom’s deeds to come to fruition. Why would we fight to keep the blind blind? Or the lame lame? What is the wisdom that comes from letting the lepers rot away in their disease? Why would we withhold good news from the poor? Is the advantage we gain from such actions truly a blessing to us? Truth will win out in the end. It can’t be hidden forever despite the wailings of children in the marketplace. Truth will win out.
I want to read to you a section of a short commentary on this passage written by Jennifer T. Kaalund who is the Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Iona College in New Rochelle, NY…
When Jesus declares that wisdom is vindicated by her deeds, he is lifting up an important aspect of his Jewish heritage, the wisdom tradition. Wisdom grants us the ability to understand beyond our sensory perception. If wisdom is vindicated by her deeds, what are her deeds? Wisdom provides order to chaos. (Proverbs 8:27–31). She grants us humility (Psalm 11:12) and protects and guards us (Psalm 4:6). Wisdom is a life-giving gift that comes with the Lord’s favor. According to the book of James, godly wisdom “is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, and easy to be entreated, full of mercy and good fruits, without partiality, and without hypocrisy” (James 3:17). The results of wisdom are evident.
I think when it comes to finding our way into this passage in Matthew’s gospel… those are good words to open this passage in order to reveal the living Word of God. So let’s end here today with an Amen.