As we consider what the Gospel of Matthew teaches us today, let us also hear the words of Psalm 145: 8-10, “The LORD is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. The LORD is good to all, and God’s compassion is over all that God has made. All your works shall give thanks to you, O LORD, and all your faithful shall bless you.”
What would it look like for us to bless God today!?
Perhaps one way to bless God is to reorient our lives to the path of love, compassion, justice and peace that Jesus walked. To do this we might consider taking on two faith-filled actions.
First, we turn to face Jesus to unload our heavy burdens to find rest.
Second, we take on Jesus’ yolk to be restored, to be able to take impactful, faithful actions with our lives.
Traditionally, we have been taught that all this passage requires of us is to bring our personal burdens to God, to bring our weary bodies, minds, and spirits to God for rest. This is certainly how I have understood this text. It has brought me comfort and reminded me that I am loved by a compassionate and forgiven God. This is an all-important and good lesson of faith.
The rest Jesus offers us is to “Be” – to rest in God: to know that we are loved, forgiven, renewed in the light of Jesus Christ.
Alyce Mc Kenzie, an author for Patheos, an online space for Progressive Christians to dialogue about faith, reminds us that this rest is both immediate and future at the same time. This is interesting, I imagine we have experienced the immediate nature of this rest but have we gotten the depth of understanding that this rest is an ongoing spiritual phenomenon – God’s is constantly offering us rest and renewal.
McKenzie also highlights this important distinction about the rest Jesus offers: This rest is not inner contentment and inactivity. It comes from returning to God and faithfulness to God’s will.
If we put these two learnings together we realize that the rest we are offered leads us to something much deeper or profoundly transformative that what we receive when we unload only our personal fatigue and anxieties.
The depth comes from understanding what it means to take on Jesus’ yolk. Now, for sure, we are not farming people, and even if we were, most farmers in the Front Range do not use oxen to plow their fields.
Here’s a quick description of the concept of yolk, as Jesus might have understood it being a part of an agrarian society:
David Holwerda tells us that a yoke “both restrains and enables. It is simultaneously a burden and a possibility. The question confronting humanity is, whose yoke or what yoke does one put on? No one lives without a yoke…” (The Lectionary Commentary: The Gospels). It reminds me of the speaker who once said … “Everyone gives their heart to something; be sure that what you give your heart to is worthy of it.” (Sermon Seeds)
I was thankful to God when I read Rachel Held Evans’s explanation of why Jesus says his yolk is hard: “The yoke is hard because the teachings of Jesus are radical: enemy love, unconditional forgiveness, extreme generosity. The yoke is easy because it is accessible to all–the studied and (the uneducated), the rich and the poor, the religious and the nonreligious.” (Evolving in Monkey Town)
Let’s consider Evan’s suggestion about why Jesus’ yolk is heavy together with Howerda’s definition of yolk as something that both restrains and enables.
To do this well, I will share more from Alyce McKenzie. She offers this reflection:
The yolk of Jesus is humility and concern for the despised of every age …
In order to answer Jesus’ invitation to participate in his deeds of power and his life of joy, we have to lay down certain burdens that we have mistaken for blessings …
To be told we can lay down our burdens sounds so sweet, until we realize that, in Jesus’ eyes, many things we view as blessings are actually burdens.
These would include, both in his time and ours, judging others, viewing oneself as occupying a superior position to others and entitled to a more comfortable life with more material possessions, and making a vocation of excluding and avoiding the unclean and the sinner, those on the bottom rung of the social ladder.
Lastly McKenzie offers:
To those (of us) who view those things as (our) birthright and most cherished possessions, to be required to divest oneself of them sounds like sacrifice ….
But it is on the way to a life of being forgiven, being refreshed, and being empowered to live with the humility, discernment, courage, and compassion …. of Jesus.
If we take a careful look at what this would look like in 2017:
- If only we would give up the prejudice of seeing black men as a threat because of the color of their skin;
- If only we would give up the privilege of security at the cost of the lives of women, men and children murdered in our wars for our national security.
- If only we would give up our fear of immigrants and refugees, realizing that they are fleeing varying forms of violence, war and economic collapse of which our country is often complicit in supporting through funding and training.
- If only we would give up blind allegiance to nationalism and to our national leadership destroying basic foundations of human rights such as healthcare, housing, clean water, fair pay for labor, freedom from persecution for different religious, ethnic, racial, sexual orientation, or gender.
- If only we would give up our level of consumption of the Earth’s natural resources, turning to renewable energy, smaller homes, eco-friendly cars, less waste of food and less output of poisons, toxins, and literal trash.
- If only we would give up our obsession with gun and violence.
“(Jesus) challenges us to lay down our burdens to participate in his blessings.” (McKenzie)
If only we would take concrete actions to lay down our burdens that we consider blessings – our neighborhood, cities, countryside, and world could be rooted in the love, forgiveness, compassion and justice of God.