Romans 7: 15-25
Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30
16“But to what will I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to one another, 17‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn.’ 18For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon’; 19the Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ Yet wisdom is vindicated by her deeds.”
25At that time Jesus said, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants; 26yes, Father, for such was your gracious will. 27All things have been handed over to me by my Father; and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him. 28“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. 29Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”
Well, here we are: July 4 weekend. A weekend of celebrating American freedom with waving flags, booming fireworks and rousing national anthems. But here, in the quiet words of Jesus, we receive an invitation into a very different kind of freedom.
This reading from Matthew begins with Jesus expressing some serious frustration with the community. The earlier part of this chapter involves many – even John himself beginning to question whether or not Jesus is really the one they have been waiting for. And here, Jesus bemoans the fact that they are constantly dissatisfied. They are like children in the marketplace who cannot decide whether they want to play wedding games or funeral games and end up playing neither. They have been waiting for Messiah. John didn’t eat or drink and everyone thought he was a demon. Then, Jesus shows up eating and drinking with outsiders, and everyone called him a glutton and a drunkard. This generation finds reason to take offense at both John and Jesus and thus to evade the call of both.
We are a tough crowd to please, we humans. Paul hit the nail on the head in his letter to the Romans when he named our inability to do the good we know we should. Jesus is clearly angry here. But still, even when we are such utter disappointments, there is grace.
“Come to me you who labor and are 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 is light” (11:28-30).
“The background to this text is found in the Wisdom of Jesus ben Sirach, a book written by a Jewish scribe in around 125 B.C.E. The author invites people to study the law with these words:
Put your necks under her yoke, and let your soul accept her burden. See, I have worked but little and found much rest.
“The yoke of the law” is a common phrase in rabbinic writings. Jesus was not so much criticizing the law itself, but the scribes who load people down with burdens hard to bear.
‘You who labor and are carrying heavy burdens’ refers to those who have lost the spirit of the law (constant gratitude to and mindfulness of God) in the letter—believing that adherence to a multitude of precepts and commandments constitutes righteousness.
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.” (Alyce M. McKenzie)
Many of you may be familiar with the old anecdote about catching monkeys in the wild. When trying to catch a monkey for the zoo trappers take a small cage out into the jungle. Inside the cage they place a bunch of bananas and then they close it, locking the bananas inside. A monkey coming along and spotting the bananas, will reach through the narrow rungs of the cage and grab a banana. But he can’t get it out. And no matter how hard he tries—twisting his hand back and forth—he can’t pull his hand through the rungs while hanging on to the banana. And even with the approaching trappers he won’t let go of the banana. For the trappers, it’s simply a matter then, of coming up and gettting the monkey. (from Alyce M. McKenzie)
The monkey thought he had a good thing. Why would he let go of it? Faithful Jews thought following the letter of the law was a good thing – why would they neglect that?
What are you holding onto? What are the things that seem like exactly what you want, but they are trapping you – keeping you from experiencing true freedom?
That is what Jesus is talking about here.
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. He is inviting us to let go of things we really might prefer to hang onto. These would include, both in his time and ours,
viewing yourself as superior to others,
thinking that I am entitled to a more comfortable life with more material possessions,
making a vocation of excluding and avoiding the unclean and the sinner, those on the bottom rung of the social ladder.
Sometimes, we are so engrossed in the sin & injustice of the world, we begin to view those kinds of things as our birthright and most cherished possessions. And to be required to let go of them sounds like sacrifice. And it is. But it is on the way to a life of being forgiven, being refreshed, and being empowered to live with humility, grace, courage, and compassion. That is what a life of freedom is all about for us as Christians. It is not about what rights we have to do this or that. It is about the peace that comes when we let go of what the world tells us will make us powerful and instead, choose to humbly live into the grace Christ offers.
Now, as Elizabeth Johnson reminds us, “It is not that Jesus invites us to a life of ease. Following him will be full of risks and challenges, as he has made abundantly clear. He calls us to a life of humble service, but it is a life of freedom and joy instead of slavery. It is life yoked to Jesus under God’s gracious and merciful reign, free from the burden of sin and the need to prove oneself, free to rest deeply and securely in God’s grace” (Elizabeth Johnson).
Jesus challenges us to lay down our burdens in order to participate in his blessings. The question is, will we sacrifice the burdens to make way for the blessings?
What do you have to let go of? What burdens are you carrying that keep you from participating in the abundant life Jesus offers?
Jesus says, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” As the Rolling Stones so poignantly sang, “You can’t always get what you want. But if you try sometimes, you just might find. You get what you need.” Amen.