The Lightest Burden
8th Sunday After Pentecost
6 July 2008
Scott Peck’s bestseller The Road Less Traveled begins with the famous first sentence, “Life is difficult.” On the surface, it seems such an obvious statement. But we wrestle with the truth of it, we struggle to accept it. Most of the time most of us function as if difficulty in life is actually an aberration. We seem to believe that life is actually supposed to be comfortable, convenient, easy, and fun. “Life is difficult,” the first sentence said. Yes it is. But we don’t really think it’s supposed to be.
We chafe at the difficulties. Some of us rebel at whatever burdens life harnesses us with. We do what we can to throw off the things that make life hard. We live in an era when convenience seems to be a sort of ultimate value – and so we have come almost to believe we have a right to a dinner that only takes 15 minutes to prepare, a shirt that doesn’t require ironing, and a computer that zips to the next page as quickly as we can click. As a society, we seem to be trying to turn convenience and comfort into an art form.
Yet for all our trying, life doesn’t get any less difficult, does it? Not really. The microwave, the dishwasher, the remote control, the car – have they made us happier? Have they made us freer? Or have they just freed up our time to get more done, and to expect to get more done?
We are not more well-rested than our ancestors. We are not more well-rounded. We are not more well-read or more well-fed, not in terms of true nurture and nutrition at least. We are simply busier. And maybe more tired.
And so Jesus’ words this morning come with a particular jolt: Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.
The invitation could not be more plain and compelling. Sweet as honey, strong as steel, his words come at us with a force and attraction that meet us at a very deep level. They come with the power to speak into any situation, into any heart. Come to me, you weary, you who carry heavy burdens. Come to me, and I will give you rest. It sounds so good.
But the invitation and the promise are not the same as what all our many consumer goods offer. This is not an offer of convenience. Not an offer of a particular kind of ease. Not even an offer of the kind of comfort so many of us think we are looking for. Jesus is not promising more pleasure and less pain. He is not promising a better life. If you are looking for the secret to the best life now (1) – the one where things go the way you want, and good things come to you, then you’ll need to look elsewhere. This is not what he is offering. If we answer his invitation, it does not change certain facts of life – illness, death, disaster, these remain. Life in some of the most basic respects, will still be difficult. These are not the burdens he seeks to take from us.
His words go to a deeper place, and to bigger burdens. The burden he seeks to overthrow is the burden of how we manage our existence. Our management of our own lives is, in large part, about managing and dealing with our fears and anxieties. Kierkegaard argued that in all of us is an element of despair, whether we are consciously aware of it or not. Augustine believed that restlessness drives us all, our whole lives. Tillich argued that “The law of religion is the great attempt of man to overcome his anxiety and restlessness and despair, [to close the gap within himself, and to reach immortality, spirituality, and perfection].” (2) To be human is to live with a basic anxiety and restlessness; religion is how we try to manage that.
Some would argue that this is not the case for everyone, because there are so many irreligious people in the world. I would argue that their religion simply goes by some other name. Perhaps their religion is Science. Maybe their religion is Self-Improvement. Or it could be that their religion is Football. We all want something to believe in, something to give our lives meaning and order, something to keep the deeper anxieties at bay. And so we look for a system for managing our lives. Whatever that system is, that is our religion.
When Matthew recorded these words of Jesus, he particularly had in mind the burden of religious obligation imposed by the scribes and Pharisees, which he understood to be a barrier to relationship with God. Jesus’ invitation was an invitation to be delivered of the burdens of religion. And not just the religion of the scribes and Pharisees. Throughout the history of the church, this invitation has been heard as a more general one, to all who labor under the obligations of religion, any religion. (3)
This may come as bit of a shock, seeing as how we have an entire religion built around Jesus. Most of us here consider ourselves religious people, and we see this as a good thing. But Jesus didn’t come to start a religion, he came to free us from religion. He came to overcome religious law, and to overcome any system we humans put in place to manage our anxieties and fix ourselves.
“Take my yoke,” he said. “My yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” In the Old Testament and Jewish tradition, “yoke” was a common way to speak of servitude and obedience. Rabbis spoke of the “yoke of the Torah.” A person submitted oneself in obedience to the laws of God. A yoke is something that weighs down. It is something a person lives under and strains under.
By speaking of his yoke, Jesus was placing himself on par with God’s will and God’s word. But Jesus said his yoke is easy. This is paradox, of course. How on earth could a yoke be easy? How on earth could a burden be light? This seems to be a contradiction, an oxymoron. Paul Tillich wrote, “The yoke of Jesus is easy in itself, because it is above law, and replaces the toiling and laboring with rest in our souls…. (The yoke of Jesus) is not a new demand, a new doctrine or new morals, but rather a new reality, a new being and a new power of transforming life." (4)
Have you had this experience? You are struggling in some deep inner way, maybe in bondage to some compulsion or fear or sin, and you cannot manage it yourself. And suddenly, somehow beyond your struggle comes this … grace. Something like a victory. Something like release. Something you didn’t do yourself.
Or maybe you are restless, striving for something you don’t know how to name, spinning with unexplained anxiety, and then somehow, from somewhere beyond yourself, you are grasped by a peace beyond your understanding. This is grace. He called it is his yoke, which means it comes from above and grasps us with saving force. He called it easy, which means that it is not a matter of our acting and striving, it is something he gives, before anything we can do or give. (5) And so he called it light. And it is.
His yoke is not another way for us to manage. It is not another way for us to fix ourselves or our problems. It is an invitation to lay all that down, or to throw it off, or, when we realize we can’t even do that on our own, to let him take it all for us. He will take it off our shoulders – all those old oppressive demands. All those old persistent teachings that tell us that in order for our lives to be right, we must first be good, or religious, or wise, or moral, or believing the right things. Jesus lifts all of that off our backs, and demands nothing like it. What he asks is that we simply accept such a gift as he gives. We come to him and let him take it all. We come to him and let him lay his own being across our shoulders, and around our lives, and within our hearts. It is no longer we who carry the burden of our existence, it is he who will carry us. It is not we who must get our lives in order, it is he who will hold us up and hold us together in the midst of whatever difficulties that come.
Of course this is a bit disconcerting. What morality will there be, if we are not under some obligation to be moral? What will become of our religious beliefs and institutions, if we are not under some moral obligation to maintain them? Those are not the questions to start with. They are the issues that follow, that flow from a heart that has been set right and set free. When our souls have found their rest in him, we will find the strength and the wisdom to follow where his yoke would lead us. Grasped by the truth of his being in and over our lives, how could we not respond with lives of grateful love and obedience?
So now we face his table. It, too, comes with an invitation. That is what he was best at, really, issuing invitations, not demands. What is weighing on you now? he would ask. How are you trying to manage your life, and what is not working? In what ways do you feel pulled apart, pushed down, or stretched thin? How are you still trying to measure up, and how long are you going to keep trying? What are you restless for? What are you in despair over? He would ask these questions of you, of me, and then he would pull up a chair for us at this table and listen to our answers. And then he would speak the same words now that he spoke then, Come to me, you who 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 is light. Come to me. Come to me.
1 - The allusion to Joel Osteen’s book Your Best Life Now is intentional.
2 - Paul Tillich. “The Yoke of Religion. The Shaking of the Foundations.
3 - NIB.
4 - Paul Tillich. “The Yoke of Religion.” The Shaking of the Foundations.
5 - Ibid.