Matthew 11: 28-30 – Freedom: That’s what we were supposed to be celebrating two days ago, July 4th. The birth of our nation emerged from a people who wanted to throw off the empyreal yoke of British rule, after being colonies of Britain for decades. The colonists paid taxes to England, lived with British soldiers looking over their shoulders, and had to swear their loyalty to a king.
In the 1600s, the earliest settlers in — what white people called The New World, which was not new, of course, only newly discovered by Europeans — came primarily to throw off the yoke of religious persecution. They were dissenters who objected to the Church of England’s excesses, and wanted to follow their own Reformation beliefs. The Congregational Church, of which we at UCC are descendants, was the Pilgrims’ church, pilgrims who wanted to throw off the yoke of the not-so-reformed Anglican Church.
Our later forefathers in the 1700s wanted to throw off British-imposed political yokes and financial yokes, as well as religious yokes – they wanted freedom to do as they liked with their government, their money and their religious life.
So, our nation has a long history of throwing off heavy yokes to win political and religious freedom. You might say early settlers had an aversion to yokes of any kind.
But Jesus is said to use the yoke as a metaphor in our story today from Matthew. This is probably one of the most well-known verses in the New Testament — beloved and memorized by many.
“Come to me, all you who are weary and bearing heavy loads, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn of me…”
But the harsh passages before it about condemning cities, don’t sound like Jesus. The progressive scholars in the book The Five Gospels, vote these passages as “Jesus did not say this.” They go on to explain, the words “were created by a later Christian prophet in Galilee speaking in the spirit and the name of Jesus. The scholars doubt Jesus would have told the towns that did not accept him to go to Hell, especially after teaching his disciples to love their enemies. These condemnations probably reflect the frustration of later Christian prophets following the failure of missions” in cities like those mentioned.
That first sentence – about being heavy laden and being offered rest — delighted Jesus’ average working class listener: If you’re bearing a heavy load, join me and you’ll get some rest and relief. Jesus’ hearers in Israel were under heavy yokes: the heavy political hand of Rome and the equally heavy hand of their own religious leaders. They would follow anyone who promised rescue from their burdened lives.
But that was just the first sentence. Jesus goes on to say, “Take my yoke upon you and learn of me….” I can hear them now, “Oh no, now he’s talking double-talk; first he says throw off the yoke and now comes the fine print: take my yoke instead.”
Then, when folks in this city heard him talk about his yoke, they may have wondered if this Jesus was a typical bad-news prophet, scaring people into following him. // And it’s almost as if Jesus knows what they’re thinking: that they fear he will threaten them, too. But could Jesus’ experience of rejection by religious leaders have had an effect on his frame of mind? Notice the words of Jesus just before the famous passage: he thanks God that God has hidden the truth from the wise and powerful and revealed it to children, to the weak and outcast. The Jesus scholars say that this theme of the weak overcoming the strong is typical of Jesus. But was it his failure with the movers and shakers that brought Jesus to his own truth: that the strong are deluded by their strength, and the weak are empowered? And could that rejection have been a source of his humility?
“For I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.”
As Jesus was recognizing that his message was failing, it may have been a turning point in his mission. Jesus was human and had to learn-as-he-went just like we do. With all this rejection, could he see that his message of reform for the Jewish faith was not going to catch on with the people in power?
We remember that Jesus was thoroughly Jewish to the end. He didn’t aim to start a new religion. He wanted to rescue Judaism from the legalistic and abusive religious leaders who were burdening the people. He felt inspired by God with a message more true to the God of mercy and grace who, here and there, does appear in the Old Testament. And that God of mercy is there when we look — but the angry-God image gets more press. In my OT study at Eden, the professor liked to say, that when he was asked if he believed in the God of the Bible, he would reply, “Which one?”
I think that’s what is behind these words attributed to Jesus: “No one knows the father but the son (messiah), and no one knows the son but the father.” I think Jesus – or a later author who got it right — may be saying, “We’re the only movement around here who knows which stories about God are the true ones. And no one in power here realizes that I/the disciples of grace — am the only one who knows which God is the true one.” And that may have driven Jesus to keep going, even after he saw the handwriting on the wall.
So Jesus becomes pastoral rather than triumphalistic. He sees that these “little ones” have been buffaloed by religious leaders. “Those who labor and carry heavy loads” have been intimidated by power. The so-called “wise” Pharisees and scribes were not content to cite the 635 laws in the Hebrew scripture we call the Old Testament. They added another whole book of more rules — rules that would “help” you follow the laws of a demanding God.
Religious leaders were loading the people with the more stringent purity laws originally only meant for leaders. Not only that, but they preached the Greek Stoics’ belief that the more educated folks were the more pious, the more godly. Finally, to add injury to insult, they required temple taxes on top of the already loathesome Roman tax.
So Jesus’ hearers had to pay money to a religious group that didn’t offer anything but unreachable requirements in order to feel acceptable to God.
That was the “heavy load” Jesus knew the people were facing.
Where do we see that heavy load today in religion? Those who say we are saved by our good works – those who say you must be straight, not gay – those who say you must give sacrificially to their ministry to be blessed – those who say, “Yes, you’re rescued by God PLUS anything.”
Not God’s grace plus patriotism, not God’s grace plus the prosperity gospel, not God’s grace plus knowing the Bible, not God’s grace plus praying every night, not God’s grace plus marching for social justice – not God’s grace plus anything! The Reformation faith of those pilgrims was not perfect (they could be rather harsh themselves), but it insisted that God’s grace alone folds us in God’s mercy, not God’s grace plus the church or God’s grace plus the sacraments. By grace, you are good enough.
That is the rest for our souls that Jesus offered. “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, learn of my way, learn of my God of mercy, and you will find rest for your souls.”
While we may celebrate political freedom, that grace of God is spiritual freedom.