Theme(s): Come to me / Father and Son / Lifting burdens / God's rescue from sin
Sentence: Come to me all you are weary and carrying heavy burdens and I will give you rest (Matthew 11:28)
you have made us for yourself
and our hearts are restless
till they find their rest in you;
so lead us by your Spirit
that in this life we may live to your glory
and in the life to come enjoy you for eve;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen
Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30
Chosen to complement the gospel reading, this passage is certainly 'at home' on Palm Sunday. In today's gospel context it speaks of the 'gentle and humble heart' (Matthew 11:29) of Jesus.
These verses are a perfect complement to the final verses of the gospel reading. Just as the Lord known to Israel is 'gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love' (8) and One who 'upholds all who are falling' (14), so the Lord revealed in the gospel passage is one who lightens the burdens of his people and gives them rest.
The first sentence of the section below re the gospel reading applies in this section, swapping Jesus for Paul, also!
A recap: Paul has been arguing in preceding chapters that faith counts not works in respect of being counted among the righteous. The grace of God which enables this to be so, on the basis of Jesus Christ fulfilling all the sacrificial requirements of the Law, is not to be taken advantage of by living licentiously (chapter six). To do that would be to misunderstand the spiritual transformation which takes place through baptism into the death of Jesus.
In the first part of chapter seven Paul develops a sophisticated argument about the role of the law in our sinning, even asking the question whether the law is sin (7a). In part the argument is that the law has a role in sinning, because by naming what we should not do we then law what sin we might commit (7b) but in another part the argument is that sin is an enslaving power working within Paul, me and you, manipulatively taking even the good Law and making it have a role in our sinning.
Thus verse 14 captures the argument to the point immediately preceding the beginning of our reading: 'For we know that the law is spiritual; but I am of the flesh sold into slavery under sin.'
Our reading is then an insight into how sin works within humanity. The essence of the insight is that humanity, each human being has a divided inner being. There is an 'inmost self' (22) which delights in the law of God (22), wants to do good (19, 21) yet is at odds with 'the flesh' or (some translations, sinful nature) which does things the inmost self does not want to do (15b, 16a, 18, 23). Whatever we make 'psychologically' about this way of seeing the psyche of the human person, Paul is touching on a profound human experience of letting God down, hurting others and damaging ourselves through sin: we 'do not understand [our] own actions' (15a), we do things we cannot understand ourselves doing (15b-16), we tend to blame such situations on something within us we cannot control (17), we set out to do right and end up hurting others (18b-19).
Cleverly Paul sets up this 'internal dialogue' in such a way that by verse 23 we are applauding Paul's insight into our own behaviour even as we feel crushed by the seeming prison of desire and sin in which we are trapped. We are doomed, it seems, with no way out. Or not?
In verse 24-25a Paul leaps from the prison. Having faced what a 'wretched man' he is, he asks, "Who will rescue me from this body of death?"
There is only one answer, "Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!" (25a).
From that exuberance Paul turns back to the course of his insight. Perhaps looking ahead to the renewing of his mind through God's transformative power (12:1-2) Paul makes the point in conclusion that 'with my mind [equals saved and transformed by God through Jesus Christ our Lord] I am a slave to the law of God, but with my flesh (where the power of sin still has hold of me) I am a slave of the law of sin." (25b)
Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30
Preaching on this particular selection definitely requires a word about what has gone before the launch in to Jesus saying, "But to what will I compare this generation ..." (16). The launch in is Jesus in conversation, indirectly, with John the Baptist languishing in prison. His reflection on their respective ministries is that both, though completely different in style (see 18-19), have provoked opposition: scorn, doubts, and derision.
We may not expect what Jesus then says. Perhaps we would have said, "But God will deal with the naysayers." Jesus simply says, "Yet wisdom is vindicated by her deeds" (19). In a brief, simple sentence, Jesus links the pre-gospel message with the gospel as both preaching 'wisdom'. Here 'wisdom' is the revelation of God to the world, an active word of God which brought the world into being (see Proverbs 8:22-31).
Scholars speak of 'wisdom christology' in Matthew: here is a seed of understanding, that Jesus embodies wisdom (as does John the Baptist), which will come to fuller flowering in John's Gospel with the declaration that 'the Word became flesh' (1:14) and in Paul's first epistle to the Corinthians when he declares that Jesus is 'wisdom from God' (1:30).
Jesus' point is that the wisdom shared between himself and John is vindicated, we could say, 'proved to be true' by deeds, by the miracles described in verses 4 to 5.
We then skip a passage which is a pity, as verses 20-24 make the converse point: to deny that the wisdom of God comes through John the Baptist and Jesus, especially when so powerfully illustrated by the latter's miracle working deeds, is to invoke God's judgment.
If the end of verse 19 offers a 'wisdom christology' we zoom very fast in verses 25-30 to a 'Son of God christology'!
Verse 25 has an ironic note concerning 'wisdom': what God reveals through Jesus is 'hidden' from the 'wise and intelligent' (that is, they don't get it), instead the ones who show their understanding by responding to Jesus are 'infants', that is, the disciples.
Verse 26 offers an interpretation of this state of affairs: 'yes, Father, for such was your gracious will'. The Father's grace offers this revelatory wisdom to all, including to those not deemed in the world's eyes to be 'wise and intelligent', but this revelation is beyond the ability of the wise and intelligent to grasp it. It may seem ungracious that it is 'hidden' from them, but it certainly is gracious that God's revealed truth through Jesus is not restricted to the brainy scholars among us!
Verse 27 is an oddity within Matthew, Mark (not found) and Luke (repeated in Luke 11:21). It seems a statement more at home, indeed completely at home in John's Gospel. Indeed this verse is sometimes called the Johannine thunderbolt (prompted by Luke 10:18), a statement akin to a 'meteor from the Johannine sky.'
Nevertheless in this verse, whether uncharacteristic or not, we have a remarkable statement about the relationship between God the Father and Jesus the Son: Father and Son are identified around the point of knowledge (i.e. wisdom). 'All things' have been handed over to the Son (power to redeem as well as create the world?). Father and Son know each other intimately and completely. When the Son reveals things, what is being revealed is God's word and God's will. In particular, it is through the Son that we may know the Father.
Verses 28-30 then seem slightly at odds with this christological discourse, having more of a pastoral flavour. What must have been important in the remembering of these words of Jesus is that a pastor who says 'Come to me' and I will take care of your burdens is no ordinary pastor when he is the Son to whom the Father has handed all things and the way to the Father.
Might we be encouraged also as we come to Jesus today with our burdens and cares?
The specific image of the 'yoke' is highly suggestive of one aspect of 'burden' which a religious person might carry, in particular a fellow Israelite in Jesus' day. 'Yoke' spoke of the requirements of keeping the Law or Torah. Many statements in the gospels suggest that interpretations of the Law by Jewish teachers of the Law added to the burden these requirements made. If so, then Jesus is saying that his teaching is a way to lighten the load by refinding the true meaning of the Law, which is to give life rather than to squash it. 'Yoke' also suggests two oxen yoked together in order for their walking around the millstone to crush grain into flour - often one of the oxen being senior to the other. Again, if so, then Jesus is saying not only that his teaching is 'lighter' than that of his contemporaries but that his way of life is easier because he shares with each disciple the burden of living it.
Postscript: I love the rendering of 28-30 which Eugene Peterson gives in The Message:
'Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you'll recover your life. I'll show you how to take a real rest.
Walk with me and work with me - watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won't lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you'll learn to live freely and lightly.'