The Fourth Sunday after Pentecost

The Very Reverend Steve Lipscomb, Dean
Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30

Today’s gospel reading is one of those lectionary texts that requires a little background information before we can understand fully what is going on and what is being said.

During the time of Jesus, Jewish religion and Jewish Law (which were one in the same) had become so technical and so legalistic that it was virtually impossible for the common person to follow. In fact, the technicalities and legalism of the Law had not only made orthodox Judaism unattainable intellectually—for all but the well-read and well-bred—but also practically; the responsibilities of time, of money, of keeping oneself “pure” had become a burden—a yoke—too great for simple folk to bear.

And it seemed the scribes and other religious leaders liked it that way. For keeping the Law out of reach for most people—keeping it exclusive—was in itself an act of purity: it separated the ordinary from the “extra-ordinary,” the sacred from the profane, the righteous from the sinner, the wheat from the chaff.

Jesus’ response to all of this was to tell the “Law keepers” that they had missed the point completely, –that in constantly seeking self-justification by keeping their countless rules and regulations, they had forgotten the more important obligations of loving God and their neighbors — and that, despite their intellect, they could still learn a few things about faith and faithfulness from those simple, humble people that they excluded and despised.

And so Jesus prays the prayer that is included today’s gospel:
“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.” By infants Jesus means those who are still child-like in their faith, those who still trust in and depend on God’s mercy and grace rather than human works and intellect for salvation.

But we need to be very clear about what Jesus is saying here. He’s not condemning intellect; what he’s condemning is intellectual pride. He’s not saying, “Be dumb. –Don’t think.” What he is saying is that, ultimately, it is the heart, not the head that comes to faith and that unless one has the simplicity, the trust, the innocence of a child-like, dependent, faithful heart, then that person is shut out –unable to truly receive God, and thus unable to truly receive and understand God’s Law.

Paul too knew of the conflict between the self-justifying law of human precepts and the grace-giving Law of God, and he used that tension as a means of explaining the struggle of the human soul that lie inside himself and inside of all of us. “I find it to be a law,” he says, “that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the Law of God in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law. . .making me captive to the law of sin.” In other words, Paul is saying that although he longs for another way of being, he knows that he is unable to accomplish it on his own, either by intellect or by works.

It is not within his power mentally or physically to become a new being. But “Thanks be to God through … Christ,” he says, there is a way to salvation. “For the law of the Spirit of life … has set us free from the law of sin and death …. God has done what the law could not do: by grace through faith, God has made us into new beings “who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.”

There is a legend that during Jesus’ adult years before he began his ministry, he followed in his earthly father Joseph’s footsteps and practiced the skill of carpentry. Inside that legend, there is another legend (no doubt based on today’s reading) that, as a carpenter, Jesus made the best ox-yokes in all of Galilee, and that people would come from all over the country to have their oxen measured and fitted by this master craftsman who made the very best yokes money could buy.

Now in those days, just like today, signs were hung out above the doors and over the shops advertising the wares and services offered, and it has been suggested that above the door of the carpenter’s shop in Nazareth, there may well have been a sign that read: “Try my yokes: custom made to fit well.”

So, when Jesus extended his invitation to “Take my yoke upon you,” he may have been drawing from his past experience as a carpenter to provide an illustration for what it means to be in a proper relationship with God.

Jesus calls all of us who are weary and carrying heavy burdens and struggling to save ourselves and to make it on our own to come to the realization that it is impossible through our own efforts, because there’s always one more law to obey. One more rule to follow. Always one more thing to do or be. Always more safety to find, more money to make, more people to please in order to please ourselves. That is the yoke of self-justification and it is a burden that is impossible to bear.

Jesus invites us to yoke ourselves to him, to yoke ourselves with him and to let him share the load. To trust in his mercy and grace and to know that whatever our burdens in life may be, he will be there to lift us up and to give rest to our souls. “For my yoke is easy,” says Jesus, “and my burden is light.”

Through the cross, Jesus has set us free from the yoke of self-justification and the law of sin and death, and has opened up the way for us to be joined with him under God’s Law of mercy and grace. But, ultimately, the choice is ours to make. We can continue to struggle along carrying the weight of the world and all its burdens on our shoulders, or we can offer it up to God, not expecting a free ride, but instead the strength that comes from accepting a yoke that is well-fitted and shared by our Lord Jesus Christ.

“Come to me, all you who are weary and heavy laden and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart…and my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” The invitation is still wide open; and God’s arms are still opened wide.

In the Name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.