Todays’s Gospel reading joins together a passage we’re very familiar with – the words about taking Jesus’ yoke upon ourselves – with a section we don’t know so well – the bit where he seems to resent being compared to his cousin John the Baptist.
John and Jesus
Jesus is compared to John the Baptist by the crowd. This is interesting as they really were different.
- John was austere, ate locusts and wild honey, and dressed in camel hair. Jesus liked a feast, turned water into wine and dressed normally – why else is there no comment on his dress by the Gospel writers?
- John was not someone you’d invite to dinner – Jesus clearly was.
- John was always sharp – Jesus could be sharp but was usually gentle.
- One suspects John would have had some sympathy with those who wanted to stone adulterers; Jesus shames the men ready to stone the woman they thought had sinned into walking away.
- John plays politics by condemning Herod’s incestuous marriage; Jesus side steps political questions put to him in order to trap him.
The two are very different but the crowd wants to play them off against each other. It’s natural I suppose – sometimes we’re tempted to think of the Old Testament God as being rather austere and the New Testament portrayal of God as being rather gentle and loving – as if it’s that simple.
Whilst John and Jesus were different, there were huge similarities.
- They were cousins.
- They were radical disciples.
- They knew their Bibles.
- They both preached and ended up in confrontation with the powerful.
Of course it would be unfair to compare one unfavourably with the other – they had their different ministries, different paths to follow, but the same God to serve and obey; no wonder Jesus gets a little sarcastic.
Different Aspects of Jesus
We looked earlier at different images of Jesus and considered which we liked and which made us uncomfortable. In our Gospel reading today we are offered two different portrayals of Jesus – one we’re familiar with – the Come to Me all you who are burdened and heavy laden and I will give you rest – and the other – rather sarcastic Jesus who is comparing the response of the people to him and John the Baptist.
We’re used to gentle loving Jesus but not quite so comfortable with sharp, possibly sarcastic, Jesus – but he’s there in the text – in today’s passage, in the encounter with the Syro-Phoenician woman, with the disabled person at the pool of Bethesda and with his naming of the Pharisees as white washed sepulchres. So Jesus can disturb as well as comfort us.
This being surprised by Jesus is good; the resurrection shows that we can’t pin him down. Jesus is always surprising us – whenever we think we’ve got him clear, safe and neatly labelled he surprises us again and again.
He surprises us some aspect of his teaching becomes new to us. I am always startled by the way John’s Gospel puts the throwing the money changers out of the Temple at the start of his Gospel – it’s as if the start of Jesus’ ministry, in John at least, is about confrontation.
I’m startled when I realise, again, that he tells us to pay our taxes – even to an oppressive regime.
I’m startled when he tells me to take up my cross and follow him.
I’m startled when Jesus told the a grief stricken seeker to “let the dead bury the dead”, with his tough teaching on adultery – albeit in a context where women who were divorced were forced to prostitute themselves or starve – where he tells his followers to love him more than their parents, spouse, siblings and children, and when he tells us to be perfect, to give all our belongings to the poor
He surprises us as we realise he makes demands on our lives. He surprises us when we realise that he was much more subversive and dangerous than the Church is every comfortable with.
As we sung earlier, we have heard the Voice of Jesus inviting us to rest but he invites us to live radical lives. So how do we square this paradox – an invitation to find rest for our souls coupled with hard sayings about living as radical followers?
Yoke and Discipleship
I think the answer is in the final part of the passage we heard read today – “Come to me, all you who labour and are overburdened, and I will give you rest. Shoulder my yoke and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heard, and you will find rest for your souls. Yes, my yoke is easy and my burden light.
The call to be a disciple is one that is given again and again and we respond in different ways, with different intensity at different points in our lives. That call, however, always involves us living in a counter cultural way.
- In a culture which values family ties very highly, Jesus reminds us that our first loyalty isn’t to nation or country but to him.
- In a world where we are tempted to glorify the past and be overly sentimental, Jesus’ admonition to led the dead bury the dead serves as a wakeup call.
- In a society where people think love comes easy and doesn’t need work, his teaching on divorce reminds us that relationships need work – even if they end.
- In an ideology wedded to what our wealth can buy we are reminded to give generously and frequently.
This seems like hard work – and, of course it is – but it’s hard to live by the world’s values, to always keep up with the latest fashion, the new ideas, the prevailing culture. Jesus reminds us to look beyond our culture – not to reject it but to evaluate it in the light of his call to be a disciple. To love and value our world but, at the same time, to stand aside from it a bit and reflect his eternal, life changing, values.
Living as a disciple is a paradox; it’s demanding yet it fulfils us. It takes time yet gives rest. It’s counter cultural yet within a life of discipleship we find meaning and value. In the topsy turvey values of the Kingdom we find rest for our souls, fulfilment in our lives and the chance to offer lasting change to a painful society racing from hollow idea to idea.
In Jesus we find rest as we take his yoke upon ourselves.
Will you pray with me?
help us to be your disciples
to follow you
to live as you ask
to love our world,
to bless it even as we critique some of its values.
Help us as we puzzle over your hard sayings,
help us, as you surprise and shock us, to wrestle with you, to puzzle over your words, that we might bring your love and light to those we know and love.