Getting Some Real Rest

Matthew 11:16-30

This week’s gospel passage features that well-known statement of Jesus’: “Come to me, all you that are weary and carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” Rest. That’s a difficult word for today’s society, because it’s not clear that what we mean by “rest” and what Jesus means are the same thing.

When we rest, it is a temporary thing – a break in between bouts of work. We are overburdened with work and children’s activities and technologically-lit screens that prevent us from having a good sleep. Paradoxically, getting some rest in the middle of the day often looks like lounging around on a couch with those same technologically-lit screens, taking a break by texting with friends, or playing an online game. Then we get up and get back to the work that we interrupted with our “rest.”

Compare that to Jesus’ Greek word, anapouo, which suggests that rest comes because a task or process has been completed. Rest is actually part of the work, marking that our work has come to an end, that we have done our job.

In our culture, can we ever then get a sense of Jesus’ rest, of that completion?

To answer that question, I think we need to go back to the beginning of this week’s passage, to the part where Jesus compares the present generation to children’s games in the marketplace. Jesus imagines the children complaining, “We played the flute for you, and you did not dance. We wailed, and you did not mourn.” In the children’s games, it’s rather obvious what a person is supposed to do: dance when we’re playing wedding games, mourn when we’re playing funeral games.

The problem seems to be that the observers are not doing the wrong thing – they’re simply not doing the thing that is most appropriate to the moment at hand. Their time is filled up with other things – insignificant things in the moment – that don’t really matter in relation to the children’s game.

The people Jesus worries about are maybe buying goods at the market place, or watching the others’ games, or playing a solitary game by themselves, or maybe gossiping about the others who are doing it, but they are not participants themselves in the game that is going on at the moment. It’s not that the other activities are wrong – more that they’re not right for the moment. That’s the problem with the cities Jesus mentions, too: Chorazin, Bethsaida, Capernaum. These are cities that have heard Jesus’ words, but they haven’t responded to the moment. They haven’t started in on the things Jesus calls for, so they haven’t started the job, and they’ll never get to the real rest.

How often do we, too, fail to get real rest? I think it is so easy to fritter away time with activities that take up energy and that are neither purposeful nor restful. It is also very easy for those activities never to cease. I think especially of the kind of middle class consumer culture that the Ekklesia Project tries to resist. It is so easy to desire new stuff that we don’t need (whether that stuff is in a store, or a new app on our iphones), and fritter away our time trying to obtain that stuff. We can spend so much time trying to get relatively unimportant things, that we fail to see that there’s never an end to wanting the next new and better gadget or app or item.

On the other hand, a job taken on with purpose and deliberateness has an end in sight, and therefore has the possibility of real rest. This can be difficult in a world like ours, where we don’t begin and end things well. Phones are meant always to be used, so using a phone deliberately and turning it off after its purpose is completed–that’s tough. Working in order to earn enough for food and “just enough” for a good life — that’s tough. Being deliberate in our relationships with each other, mourning with grieving neighbors, playing with children who need to see our love and generosity –that’s tough.

Jesus returns to the theme of children at the end of today’s gospel passage: God’s message has been revealed to infants and children. It is not difficult –you do not need a PhD to understand him. Instead, you have to dance when dancing is called for, and mourn when mourning is called for. You pay attention to the moment and act accordingly. Then there will be real rest, because there will also be a job that you will have done and completed.

Today, let us be deliberate and purposeful about responding to God’s call in life’s particular moments.

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