Proper 9, Year A
The July lectionary readings from the Gospel of Matthew are threaded together with agricultural images that run through Jesus’ teachings. Jesus invites his disciples in this week’s scripture to shoulder his “easy yoke.” Next week’s teaching will bring news of productive soils and seed. The third week of July finds Jesus talking about weeds and wheat, and the last Sunday reading of July provides a cornucopia of agrarian themes: the small mustard seed that blossoms into something big, a field that contains a treasure, and vivid images of the harvest.
In our fellowship, we’re going to read these texts with an eye on justice. At first glance, this week’s reading from Matthew might seem like a strange passage to use to begin that conversation. Matthew 11 picks up with the news that Jesus is preaching and teaching in bigger population centers. Then messengers from the imprisoned John the Baptist reach Jesus to ask why, if he is the Messiah, he is not acting like a Messiah should. One can almost read John the Baptist’s thoughts: “If he is the Messiah, why am I still in jail?” We hear the frustration in Jesus’ voice as he talks to to crowd about John’s true identity, and as he fulminates about who ought to be catching on to his kingdom agenda, and who isn’t. Then Jesus sees anew the people who did show up, those who are standing tight before him, and he thanks God for their presence. The movers and shakers didn’t show up; the teachers and leaders are definitely not on board, but God still moves in the lives of common folk.
“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”
Jesus speaks to those burdened and oppressed by the load of rules and regulations placed on their shoulders by religious authorities. In today’s context, we are all burdened by the weight of the global pandemic; we hurt because heavy burdens of injustice are borne by those oppressed by racism, poverty, and wanton violence in their communities. Jesus invites weary disciples in every situation to come to him, to believe in him, to put their lives under his care. Jesus’ promise to all bearing burdens of injustice? “I will give you rest.”
What is the rest that Jesus promised those who work for justice? Adam Gustine, in his book Becoming a Just Church, says that “justice refers to the presence of God’s shalom.” God’s shalom is God’s rest, freely given, a state of living where “nothing is missing and nothing is broken.” God says to all who mourn the unfairness of life, to all who struggle in poverty, to all who fear sending their kids out into the neighborhood, to all who stand shoulder-to-shoulder with their suffering neighbor: “I will give you rest.” That rest promised to find the missing pieces and mend broken hearts.
Then Jesus said: “Take my yoke upon you…” What? Didn’t Jesus just say he offered rest? Now, like a beast of burden, he wants us to shoulder a beam and plow a field or pull a wagon? What kind of rest is that? Those who have taken on the yoke of Jesus to work in the garden of justice know what that rest feels like. Martin Luther King told the story of Mother Pollard, who participated in the Birmingham bus boycott. Although she was 72 years old, she walked back and forth to work every single day, foregoing the comfort of the bus and quietly demanding her rights. Dr. King encouraged her to start taking the bus again for the sake of her health. Mother Pollard replied, “My feets is tired, but my soul is rested.” May that tired rest characterize our work for justice.
“…learn from me; for I am gentle and humble of heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”
Another thing about a yoke. This heavy cross-beam is not to be borne alone. It spans the shoulders of two working animals. The work of justice is not something we can do alone, but must be undertaken in community. Again, Gustine says our work for justice is not solo work, but calls for “a vision for discipleship and formation that helps people shift from seeing themselves as autonomous individuals—an identity reinforced by nearly every other cultural message—to participants in a people.”
In these troubled days, may our faith communities, our circles of disciples seek not the rest of ease, but the shalom of justice. May we gladly accept the yoke of Jesus’s justice onto our backs, adopting the posture of learners and workers, rather than the place of privileged teachers or leaders. At the end of the day, may our feets be tired, but may our souls be rested.
Timothy W. Ross serves as a pastor for the Hopwood Christian Church at Milligan College, Tennessee.