The mysterious burden of freedom

Sunday October 30: Pentecost 20
Gospel: Matthew 23:1-13

Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, 2‘The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; 3therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practise what they teach. 4They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them. 5They do all their deeds to be seen by others; for they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long.6They love to have the place of honour at banquets and the best seats in the synagogues, 7and to be greeted with respect in the market-places, and to have people call them rabbi. 8But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all students. 9And call no one your father on earth, for you have one Father—the one in heaven. 10Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Messiah. 11The greatest among you will be your servant.12All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.


28 ‘Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. 29Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.’

I suspect these were among the first verses I ever underlined in a bible. They have an emotional power which is beyond anything I can analyse. I think it has to do with being burdened by the very fact of life, even as a child. There is the compulsion to excel, the demand to do right and good, and the struggle to make sense of life, despite its absurdity. Often, the only answer to all this, which is no answer, is to get up, keep going, and make the best of it. What else can you do? I get very tired.

I know some of those people who we say are so “laid back” that they almost need to be propped up. Sometimes I long for such an apparent ease with life, such a familiarity, except that I wonder if even they are not hiding the same weight and exhaustion behind their public face. Anyway, the thought that I might become unconscious of the weight and the pain of life somehow fills me with horror. What sort of empty life would that be? How could I not notice? What would be wrong with me, if I could not see it? How could I manage it if it were invisible to me, or taken from me?

Full of contradictory longings, I do not carry the yoke of life; I am bound into it! It is lashed onto my shoulders. I am now almost grafted into the wood of the yoke.

And then Jesus says ‘Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. 29Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.’

My ears detect my name whispered into the noisy crowd of a thousand competing voices. I hear.

These verses I have loved are from Matthew chapter 11. Matthew is the first gospel I read from beginning to end. I was shocked by that first reading, and decades later, am still making discoveries. In this week’s chapter, for example, Jesus says the Pharisees “tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them.” The similarity and contrast between the two sayings is stunning, and deliberate.

The only other place in Matthew where Jesus addresses both crowds and disciples, as he does this week, (23:1) is during the Sermon on the Mount,  at 5:1 and 7:28; i.e., beginning and end.) I owe this insight to Brian Stoffregen.

The mention of crowds and disciples is like me writing in italics: take notice! These locations in the gospel are where Jesus is teaching the very essence of what it means to follow him. They are his core teaching around compassion as a way of life that brings us the freedom of the kingdom. At the end of the sermon what does it say?

Now when Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were astounded at his teaching, ­­for he taught them as one having authority, and not as their scribes.

The teaching of scribes and pharisees is contrasted with the teaching of Jesus, and the loss of their authority over the people of God is foreshadowed. And now, this week, the compassion of Jesus, and his lifting of burdens is contrasted with the laying on of burdens, and the imposition of great weights upon the soul. And it happens just after the authority of Jesus is spelled out without apology, (22:41-45) as the final denunciation of the Pharisess begins in chapter 23.

I would be intoxicated by this beautiful literary symmetry if it were not for the words “do not do as they do.” Matthew only writes these because we do do as they do. It was not long in my early faith before I met those whom I let run rules around me.  They warned me against the dreaded liberals, and showed me the things that I must believe, and the things that I must not believe. My freedom was bled out of me before I noticed. And soon, Andrew the Pharisee was laying down the same rules and heavy burdens on others, all in the name of faith, freedom and grace.

On the surface, the text this week reads as an attack on the synagogues and the new power of the Pharisees after the destruction of the temple. It is this. There are three chapters devoted to the theme of Jesus’ greater authority and his denunciation of the Pharisees.  (21-23)

But the text does double duty. Matthew who is so convinced of the authority of the Law, of Moses’ seat, also knows the dangers of seeking to honour it. As Loader says this week

There is no place for either sitting back in smug judgement of others nor for imagining that being a follower of Jesus automatically protects us from falling into the very patterns we abhor in them.

Matthew’s congregations did not need to mourn their exclusion and expulsion from the synagogues too much, for they were free. Jesus’ authority was greater. They were free of the synagogues and the Pharisees. They held the authority of Jesus, the keys of the kingdom. Now that Jesus’ authority is clear, and we hold the authority of Moses’ seat, what will we do with it?

Richard Beck recently posted a short article called "Biblical" as a Sociological Stress Test.” His insight is applicable to the text this week.

...I've been thinking a lot about the word biblical and about what it might mean. Here's my basic observation: Whatever biblical means it doesn't mean biblical.”

No churches are really biblical, he says. For one thing, the bible does not present a “homogeneity of opinion” to which we can adhere. Instead,

Biblical is a word Christian communities use to describe their hermeneutical strategies. Biblical is a word that is used to describe how a particular faith community reads the bible. What this means is that the word biblical is a sociological label, a way of describing the interpretive strategies of a particular community.

Consequently, when a faith community gathers to discuss if a view is biblical or not they are asking how a particular view sits with their hermeneutical history and norms. The issue isn't if a position is biblical or not (because, as I noted above, no one is being biblical) but if a position would cause a sociological rupture, a tear in the hermeneutical fabric that has held this community together. If the position can be woven into the hermeneutical web then it is declared biblical. But if the rupture is too great then the view is declared unbiblical.... Biblical is a sociological stress test.

My own reflection on this is that the more apprehensive we are about the world, and life, the more likely we are to fall back on biblical, or some other term,  as a way of excluding others and protecting ourselves. We fail Beck’s stress test.

This stress test does not only apply to faith communities. It applies to we individuals who make up those communities.

Where am I going with this?  Look at what Matthew warns us about: the heavy burdens of verse 4 are followed by the perversions of verse 5. There,  the leather bound bibles and prominently worn crosses which are supposed to remind us of our dependence on the Christ, are turned into self aggrandising signs of our piety. From there, we use that public piety as a weapon:

5They do all their deeds to be seen by others... They love to have the place of honour at banquets and the best seats in the synagogues, 7and to be greeted with respect in the market-places, and to have people call them rabbi....

Bill Loader says

Behind [this] is often a frail yearning for love which has been met by such compensatory strategies. Abuse of others is frequently the result of exploiting others to meet our own stifled needs. The abuse may be as apparently harmless as captivating congregations with our preaching, framing our communities so that we are constantly affirmed, developing dependency on us among other needy people.

Bill is first thinking of clergy here, but many of us do this in our own little kingdom within the congregation, whether it be youth group, the kitchen, or the op. shop. Our piety is used to put others down and so build ourselves up.

Self aggrandisement always seeks to place a burden on others. Only sometimes are they free to laugh at us, and our pretentions.

When we do this, we have failed the stress test of freedom. We are needing to fence ourselves in with rules to be safe. And the best way to make it clear to others, and especially to ourselves, that we are right, and therefore safe, is to exclude some folk and have enemies or, at least, spiritual inferiors. And if we can get some people to agree with our exclusion list, all the better; we must be right if people agree with us, and keep our rules, and share our enemies.

It is simple to see the self aggrandisement that Matthew warns us about. We all know the temptation. We condemn it in others, and even in ourselves. But do we understand its source?

God offers us freedom. If we follow Jesus’ teaching of compassion we are free of the burdens of the world, which are really the burdens of keeping ourselves safe and in control. It works because if we are compassionate, we are not focussed on ourselves. If we really believe, by being compassionate, that Jesus has conquered death and there is nothing to fear, we will love others as much as we love ourselves.  And we will find the burden of this is light, and the yoke is easy,. But it asks that we humble our selves, that we let go of our self so that we may be exalted.

But I choose to stay bound to my heavy burden so that I might not accidentally be lifted up and lose my self. And you? Well... you are collateral damage.

You are the one I will fence in, or out, with rules and burdens to justify my own. Unless... unless you can laugh at me with the gently indulgent laughter of God; not scornful; even a little sad for me, and then cut the ties that bind you to slavery and accept the rest of Christ; the easy yoke and the light burden.

Andrew Prior

Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!




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