The Impossible Burden of Jesus

The Gospel: Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30

11:1 Now when Jesus had finished instructing his twelve disciples, he went on from there to teach and proclaim his message in their cities.

2 When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples 3and said to him, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?’ 4Jesus answered them, ‘Go and tell John what you hear and see: 5the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. 6And blessed is anyone who takes no offence at me.’

7 As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John: ‘What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? 8What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces. 9What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. 10This is the one about whom it is written, “See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,    who will prepare your way before you.”  11Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. 12From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force. 13For all the prophets and the law prophesied until John came; 14and if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah who is to come. 15Let anyone with ears listen!

 16 ‘But to what will I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the market-places and calling to one another,  17 “We played the flute for you, and you did not dance;    we wailed, and you did not mourn.”  18For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, “He has a demon”; 19the Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, “Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax-collectors and sinners!” Yet wisdom is vindicated by her deeds.’

20 Then he began to reproach the cities in which most of his deeds of power had been done, because they did not repent. 21‘Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the deeds of power done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. 22But I tell you, on the day of judgement it will be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon than for you. 23And you, Capernaum, will you be exalted to heaven?    No, you will be brought down to Hades. For if the deeds of power done in you had been done in Sodom, it would have remained until this day. 24But I tell you that on the day of judgement it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom than for you.’

25 At that time Jesus said, ‘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; 26yes, Father, for such was your gracious will. 27All things have been handed over to me by my Father; and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.

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.’

The Impossible Burden of Jesus
       Reflecting upon the costs and consolations of discipleship in Matthew Chapters 10 and 11.

Life is a burden. Perhaps the cabbage seedlings in my garden are unconcerned by the current insect attack, and by the fact that if they survive, I will cut them off at the roots and eat them. But we humans know pain, terror, and exhaustion. When someone at the table says, "I wish I could just die," I suspect the discomfort they cause has something to do with being reminded of our own burdens.

We deal with the burden of life by piecing together a picture of how the world works, which includes explanations, justifications, and workarounds, for the pain.

Life may be terrible for the Roman foot soldier, but at least he's not a Jew…
I may be a poor Jew, but God will make things right in the end…
America is the greatest nation on earth, even though I am dirt poor…
She'll be right, mate. It'll rain next year… or the year after…
God calls me to the glory of serving Him by serving my Husband…
There is a meaning behind it all…
Do the right thing and you will be rewarded in Heaven…
Shit happens… (See, I don't care. I can keep going!)

Such statements are some of the proverbs and platitudes to which we turn to remind ourselves, or others, that there is a secure place to stand in all the morass and uncertainty of life; there is a cultural story which makes sense of it all.

Some folk seem outwardly comfortable with the story their culture provides, and some folk can never quite believe it's true. Sometimes we wonder if there is anything real under the stage upon which we stand. And we often find, if we are honest, that there are few, if any, concrete answers. We float in a kind of unknowing.  

We are all in this place. No one is off-stage and independent of the play. Those higher in the pecking order have the same burdens of life as we do; namely, avoiding death for as long as possible. And those who can see the stage is only a stage, often find the view unbearable, and may decide it is better not to look too hard.

It all works surprisingly well, on the surface. After all, a culture does not develop and persist unless it works in some way, and unless it provides some hope in life.  Culture holds a promise. Live this way, it says, and life will be bearable. This is the way to go. There will be a reward.

But the popularity of promises like "Make America great again," betrays our insecurity, and the failures of our cultural story. The unspoken promise here, is that "making America great again" will remove the contradictions of life. It is a promise to shore up the foundations, nail down the loose planks, and make life coherent in the face of confusion and loss. It is a promise to lighten the unbearable burden of life.

Trump, and those like him, promise to cleanse the stage of the contradictions and terrors of our mortality, and of the cognitive dissonance which whispers that the whole show is a lie.

The problem for anyone seeking to re-form culture, to bring it to a better foundation, is that they walk head on into the mass of us who do not want reform. We want our culture to live up to its promises. We don't want to be told all of life's a stage that needs rebuilding.

We want our culture, our way of being, and our sense of who we are, to be affirmed. We want leaders to make things work, not pull them apart. Reformation not only costs some of us our privileges; it hints that maybe our understanding of the world is in error. It threatens the foundations we have trusted to support us.

In this way of thinking, the place of religion in culture is to maintain and reinforce the status quo. Religion is to serve culture, not challenge it.

The reason the "children" of the village square in Matthew 11 were happy with neither John nor Jesus, was that both John and Jesus undermined the status quo. They were challenging the culture, not serving it.

Bethsaida and Chorazin could be us, as we realise that Jesus is pulling the stage out from under our feet. His reframing of life takes the planks we call love, forgiveness, generosity, even sin, out of the platform on which we stand. He reshapes them; love is for all people, not just our family and immediate neighbour, for example. He takes the triangular struts which keep the whole thing from collapsing, and speaks of giving without payment, and of not keeping money aside for a rainy day, hinting at an economic understanding that is incomprehensible to us. He crosses the social boundaries which hold the structure together. He alleges we can take on, and overcome, the powers and demons of our day; the malevolences which seem to grow in all institutions, even the church; the things which "just are," and to which we have become resigned. Or which actually work quite well in our favour.

We may only be bit players in our society, but there is a stage on which we live our lives. His so-called good news pulls it apart. So Chapter 10:16-24, 34-39, is full of violence; family betrays family. Why?

The best interpretation of this passage, in my view, comes from an atheist philosopher and cultural critic, Slavoj Zizek … Jesus isn’t saying that I have to love him more than my mom and my dad and my kids. Rather, mom, dad and child stand for the social structure of Jesus’ day, which is rooted in hierarchy, power-dominance relationship and patriarchy. The conclusion being that Jesus isn’t coming to wreck your family, he’s coming to wreck your society.   He’s not coming to wreck your society for the sake of wrecking it, but for the sake of opening up new space for a new future, more in line with what God intended from the beginning. (I quoted Michael Danner here. His original article is not presently online; use the Wayback Machine)

But who can see such a new future when it seems the play's a shambles, and Jesus and his disciples are ripping out the joists under our floorboards, and upsetting things even more?

Not even John the Baptist can see this new future! In many ways, his reform was about restoration rather than newness. Repent can mean to turn again, go back, do it again better, rather than do something new. Do it properly according to the law. Shoulder your burden, and God will be faithful. So the fasting John is himself suspicious of Jesus, who, eating and drinking, looks to John like one who is not shouldering the burden of faith at all.

Jesus said, "Among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he." There is a leap, a fundamental re-visioning of life, if we are to enter the kingdom with God. Matthew leaves us to wonder if John ever made that leap.

Unless we can take that leap of imagination, unless we can see Jesus' call as freedom, he presents us with an impossible burden! For his program of love and discipling in Chapter 10 undermines everything, provokes hostility from those who feel judged and destabilised, and simply makes us less secure in the world.

Take no gold, or silver, or copper in your belts, no bag for your journey, or two tunics, or sandals, or a staff… see, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves.

Economic and social structures have changed greatly since Jesus' time. But then, and now, any serious attempt to live this out will turn our world upside down. If it has not, should we wonder if we are just using religion to support our view of the world?

Which brings us to the end of Chapter 11. How is this yoke from Jesus something easy for we who are already heavy burdened? Where is rest to be had in this? If there is a rest, how might we get there?

"Jesus said, ‘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…" (11:25) We do not reason our way to seeing freedom in Jesus' call; it is revealed to us. The ever practical Matthew suddenly sounds like the Gospel of John:

All things have been handed over to me by my Father; and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him. (11:27)

This is acknowledgement that there is something about this new vision of life which is beyond our explaining. But it is not a retreat into mysticism. W.D. Davies says of these verses

Revelation does not come to all. It comes only to those who have prepared themselves to receive it – to the pure in heart and the poor in spirit; cf Job 28:28; Ps 25:14. This is because religious knowledge is a function of being and has a moral dimension. Such knowledge cannot be grasped by either dispassionate or neutral observers… in the Johannine idiom, only those who love God can know God; cf 1 John 4:8 (Matthew  A Shorter Commentary pp185)

There is always a yoke. One of our cultural delusions is that there is a freedom to be had which does not involve obligation and discipline— a sense that we can escape the burden of life.

To be human is to know fear, and is to be burdened with obligation to a community. There is no humanity without these. The only  question is whether there are disciplines which can transcend fear, and which can make that obligation also a delight; that is, transform obligation into freely given love; disciplines which open our eyes to a new view of the world, which Matthew calls the kingdom of God, which Jesus reveals to us.

I take Davies' words, "religious knowledge is a function of being and has a moral dimension," to mean that we can only see by beginning to be. The trust which is at the heart of faith means we start to act, we trust Jesus' message is true, before we properly see the vision he promises.  The mystery is what enables or energises this cycle of trusting, then seeing. Hope? Desperation? The recognition that where we are, or where we are going, is pointless? These were things which pushed me to look for a new way to live.

I found then that the implications of what I had done— what I had committed to— began to grow; I found my discipleship had gotten me into deeper water than I imagined or expected would be the case. I began to see.

Over years, I find my view of the world has been changed. I have a new paradigm of understanding, a new way of seeing the world, and I can't look back and see the old world. I can live in contradiction to what Jesus says about love— clearly, I fall short and often simply lack the courage to live fully what I know to be ideal— but I cannot un-see what I have seen.

Is this "rest for my soul?" Is it a light burden and an easy yoke?

I need to remember other things which I see: How in the relentlessly upbeat positive souls I meet, it is not hard to see a certain fragility. How there is sometimes a constant busyness which is almost a purposeful distraction from more painful matters. How a "perfect life" reveals moments of deep vulnerability, sudden little crevasses where the surface cannot quite cover the deep stresses of life underneath.

People confide such things to me. And I've tried to act out such perfections in the past. Something in my faith discipline has let me stop trying to be these things which I am not. It's a huge relief.

Then there is the agony of making sense of the world, and finding some point to life. As a younger person, this almost crushed me.  Occasionally, I lose sight of my horizons— lose my balance in the world— and am reminded just how crushing that pain was.

In the New Testament context, especially in the community of Matthew the Jew, Jesus' teaching was a great release from the expectations of the cultural leaders who insisted that right relationship with God was only available through doing what the Pharisees demanded. The Christians were set free of much of that. In the same way I feel free of much of what church tries to obligate me with, and I am free of much of what society says I need to do to be good or successful.

This all has a cost, of course.  It profoundly discomforts some folk, including folk within the church. It has its own discipline; there is a yoke, and sometimes it feels heavy.

I mentioned the distractive purpose of busyness. Distraction lets us forget the wider world for a while, but during that time nothing is changed. We come back to the same world, the same pain, and the same burdens which we had before. Distraction tries to step out of all the yokes of life, sometimes not recognising— take the distraction of being immersed in work, for example— sometimes not recognising that we have simply exchanged one yoke for another, and not recognising that we are trusting another false promise that all will be made well.

Discipleship sees the world anew, and refuses to forget it, or its plight, or the pain it causes us. It steps into another yoke, consciously trusting what first seems an unlikely promise.

But I find in this practice, something approaching ecstasy. The word originally had the sense of standing alongside ourselves. Later development of its meaning expanded to the more mystical or emotional aspects we associate with the word. I find this quite fascinating. During experience that is ecstatic, there has been a part of me which stands alongside, quite clinically observing myself; I could even use Davies' word "dispassionate."

In not seeking to escape from myself (distraction) I find a curious new mixture of experience:

I look at the world and see glory, along with foreboding.
I am filled with delight alongside great despair at the plight of the world.
I see beauty in the presence of suffering.
I find a loosening of cynicism, a relaxing of judgement, a growing freedom from the deep defensiveness which has defined me.
It is a freedom so unaccustomed, that I'm not sure how to live within it! I wonder if I'm slacking off!

There is no distraction from the ills of the world or from the burdens of conscious existence in all this. The yoke remains. In fact, I find a growing and extraordinary challenge about the nature of the world, and my place in it, which can be quite overwhelming. But then, maybe I am simply free to look more clearly and honestly at the world for the first time. I am a little more able to stand apart from the preservation of myself, and see what life asks of me.

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!

Previously on One Man's Web A Complacent Wisdom – Matthew 11:16-30

You can find more reflections on biblical texts on the Lectionary page.


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