(Romans 7: 14-25a & Matthew 11: 16-19 & 25-30)
| "come to me, all of you|
who are tired from
carrying heavy loads
and I will give you rest...."
In fact, the theme of being 'thrawn' or 'contrary' surfaces in our gospel passage today from Matthew chapter 11. Professor William Barclay in his commentary on this passage from his ‘Daily Study Bible’ says: Jesus was saddened by the sheer perversity of human nature. To him people seemed to be like children playing in the village square. One group said to the other, “Come on, let us play at weddings,” and the others said, “We don’t feel like being happy today.”
Then the first group said, “All right; come on, and let’s play at funerals,” and the others said, “We don’t feel like being sad today.” They were what the Scots call contrary. No matter what was suggested, they did not want to do it; and no matter what was offered, they would find fault in it." Taking this theme of being 'thrawn' or 'contrary' further (the word perverse might fit as well!) Jesus is at pains to point out that people somehow and sometimes just don't seem to want to be happy – they seemingly cannot find any contentment in life – no matter what obvious goodness is placed in front of them.
In fact, he used both John the Baptist and himself as illustrations: John the Baptist was an ascetic, he lived in the desert, fasting, shunning food, isolating himself from society – and all that had the potential to tempt or corrupt him – or cause him to deviate from his true path of devotion and holiness. He removed himself from human society and pleasure – but people criticised him: ‘He’s a demon,’ people said. ‘He must be mad to cut himself off from all that we know and enjoy in our society.’ Jesus, on the other hand, lived a life fully immersed in the lives of the people of his day. He spurned asceticism and chose to engage with people where he found them. He mixed with all kinds of folk – sharing in their joys and sorrows. And the people said: ‘He’s a socialite, a party-goer, a glutton and a drunkard; a friend of all those who have the potential to corrupt – people like tax-collectors; and every kind of sinner.’ People called John's asceticism madness; and they called Jesus' sociability immorality. In other words, Jesus was saying: You just can't win with people sometimes – you're damned if you do and you're damned if you don't! Jesus effectively said: "The truth is, you are never happy. You will find ground for criticism no matter what!’
The plain fact is that when people do not want to listen to the truth – that which is genuine and honest and upright – they will easily find an excuse for not listening to it. They do not even try to be consistent in their criticisms: They will criticise the same person and the same institution from quite opposite grounds – and even hold two opposing views at the same time! If people are determined to make no response, they will remain stubbornly indifferent and unresponsive no matter what invitation or advance is made to them. It's amazing how grown men and women can be very liked spoiled children who refuse to play no matter what the game is. Or who play their own game – and that isn't of any help to anybody.
As human beings, we can be so thrawn, so stubborn; so, perverse and so contrary that nothing seems to please us – not even faith in the Lord Jesus himself. But that stubbornness, that difficult streak within us doesn't have the last word for Jesus' final sentence in this section says this: ‘God's wisdom is shown to be true by its results.' or in the words of another translation: 'Wisdom is shown to be right by her deeds,' Jesus says, there is another way, better than human contrary nature: What is right and good will never be shown by the perverse or twisted nature that is so evident in society – but by events. John might be criticised for his strange ways – but look at what he achieved. He caused people to turn to God in ways that hadn’t been seen for generations. And the obvious point which Jesus is emphasising is this: The people might criticise the Lord for mixing too much in ordinary life and with ordinary people (and therefore, by implication, miss the whole point of the Incarnation) but in him, in this living presence of God among them, people were finding a new Way, and new Truth and a new Life, life in all its fullness, and a new way of living in God’s love as they ought to; and a new access to God.
And the conclusion? Stop being contrary, stop judging people by your own prejudices and perversities; stop being difficult and just open your hearts and minds a little to what's available to you. Begin by giving thanks for anything or any person that can bring people – and even you, yourself – nearer to God – even if their ways and methods are not ones that suit us. Jesus is saying, drop the attitude – cast aside the twistedness – and embrace truth and goodness. See and accept what is obvious: God is with us, here and now – and that is surely a cause for hope and joy.
For several months now we have been living through truly challenging times – surely unprecedented in our lifetimes. Life has been turned upside down and all of us have been affected by Coronavirus/Covid-19 in various ways: Many of us have had to self-isolate or undergo total shielding during this period. It may be that you have been even more profoundly affected by this virus in terms of your own personal health or that of a friend or loved-one. Indeed, our thoughts and prayers are with all those who have taken ill, have lost a loved-one or have lost livelihoods as a result of this pandemic. Certainly, all of our lives have been disrupted: Social distancing has been mandatory, we have missed being able to travel and to have physical contact with family and friends and to pursue the various familiar activities that add richness to our lives. This perhaps has been particularly acute for those who live alone. Although now the lockdown measures imposed because of Covid-19 are beginning to be eased, life still has not returned to normal. Indeed, people are now taking about the ‘new normal’ which is a recognition that we may not be able to return to the typical patterns and lifestyles of the past anytime soon. Even after this pandemic is judged to be over, there will be issues of people’s metal health and wellbeing that will still have to be addressed – perhaps long into the future. And, of course, there will be the fall-out for business, industry, tourism and the like that affect the lives and livelihoods of many people.
And yet, maybe we can take heart that, as we said a few moments ago, whatever happens, God is still with us – and there are still good reasons to give God thanks: For family and friends who are still there to welcome us to their hearts now that lockdown is partially easing; for the gifts of modern technology and social media that enabled us to keep in touch when the lockdown was at its height. For the many acts of kindness that have encouraged and inspired us – including of people volunteering to serve in food-banks; and of care staff choosing to self-isolate in order to protect their vulnerable clients. We think too of the dedication of NHS staff – and other key-workers – frequently placing their own lives on the line to care for the sick and the vulnerable during this pandemic. So, although, times have been challenging and dispiriting – love, kindness, care and goodness have still flourished – and these are signs of a living, loving God working in our lives and in the life of the world.
With that thought in mind let's now move on to the second set of verses we are encouraged to read from chapter 11 of Matthew's Gospel: Here we have a few verses which appear, at first, to be an odd intrusion into Matthew’s storyline. Yet, on looking again, we see they do actually fit the tone and content of what preceded them. These verses come to us in the form of a prayer – with significant meaning for us. Let's look at what Jesus is saying:
1n verse 25 Jesus says: ‘Father, Lord of heaven and earth! I thank you because you have shown to the unlearned what you have hidden from the wise and learned.’ Perhaps the thrawn, contrary people are never going to get a handle on these words. Jesus was speaking from experience. The tradition of the Rabbis was to debate and intellectualise God’s Word and Truth. But clearly, the intellectuals – the apparently wise and intelligent – had no use for Jesus; while the ordinary people – those whom Jesus called the unlearned – saw a truth in him that was obscured and missed by the Rabbis. This is not a condemnation of intellectual power or ability – but a condemnation of intellectual pride. The true home of the gospel is the heart not the head. It is not cleverness that closes us off from God – it is stubbornness and pride. Similarly, it is not stupidity that opens us up to God – it is humility. We can all be as wise a Solomon – but if we do not have the innocence of a child-like heart, we risk shutting ourselves off from God. In fact, the only way we can understood and embrace God in Christ is though the innocence of a childlike heart.
Then in verse 27 Jesus says: ‘My Father has given me all things. No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.’ Here is the core of the gospel, the centre of Christian faith – that Jesus alone can reveal God to humanity. What Jesus is saying is simply this: ‘If you want to see what God is like, if you want to see the mind of God, the heart of God and the nature of God. If you want to see God's whole attitude to humanity – then just look at me!’ It's the Christian conviction that in Jesus Christ alone we truly see what God is like; and it's also the mainstream Christian conviction that Jesus can give that knowledge to anyone who is humble enough and trustful enough to receive it.
The ultimate words of comfort in any challenging and troubling situation are found in verses 28 to 30: "come to me, all of you who are tired from carrying heavy loads and I will give you rest...." Here are words so powerful in their message and so graphic in their imagery that they need little interpretation.
For here is the ultimate reassurance from Jesus that if we move on from being contrary and thrawn to being the accepting children God looks for; if we can see beyond the present challenges, woes and worries of society and life – then we will know the peace which Jesus promises. When we are exhausted and weighed down by our burdens physically, emotionally, spiritually and intellectually we have the promise of rest – because our weight is carried on the shoulders of Christ. Jesus spoke to people who were desperately trying to find God: Here were folk who were keen to do good and to live and exemplary lives – and yet who were prevented from doing so – because they were, paradoxically, weighed down by their own intellect limitations – their ultimate sense of failure to know and understand. W B Yeats, the Irish poet and mystic, wrote in his diary, ‘Can one reach God by toil? He gives himself to the pure in heart. He asks nothing but our attention.' The true way to know God is not by exhausting mental search or by following endless rules or by hoping to store up merit for ourselves – the only way to truly know God is by giving attention to Jesus, for in him alone do we see what God is like.
Jesus said: the yoke I will give you is easy; and the load I will put on you is light'. Jesus had been a carpenter – and good carpenters went out of their way to make yokes for oxen that fitted the animals well and did not irritate their necks. Jesus said: The yoke I put on you is easy – the word 'easy' in Greek also means 'well-fitting'. It has been suggested the Jesus had above his carpenter's shop in an earlier life a sign saying, 'My yokes fit well'. This simply means that the life Christ gives us in not a burden to weigh us down – but a gift to embrace and cherish. Whatever God sends our way is made to fit our needs and abilities. Jesus said, ‘My burden is light.’ The burden Christ puts upon us is that of loving God and our fellow human beings. And so, let's turn to Jesus today. Let's cast aside all that's thrawn and contrary within us; all that is pessimistic and despairing within us – and vow to embrace and show love – for love makes even the heaviest burden light. Thanks be to God. Amen.