‘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.’ (Mt 11:28–30)
Who are the weary and burdened Jesus calls out to in today’s Gospel? We get a clue by looking back at the accusations thrown at him at the start of the passage. There, we find that people are scandalised by the company he keeps:
‘the Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, “Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!”’
They’re upset that he’s hanging around with the folk who’re perceived as immoral, as undesirable, as unscrupulous, as traitors — the ones who are, to put it bluntly, beyond the pale for the respectable people who take their religion nice and seriously.
If you’ve ever been on the outside of an in group — if you’ve ever been the unpopular one, the uncool one, or the odd one out for whatever reason — you’ll know that it’s wearisome and burdening to be looked down upon, to be made fun of or to be loudly or quietly despised. Unless you have a tribe of other odd ones out or until you find such a group or simply grow to be indifferent to what others expect, the rejection and ridicule can be immensely painful.
Some of us might well have experienced such pain on account of our race, our gender, our social class or our faith. Some of us might have been the ones to inflict that pain, wittingly or unwittingly. Sad to say that the church, unlike the Lord it tries to follow, has often been good at that.
Perhaps Jesus is calling out to those of us who are wearied and burdened by others’ expectations, others’ conventions and others’ standards. Maybe he is saying:
‘Come to me, all you who are weary and carrying the heavy burdens of rejection and exclusion.’
However, maybe there is something more. Looking back to those accusations at the head of the reading, there is a further clue in the word ‘sinners’. This clue sends us off into our reading from Romans, where Paul wrestles with the perversity of human nature, the weakness that dogs us all when it comes to willpower:
‘I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.’ (Rom 17:15)
There is debate among interpreters about whether the ‘I’ in this passage is Paul talking about himself — perhaps the course of his life before he encountered Christ on the Damascus road — or whether it is a rhetorical device he uses to demonstrate the law’s inability to fix us. In the end, though, the effect amounts to pretty much the same: the clear sense of a man burdened by the way that sin presses in on his will, turning him against what he knows is right, is good and is good for him.
Regardless of how personal Paul is or is not getting here, the implication is clear: this condition is a basic, universal human experience. As the confession for the Scottish Prayer Book’s daily prayer says: ‘there is no health in us’. The question is not whether it affects us, but whether we are aware of the predicament, whether we feel the burden of our sins in our lives, whether — to quote the prayer book Eucharist — ‘The remembrance of them is grievous unto us; The burden of them is intolerable.’
We might feel the weight of wrestling with some form of behaviour that not even those most intimate to us know about — an addiction perhaps. We might feel the weight of the way we have sinned in our closest relationships — when, yet again and despite all that we want to do and be, we react in a way or say something that hurts our nearest and dearest. We might be waking up to the weight of sinful structures on our lives — structural racism, the damage consumerism does to our social fabric and the planet we share with other people, other species.
Perhaps Jesus is calling out to us who are burdened by sin:
‘Come to me, all you who are weary and carrying the heavy burdens of not living up to your own standards or to what God asks you to be.’
There’s a danger I might begin to sound like an old-style, dour Scottish Calvinist here, ratcheting up the guilt with every thump on the pulpit, driving us all deeper into the darkness of total depravity. But, as Paul says, ‘Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!’ For Jesus is indeed the ‘Lord of all hopefulness, Lord of all joy’. What he offers isn’t a muckle big stick to beat ourselves with; no, it’s what we all need: rest for our souls.
Rest for our souls. Those wearied by rejection and exclusion find in Christ the rest of welcome, love and homecoming. Those wearied by the weight of sin find the rest of forgiveness and restoration, a burden removed and fresh energy injected by the Holy Spirit working in our lives.
I think too that Jesus is calling out to those who are simply wearied and burdened by life. And that applies pretty much across the board at the moment, doesn’t it? We are all wearied and burdened by the restrictions and the worries that we have faced and continue to face. What does rest for our souls mean in this time of pandemic, a time when we are tentatively emerging from lockdown, with all the joys and anxieties that evokes, all the uncertainties that it entails?
I suspect that, above all, it’s about space and connection. As I saw people wander into the Cathedral this week — people I didn’t know and had never seen before — and noticed them sit in the nave or walk the labyrinth, it struck me that, in offering that space to them, we were offering them something of the rest that Jesus promises. Likewise, morning and evening prayer, which we continue to do on Zoom at the moment, are spaces where we can taste something of that rest in God, something of God’s ‘unfading light’ and ‘eternal changelessness’.
These are spaces in which we are able to connect: to connect with God and with one another as we rest alone and together, as we share prayer needs or even just the ordinary struggles and delights of the day. It is a connection that can lift us out of the confined space into which lockdown has placed us, lift us — even for a moment — up into the broad space that the Spirit of God creates, into the green pastures of Psalm 23, into the ‘Sweetness most ineffable’ that comes with Christ’s presence.
May we all find something of that rest in the days and weeks ahead. And may we all be people who, in whatever way, guide others into that space.
Questions for Reflection or Discussion
How does Jesus’ invitation to the weary and burdened speak to you? Do you feel yourself to be among that group? If so, in what way(s)?
Do you agree that what Paul says in our Romans reading about the human condition is a universal experience?
What does it mean to be a ‘sinner’? How do you react to that description? How do you react to Jesus’ invitation to sinners?
How might you find rest and/or guide others into rest in the coming days?