Change can be difficult for all of us; changing habits, changing patterns of behaviour, changing how we see and understand the world; that is true for us as individuals but it is also true for the world around us; for the economies that bind us and the political systems that shape us. Why do we seem wedded to such destructive and life denying behaviours in our own lives? Or why do we accommodate to and so perpetuate so many of the seemingly destructive ways of living on our planet and ourselves?
Engaging with that process of change for ourselves and the world around us, is never easy, as Jesus found, as Paul found, as the prophets before them found and as all spiritual teachers through the ages and today continue to find. There is something in our human condition that both aches for change and at the same time resists or sabotages it. In the wider world progress remains uneven – we can hit the dizzying miraculous heights brought to us by technological progress and at the same time accommodate to an economy that is fast destroying precious environments and habitats and generates wasteful and toxic desires in ourselves. We may be shocked by a black man being killed by a white police officer, but settle for persistent, enduring and life denying inequalities when the headlines have blown over.
Todays Gospel begins with Jesus a little frustrated. He has just had disciples of John the Baptist (who had been imprisoned by Herod) come to see him and ask him whether he was the one who everyone was waiting for and of whose coming John had been speaking. Jesus tells them to go and report what they have seen – the blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the dead are raised and the poor have good news brought to them. He finishes ‘and blessed is anyone who takes no offence at me.
The Gospel begins with his continuing to challenge his audience.
We are like children playing a game, but where the rules have been broken and it no longer works. The children blame each other for what has gone wrong, shouting at each other in the marketplace, pointing the finger as they apportion blame. So now Jesus says, people criticise John for neither eating or drinking – he has a demon and call Jesus a glutton and a drunkard – a friend of tax collectors and simmers. In other words, most who heard his message did take offense at his words and were scandalised by his message and found an excuse to dismiss it. He was either to extreme or to lax. We all tend to do much the same; blaming, shifting responsibility, getting cross or finding excuses for not doing what we should. Familiar? I am sure it is to all of us!
The missing verses that are left out of our Gospel reading, speak of those places where Jesus has been who continue to reject his message and his teaching. This has been a theme over these last weeks -the Kingdom that Jesus inaugurates is very resistible.
Jesus continues 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.
My yoke is easy, and my burden is light. Really? That does not make much sense given what Jesus was just saying – what can we make of it? The yoke was a standard way of referring to the law of Moses (the imagery works on the basis not so much of weight but of binding together, so we are pulling in the same direction) but was also used as a metaphor by Rabbis (Teachers) when they were accepting new pupils. The yoke would be that which binds them to their Teacher. Easy Jesus says? Relatively uncomplicated perhaps, compared to the law of Moses as it was interpreted by Jesus’
contemporaries – we are to love God and to love our neighbour as ourselves, but easy? Far from it – the path is challenging, scandalous, and offensive. Jesus knew that; remember his words ‘and blessed is anyone who takes no offence at me.
The burden may be light in terms of weight, but far from light in terms of the invitation to change, to look in a new direction and to hear the summons ‘come follow me’.
Paul spent many years after his experience on the road to Damascus out of the public spotlight, some time in Arabia and then presumably back home in Tarsus, making sense of what he had experienced. When he did emerge and begin his journeys, he was preaching a new Gospel, a universal Gospel available to all and no longer based on Jewish identity and conformity to the Torah (Law). For one who had been a distinguished Pharisee, well versed in the ways of the world, this was a huge turn around. The Law and conformity to it’s requirements had been key to who he was – the reason he had been on the way to Damascus was precisely to stamp out those people of the Way (as the early followers of Jesus were called) who he thought were threatening the integrity of the Jewish identity.
However, it would have been surprising if the Torah and its significance had not continued to play a part in Paul’s thinking and imagination. The passage from Paul’s letter to the Romans that we read today comes from a section of that letter where he is looking at the whole area of human behaviour, in the light of the law. It is a bit clunky in parts but there are some real gems in it.
I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.
So begins the passage today and we are taken to the heart of our struggle as humans – our motivation and our desire. If we are honest most of us will recognise the truth of what Paul is saying- we all have ideas and aspirations, hopes and dreams but how often do they turn to dust? We may yearn for a fairer world, but do not really want to change how things are organised. Better public services – oh yes. More taxes to fund them – no thanks! Protect the Amazon Rain forest – yes please but make the necessary changes – not really.
It is the same in our personal lives too – how often do we all repeat the same mistakes – either in friendships or in our church or work relationships. We can be just like those children in the marketplace from our Gospel reading, blaming each other for their own failures, not really taking responsibility for what has gone wrong.
In his wisdom, Jesus taught another way, one fuelled not by rivalry or competition; not by getting one over or always being right. We are asked by Jesus to bind ourselves to him, so we can imitate him and free ourselves and those around us from the poisonous yokes of consumerism, racism and the violence that stalks our world and endangers our environment. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me says Jesus. Through his nonviolent compassion, servanthood, humility, generosity, and love Jesus becomes the model for a new humanity. That remains our hope for ourselves and our world.
Revd Jonathan Morris
16 “To what can I compare this generation? They are like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling out to others:
17 “‘We played the pipe for you, and you did not dance; we sang a dirge, and you did not mourn.’
18 For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon.’ 19 The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.’ But wisdom is proved right by her deeds.”
25 At that time Jesus said, “I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children. 26 Yes, Father, for this is what you were pleased to do.
27 “All things have been committed to me by my Father. 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.
28 “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. 29 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. 30 For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”