Today, the lectionary invites us to contemplate the first of the phrases known as the ‘comfortable words’, which we will use later in our service. Come unto me, all ye that travail and are heavy laden...which I have to confess I prefer to the more prosaic version we’ve just heard from the New Revised Standard Version.
I like the old word ’travail’ because it has its root in a Latin word for ’torture’. The word ’weary’ just doesn’t have the same energy about it. Does it?
Now I have to say that there is a tendency for us to over-sentimentalise these words of Jesus. We imagine that this is Jesus effectively mopping our brow, holding us to his bosom, and saying ‘there, there ...just come to Daddy, and everything will be alright’. But as I’ve often taught, context is everything. We need to understand the context in which Jesus speaks these words.
Jesus has been arguing - again - with the religious leaders of his day. They taught a form of religion which was packed full of rules. There were dire consequences at play for the failure to keep any one of such rules. After these words, Jesus has yet another debate, about the laws of the Sabbath.
The rabbis of the time had a phrase, which they often used, to describe the process of following the law, or the Torah. If you were a strict and observant Jew, then you had taken upon you ‘the yoke of the Torah’. Like a horse fixed to a plough, you had put the heavy yoke of the law on your shoulders. The law was a burden to be borne.
In direct contrast, Jesus invites everyone to take up his yoke. His yoke is easy, and his burden is light. It’s important to realise that Jesus himself was a recognised rabbi. When he used talked about yokes, his listeners would have known precisely what he was saying.
Jesus was inviting his followers not to worry about the strict letter of the laws of Moses. Whether you eat the right food, or wear the right clothes, whether you are ritually clean or unclean, how far you may walk or work on the Sabbath day - all these are distractions from the central, core, message of loving God and loving our neighbour.
Now I would fully understand if, by now, you’re getting a bit fed up of me harping on about Jesus’ message of loving God and loving neighbour. I freely acknowledge that it is often the point at which my sermons tend to arrive.
I’m reminded of the story of the Vicar who preached the same sermon two weeks running. Then on the third Sunday he preached it again. Then on the fourth Sunday, he preached it again! His churchwarden took him to one side and said, ‘Father, do you realise you’ve preached the same sermon four times now?’
‘Yes’, replied the priest. ‘And when I see evidence among the congregation that my message has been heard, I’ll move on to another one!’
This is not to say that I don’t see signs among my congregation of love being expressed. Nothing could be further from my mind. I’ve been SO impressed by the love that our pastoral volunteers have been showing to lonely parishioners. I’m so grateful to those who have helped Sandra, Will and me to get the church open for visitors. I’m amazed by the loving generosity of so many donors to the parish, and to the Discretionary Fund, so that we can help some of the most needy of our neighbours. There has been a lot of love - for God and our neighbours - which this parish has shown in recent months.
But I do want to carry on encouraging each of us to take the two greatest commandments ever more seriously. I believe that we need to go deeper and deeper into what it truly means to love God with all our heart, mind, soul and strength. And what it really means to love our neighbours as ourselves.
It is not for me to work out what that challenge means for each one of you. I could offer a hundred examples of ways in which we could all love God and love our neighbour with greater depth. But actually, the task of working that out is yours. It’s part of the yoke of Jesus to work out the implications of Jesus’ radical message in your own life. How you spend your time, how you spend your money, where you direct your energies - all these choices are yours to make in the light of the two greatest commandments.
Jesus’ yolk of love is indeed a light burden - compared to the yoke of the Torah it replaced. But it is still a yoke. It is still a call to a way of life which demands my soul, my life, and my all.
For only then, when I have expended myself completely for the love of God and neighbour, only then will I truly find the rest for my soul that Jesus’ yoke offers to all. Amen.
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