Fifth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 9)
“To what can I compare this generation? They are like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling out to others:
“‘We played the pipe for you, and you did not dance; we sang a dirge, and you did not mourn.’
For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon.’ 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.”
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. Yes, Father, for this is what you were pleased to do.
“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.
“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, 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.”
Most of us are familiar with the last bit of this passage, Jesus' invitation to the weary and burden to come to him and find rest. But as I read this passage, I am struck by the context: as Matthew 11 opens, John the Baptist is wondering from his prison cell if Jesus really is the messiah. Then Jesus berates those who disbelieved John, finding excuses to dismiss him — and then using the opposite excuses to dismiss Jesus himself.
I’m not sure that I’ve paid attention to this context before, instead reading Jesus' words to the weary as a free-floating invitation. In this context, however, it seems to me that Jesus is undercutting the constant attempts by those in power to police who is in and who is out.
As anyone who has had any proximity to middle school knows, the criteria for “in” and “out” can shift swiftly and without much reason beyond preserving the power and status of the already powerful. And this doesn’t just happen amongst tweens and teens; we adults do it all the time, even if we attempt to be more subtle.
Policing boundaries can make us feel powerful, secure, important. Being policed is less pleasant, although even that can provide a measure of certainty and stability: if we just follow the rules, and stay alert to any changes in what those rules are, we’ll be safe. Probably.
We tend to ignore that the price of these feelings of power and security is constant anxiety. We have to maintain the line between in and out, and we have to constantly check that we remain on the “in” side of the line. We exhaust ourselves, growing weary under the burden of our self-imposed tasks.
But Jesus says: don’t burden yourself with this anxiety. Jesus knows the Father; Jesus reveals the Father to us not because we’re “in,” not because we’re good or powerful or wise or important, but simply because he loves us. We can’t put ourselves outside of God’s love.
Jesus invites us to lay down the burden of keeping ourselves in line and instead enter into relationship with him. Jesus invites us to stop exhausting ourselves to maintain our power and instead come to him. Wisdom, knowledge, acceptance, love — all these come from God through Christ and the Spirit, not from the endless power games of closed sets.
I do think that Jesus' invitation to the weary and burdened is broad; this verse has resonated with many, many people in many situations over the years. But as the divisions and polarizations in American society continue to increase, it’s worth paying special attention to the context of this invitation.
Let us set down the heavy burden and irksome yoke of deciding which group we ought to join or how we ought to preserve the line between “in” and “out” in that group. Instead, let us fix our eyes on Jesus, through whom — in the power of the Spirit — we see God. And let us also encourage those around us to find their rest in God, because only in God can we find true peace and security.
(On a note related to this post, I just finished reading And Then They Stopped Talking to Me, by Judith Warner, a fantastic book about parenting kids through middle school. I highly recommend it to parents or to anyone, really, who interacts regularly with tweens!)