Not so comfortable words: Oct 1, 2017

October 2, 2017

Year A, St. Francis                                                    

Matthew 11:20-30                                                                             

            “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.” That is probably a familiar passage for most of you. The first part of it is used in the Rite 1 service.  It comes after the confession and absolution and is referred to as the “comfortable words.”  They are called “comfortable words” because they are verses that are supposed to bring people comfort.  It makes sense to put it right after the absolution, after we have confessed our sins and been forgiven.  Where it does not make sense is where it comes in the actual Gospel reading.  It comes right after Jesus tells several cities that they are doomed.  “You will all suffer! Come to me so I can comfort you.”  At first glance, it seems like a weird combination. 

            Generally, when Jesus starts a sentence with “Woe to you…” you pretty much know that it won’t end well.  Jesus seems angry as he condemns these cities.  He had done some of his best work in these cities.  There were miracles that were not even described in the Gospels, things we cannot  imagine.  There were sermons never heard again…because no one cared enough to write them down.  It would be easy to assume that these reproachful words to these cities came from a place of anger. 

While it is true that Jesus did get angry at times, the “Woe” statements were about more than anger. It was disappointment, sadness.  One commentator described these verses as “The accent of heartbroken condemnation.”[1] In these five verses, Jesus condemned five different towns.  One would expect that they would have done something pretty horrible.  Actually we don’t know of anything horrible that happened in these cities. It appears that the worst of their crimes was that they were indifferent to Jesus.  He performed the majority of his miracles in those towns, and they responded with apathy.  There was no reformation.   There was no transformation.  They did not reject Jesus or run him out of town.  They did not care enough to even respond to Jesus’ presence.

            Why is it that we have this interesting combination of verses as we honor St. Francis?  I read that St. Francis is one of the most popular and admired saints, but probably the least imitated.  It is not difficult to realize why that is.  He lived a life of abject poverty.  He gave away all that he had and renounced the wealth of his father.  He would not accept money for any work he did, only food.  When he did not have work he would go through the garbage for food. He worked with the lepers, the outcasts of society.  People were attracted to him for his air of joy, abandonment and freedom. The pope created the order of friars that would take a vow of poverty.  The order grew quickly and then suffered the loss of many people. Men who joined could not accept the lifestyle that was required. Francis was forced to make some concessions because so few people could follow in his footsteps.          

            On the feast of St. Francis, the Episcopal Church has a tradition of blessing animals.  I love that tradition because I love animals.  I believe that they too are part of God’s beloved creation.  When God created us, the expectation is that we would take care of this world that he created and that includes animals.  St. Francis is associated with animals because there are a lot of legends with him and animals. He loved animals…and not just the cute and cuddly kind.  While I enjoy the animal blessing, I fear that sometimes we overemphasize this part of St. Francis, and ignore the parts of St. Francis that are more challenging…like giving away all of your money and hanging out with lepers. 

            I think we do the same thing with Jesus and the Bible. We tend to tame Jesus and his words.  We emphasize the comfortable words and we skim over the parts where Jesus condemns a city for ignoring him and displaying apathy.  Both Francis and Jesus asked a lot of people and  Jesus continues to expect a great deal from us. He wants more than one hour of attention on Sunday morning.  He wants all of us.  Someone once said, “Jesus loves you just the way you are, but he loves you too much to let you stay that way.”  Jesus wants transformation and transformation is hard and usually inconvenient.

            This is why I have always found it strange that Jesus said, “My yoke is easy and my burden is light.” There is nothing easy about Jesus…so what does he mean when he says this?  A yoke is a wooden beam generally used on a pair of oxen.  The beam would go over the two oxen, connecting them to one another as well as to the load they were pulling. The best kind of yoke was one that was custom fitted to the ox so that there was no chafing.  This would allow them to pull heavy loads, but it would still be comfortable on their necks and shoulders.   The Greek word that is translated to “easy” in this text, could also be translated to well fitting or kind.  Well fitting yokes were kind to the animals because it kept them more comfortable.  It did not make the load lighter; it just made it easier to carry. 

If we were to go with this translation, Jesus would be saying, “My yoke is well fitting and kind.”  That makes a little more sense to me.  Jesus did not say that following him would be easy. He did not even say that he would lighten our burdens.  What he said was that if we followed him and did our very best to be his disciples, he would walk with us, even when the load seems unbearable.  The yoke goes over 2 oxen.  When we are his disciples, we are yoked to Jesus.  And if you are going to carry a heavy load, the best partner you can have is Jesus. 


[1] Barclay 12