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14th sunday in ordinary time

Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

The Easy Yoke of Christ

Stress in America

The American Psychological Association conducted a survey to determine the level of stress in America. They discovered that most Americans are suffering from moderate to high stress with 44 percent reporting that their level of stress increased over the past five years. Money, work, and the economy were the most frequent areas of concern. They reported that because of their stress they suffered from irritability or anger, fatigue, lack of energy, anxiety, depression and other physical aliments. The survey also discovered that most Americans believe that the biggest barrier to adopting a healthier life was their lack of willpower, and they believe that they could learn to master their willpower if they only had more money, energy or self-confidence.1

Stress is a normal part of life. We need some stress just to exist. Not all stress is bad. Without any stress we would not have enough pressure in our veins for our blood to flow. But external and internal events can produce an unhealthy amount of stress, causing a great deal of distress.

The survey indicated that over 70 percent of Americans believe that they could overcome their stress if they just had enough willpower. That is a tragic figure. Americans have been deluded into thinking that willpower is the key to their success. The fall of the first man and the first woman is a product of our preference toward self reliance. A spirit of arrogance deludes us into thinking that we possess the capabilities to be masters of our own destiny. We still attempt to live on our own. We still strive to find God's approval by performing good religious deeds. We still assume that we have the skills and expertise to manage our lives. We still think that we have the emotional fortitude to withstand the pressures of living.

Given our reluctance to surrender our pride, we should not be surprised when our level of stress becomes unmanageable. We are duplicating the very behavior that produces the stress. We are relying on the very value system that causes stress. We are locked into a repeating cycle. Jesus offers an alternative. He says “Come onto me all you who are heavy laden and I will give your rest...for my yoke is easy.”

Martin Luther, the great reformer of the 16th Century says that by these words Jesus turns “the kingdom of God into a hospital for the invalid.” There is great truth in that comment. The kingdom of God is for the downtrodden, the weak, the disadvantaged. Jesus was born in a stable, not a palace. His parents could only afford the lowest form of a sacrifice. His fatherly mentor “Joseph” died when he was young. He knew the travails of growing up in a single parent family. He understood heartache, disappointment and suffering. So he calls us to come to him to find our relief from our burdens and our stress.

However we must be careful how we apply this message. It is indeed therapeutic but it does not heal in the way that we would prefer. To our 21st century western ears, Jesus is saying, come to me, I have the jacuzzi full of warm water, the massage jets are bubbling, and would you like a glass of wine or a bottle of imported beer? The context in which Matthew has placed this passage gives us a very different understanding of Jesus's offer of comfort.

John The Baptist

The saying comes at the tail end of a discussion about John the Baptist. The cousin of Jesus is languishing in prison. One day John saw a dove come and rest upon Jesus just as God had told him in a vision. John therefore assumed that Jesus would inaugurate the kingdom of God but John does not see the evidence. The Roman puppet Herod and his adulterous wife Herodian still rule a portion of Israel. Roman legions still march through streets of Jerusalem. The wages of hard working Jews were still filling the coffers of Roman emperors. Jesus had been preaching for over a year and nothing had changed. John sends his disciples to Jesus. They ask him “Are you the one or are we to wait for another.”

Jesus does not answer the question. That is not unusual. Jesus seldom answered anyone's question directly. Instead, he tells John's disciples to observe what is happening. The blind receive sight. The lame walk. The lepers are cured. The deaf hear. The dead are raised. The good news is preached to those who are poor. John now had to draw his own conclusions.

A few months later Herod had John beheaded because of a promise he made to his seductive stepdaughter. How did Jesus comfort John? How did Jesus relieve John's affliction? He did not physically break the chains that held John captive. He did not break down the prison doors and release John from his captivity. John remained in a dungeon hole until he was butchered at the request of a woman thirsty for power, prestige and prosperity.

Where is the comfort in that story?

Sending The Twelve

We must also take another step back and consider the events that came before the story of John. It is all part of one section. Matthew is compiling a set of stories with a common theme. Each one builds upon the other. You cannot appreciate one unless you know what has proceeded.

Before Matthew tells us that John is in prison, he recalls the events of the selection of the Twelve. These would be the men with whom Jesus would entrust his message. These would be the designated leaders of the new kingdom. There would be twelve to represent the twelve tribes of Israel. However, their selection would not be based upon family heritage, but on a heart that longs to see the kingdom. These men display a spirit of humility that would seek to serve not dominate and control.

Jesus calls them to be with him. He befriends them. He spends time with them. He entrusts them with his power to heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse those who are leprosy, drive out demons. But then in the same breath he tells them that they will be flogged, arrested and persecuted and some may even lose their lives.

Let me ask you, “Where is the comfort in that calling? Tell me how that yoke is light.”

Sister Teresa of Avila was a nun who lived in the 16th century. She had a rather amazing prayer life. She would see visions and was supposed to have even levitated. She had an amazing relationship with God. One rainy day she was traveling from to a distant city. The road was not paved and her mule was very uncooperative. Several times she had to climb off her wagon and either help the beast of burden pull the cart through the mud or persuade it. She was wet muddy and tired when the mule decided that he had had enough. He stopped and even sat down in the road. She climbed down once again from her cart and began pulling on the mule's harness. At that moment God spoke to her, “Sister Teresa, this is how I treat my friends.” To which she replied, “It is no wonder then that you have so few.”

The Commands of Christ

Matthew has presented us with two examples of people who came to Jesus and willingly took on his yoke. In the estimation of the secular world, their lives were anything but easy or comforting. The words of Jesus do not get any easier when we consider another aspect of the yoke that Jesus gives us.

The image of a yoke is often used in the Hebrew Scriptures to refer to the rule or the dominion of one nation over another. The people of the conquered land must take on the yoke of slavery. Jesus is asking us to take on his yoke. He says it is easy but consider what he is asking us to do. Subjecting ourselves to his rule requires complete obedience to his commands. Jesus came to fulfill the law and thereby do away with the ceremonial sacrifices but he also gives us his own commands. Jesus both negates and affirms the OT law of God.

He tells us to love those people who hate us. We are to even endure the physical and verbal assaults from people. If someone does insult us or hurt us we are to forgive them 77 times.

We are not to worry about what we will have for dinner or what we will wear; nor are we to accumulate any earthly possession and what we do own, we are to sell it and give it to the poor.

We are confronted with several challenging questions. In what ways does Jesus comfort us? How does his word bring comfort in times of distress? How does he lighten the load of responsibility, duty and obligation?

The most obvious burdens to which Jesus is referring are the religious obligations we put on ourselves. We strive for righteousness through works of service and religious deeds. We try to earn special favors from God by obeying the major commandments about murder, theft, and adultery. In a crisis we attend church with greater consistency, hoping that he will hear our prayers. We speak about the gospel of grace but feverishly strive to work our way into God's good graces. We struggle to accept the light yoke of grace.

Coming to Christ not only requires letting him lift the burden of guilt off our backs but it also requires accepting the yoke of discipleship. This is the tough one to really understand because the reality is, the commands of Jesus are difficult. Anyone who denies that reality or tries to minimize the demands is distorting his teaching. So how do they become light? How do they become easy?

Through transformation.

Coming to Jesus requires a surrender to his will and his rule in our lives. As we yield to his reign our attachment to material possessions is replaced by a desire to invest in things important to the kingdom. We become generous with our money. We simply do not worry about how much is in our bank accounts. Our emotional mood is not controlled by the erratic swings of the stock market. We do not over spend beyond our budget but build a savings account for emergencies.

When we lose our job because of budget-saving staff reductions, we do not panic. We trust that God has given us certain gifts and abilities that can be used by some company. We just have to find that one employer who needs us. We can walk through a period of unemployment because we have built up an emergency fund through fugal living.

We are told that we have a terminal illness. The news stuns us. We would like to enjoy our grandchildren. We would like to see a son or daughter get married. We would still like to do so many things in life but we come to accept the finality of our days because we hold onto a hope of resurrection.

In coming to Jesus we put aside the values, attitudes and perspectives of the secular world. We allow his teaching to permeate our thoughts. We allow the wisdom of God to reshape our values and beliefs. However, we do not come to Jesus by watching TV and movies on DVD, Blu-ray or U-verse. The stories of desperate housewives and two bachelors and a teenager are laced with values that contradict the gospel. They may be humorous. They may be entertaining but they are shaping our thoughts, our perspectives and even our beliefs. The clothes, hairdos, and make-up look great on screen but create a dissatisfaction within us over our used apparel and wrinkled skin.

We will never learn to enjoy the easy yoke of Christ so long as we try to carry the yoke of the secular world.




1"Stressed in America," Monitor on Psychology, January 2011, Vol 42, No. 1, http://www.apa.org/monitor/2011/01/stressed-america.aspx

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