The words of Jesus, “Come unto me all you who are heavy laden, and I will refresh you,” were — and are — comforting and strengthening. When I was a child, however, the words seemed ironic in view of the many expectations the institutional Church seemed to be putting on me: no meat on Fridays, no eating before communion, mandatory fasting and abstinence in Lent, no impure thoughts, words or deeds, no birth control once I got married, mandatory Mass attendance on Sundays and those irksome Holy Days—to name only the highlights of Roman Catholicism in the Sixties. But the words resonate a bit differently here today in the context of Matthew’s Gospel where, if we look at them closely, they reveal to us what kind of comfort Jesus has in mind. In this section of Matthew, Jesus is speaking as a teacher — as he so often does. Matthew is writing his Gospel as a tool for converting Jews, trying to rework the Jesus story into the story of Moses. Matthew wants us to see clearly that Jesus is the Second Moses, delivering the new Law under the same covenant that Moses had delivered. Jesus is reassuring his disciples that the yoke of his teaching is easy, and burden of learning from him is light.
Rabbis of this period in history routinely referred to the responsibilities of living by God’s Law as a “yoke” — as something people took on themselves to steer and guide them in life. And it seems to have been a common complaint, addressed above all to the scribes and Pharisees as interpreters of God’s Law, that their teachings had become complicated and difficult to follow, a burden rather than a guide to spiritual living.
Those of us who enjoy cooking and reading food magazines and staying up late watching Food Network know that some cooks—like Alton Brown– can turn a simple recipe into something so complicated it is intimidating, and not at all the sort of recipe one would give to someone learning how to cook.
The trouble with the Pharisees and their complicated interpretations of the Law was the same sort of problem: they had managed to make some basic guidelines very complex and intimidating. They called this “building a fence around the Torah”. An example would be the prohibition on the taking of innocent life. The Law forbade it, but the rabbis added teachings and prohibitions onto this, so that eventually even getting angry at your neighbor was forbidden, because it was observed that unchecked anger led to homicidal acts. Anger in and of itself, of course, was not forbidden, but by adding this prohibition, the rabbis hoped to further protect the core teaching against murder.
In my lifetime, this is how I experienced the Church when it came to those sex sins: the commandment said that adultery was wrong, but the Christian theologians extended that to include fornication. And not only that, but also any sexual activity outside heterosexual marriage. And not only that, but also any sort of word or thought relating to any of these activities. As a result, the core teaching of protecting the marital relationship got lost in a flurry of other teachings that were presented as dogmatically as the original prohibition.
It didn’t take long before the rabbis (and later the Church) realized that building these fences had immediate and happy results for them: suddenly they had more authority and power, which became intoxicating. The downside was, they also managed to turn people away from religion and worship of God, just as a complex recipe for boeuf bourguignon can send a former sous-chef like myself off to the pantry for a can of Dinty Moore beef stew.
Throughout Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus the teacher takes issue with the idea of adding commandment on commandment. God has given people basic guidelines for life, but the Pharisees ended up making God’s Law inaccessible and impossible. No wonder so many people thought of themselves as unworthy! So Jesus assures his disciples that by learning God’s Law his way, they will not be intimidated, burdened, or condemned to failure. Jesus returns to the simplicity of God’s original Covenant, to give them what they need, and by following Jesus’ way they will find peace, rest, and refreshment.
The absolution and forgiveness which we receive in moments of conversion or repentance is neither conditional upon our ability to follow complicated rules, nor is it a permissive wave of the hand of an overindulgent parent implying that our willful sins don’t matter. The words, “Come unto me all ye that are weary and heavy laden, and I will refresh you,” remind us that God’s incomparable compassion is a gift that brings us into a deeper awareness of our life in God. It releases us from unnecessary worrying or feelings of unworthiness so we can continue to grow deeper in love with God, with ourselves and with each other. This new awareness is essential to our ministry if we are to have a joyful and inviting ministry, as opposed to a dour and judgmental one. At every Mass, just after the Our Father, the priest prays, “Deliver us from every evil and grant us peace in our day. Keep us free from anxiety as we wait in joyful hope…” This is an explicit reminder of the need to let go and let God, as they say.
There will always be stressors in our life. There will always be disappointments, tragedies and challenges. Jesus, as the one who shows us the Way, does not promise a carefree existence as a kind of divine reward for doing the right thing. In point of fact, doing the right thing often has no reward attached to it, at least not that we can perceive. But at the end of the day, we will be able to say with a clear conscience that we have striven to incarnate the presence of God in our relationships, in our families, in our world. And therein lies the reward.
“Come unto me, all you who are heavy laden with worries and addictions and dysfunctional relationships and fear and anger and feelings of unworthiness….and I will give you rest.”