Sunday’s Gospel lesson is a doozy, and reading it in context doesn’t seem to help. After sending his Apostles out with the instructions we’ve heard over the past three weeks, Jesus returned to his own ministry of healing and preaching. Matthew doesn’t reiterate Jesus’ message, but we know that on this missionary journey, like all the others, he has be proclaiming that the Kingdom of God has come near. This is the same message that John the Baptist preached during his ministry at the Jordan (see Mt 3). Interestingly, it is during this time that John, now in prison, sends his disciples to ask, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”
It is in response to this question from John the Baptist that Jesus engages in the teaching we will hear on Sunday. The seemingly random aside about children in the marketplace, the woes to unrepentant cities that the lectionary skips, and even this prayer to the Father about thing hidden from the wise, are all a result of John’s somewhat surprising questioning of Jesus’ Messiahship. But what really strange about all of this is how Jesus wraps it all up by saying, ““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.”
Is Jesus being ironic here? After a chapter of pretty difficult apocalyptic teaching, he’s going to end with “my yoke is easy and my burden is light”? Has he not heard himself for the last five minutes? He has literally just condemned Bethsaida and Capernaum, the home towns of several of his disciples, to a fate worse than Sodom for their unbelief. What is easy about this faith if John the Baptist can’t handle it? How light can the burden possibly be if these towns filled with faithful Jews can’t carry his teaching?
Preachers, and by that I mean, I tend to isolate this final verse from the rest of the lesson and talk about how a Rabbi’s yoke was his teaching, and how Jesus’ commandments to love God and love neighbor would seem downright easy compared to the teaching of the Pharisees, but in context, what Jesus is suggesting is downright heavy. That is, until we remember that the task of the disciple is not to accomplish faith on our own, but rather to allow Jesus to carry it for us. John was struggling. In prison for his teaching and looking at the horizon of his own demise, he wanted to be sure that he had done the right thing. His faith faltered, if only for a moment, and he looked for reassurance. What he got was the word that being in prison was exactly where he was supposed to be, and that while his burden seemed heavy, God was there to help lighten the load. His death would not be in vain. His faith, unstable as it might have been at the time, would not fail. The burden of following Jesus, even to death, is light because we are not invited to carry it alone.