“Come to me, all you that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” (Matthew 11:28)
Those who have known me for any length of time likely know that I’ve had a history struggling with depression – with the old black dog, as Winston Churchill called it.
It’s not a recent history (thanks be to God), and indeed it’s been more than ten years since I stopped taking medication. Even so, I still remember vividly how it felt, and I remember too the effect these words of Jesus had on me when I was at my lowest.
“Come to me, all you that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.”
These are often referred to as the words of assurance, and I have found that at times when I’ve most needed assurance, these words have been to me a cool draught on a hot day – soothing, gentle, and refreshing.
They are, of course, a part of the Anglican liturgy’s invitation to the Eucharist, repeated each week before we gather around Christ’s table, and I find that, week by week, as I kneel and close my eyes, I drink in these words, even when I’m not feeling particularly fragile.
It struck me this year though, as the lectionary brought these words back again to centre-stage, that they were indeed a part of a larger passage, and that perhaps I need to look at them in context. After all, as we say, a text without a context is a pretext for proof text. In other words, we can make the Bible say whatever we want it to say if we disregard the context. Perhaps these words of assurance were never directed towards me in my depression in the first place!
Certainly, I have heard it suggested that by ‘those who labour and are heavy-laden’, Jesus was referring specifically to those who were labouring under the demands of the Jewish Torah, and that the invitation is specifically one to abandon all attempts at self-righteousness under the law and to come to Jesus in faith instead.
That interpretation has a solid Protestant ring to it, doesn’t it? Perhaps it is a valid application of Christ’s invitation? Either way, looking at Jesus’ invitation to the weary and heavy-laden in context should give us the answer, and yet the disturbing thing we find when we look for that answer is that these words of assurance are not, as we might have expected, a part of a series of exhortations about the love of God for all His creatures, but are rather part of a tirade by Jesus, venting His frustrations!
“But to what will I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to one another, 17‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn.’ 18For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon’; 19the Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’” (Matthew 11:16-19)
By ‘John’, Jesus is, of course, referring to John the Baptist – a man who I thought was enormously popular amongst his contemporaries. What we learn from this passage though is that he was not loved by everyone.
My guess is that John was loved by everybody in retrospect, after he died. He was someone who was easier to love at a distance. John was a bizarre ascetic who dressed like the sort of person you didn’t want your kids to hang around with and he smelt terrible (the result of living solely on a diet of locusts and wild honey). Moreover, the message of John was confronting.
John challenged people to ‘prepare the way of the Lord’, and he didn’t pull any punches. It is understandable that people found ways of writing John off. People looked at his bizarre appearance and behaviour and said, “he has a demon!”
The problem with that, Jesus said, is that you can’t have it both ways. John comes, with all his eccentricities and you write him off on account of those, saying ‘he has a demon’. The son of man comes (nb. Jesus, referring to himself) eating and drinking and you write him off as a glutton and a drunkard. There’s no pleasing you people!
What Jesus is pointing to, of course, in both cases, is the way we use rationalisation to avoid truths that we don’t want to deal with.
“It is like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to one another, 17‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn.’” (Matthew 11:16-17) or, as Kierkegaard put it “All obscurity is a dialectical interplay of knowledge and will” (in “The Sickness Unto Death”)
I appreciate that the aphorism Jesus quotes is much easier to understand, but Kierkegaard’s formula is beautifully succinct. All obscurity is a dialectical interplay of knowledge and will. In other words, if you don’t know something, it’s partly because you don’t know it and partly because you don’t want to know it!
If you don’t know what a dialectic is, the most memorable example I know comes from the way vacuum-cleaner sellers used to demonstrate the power of their product.
If you point the tube of the vacuum cleaner into the air and turn it on so that it blows air out, and place a ping-pong ball into the stream of the air, it will bob up and down – forced up by the air coming from the machine and then pushed down again by gravity, and will continue to bob up and down until the machine is turned off.
A dialectic works like that, with two opposing forces constantly pushing something back and forth – in this case, the two opposing forces being knowledge and will. Our knowledge of the truth pushes us to believe something, but then our desire to avoid the consequences of that truth pushes us to find ways of rationalising the truth away.
We may know in our hearts that what Jesus says (or what John the Baptist says) is true, and yet we really don’t want to go where that truth is leading us so we come up with a rationalisation that obscures the truth. We say of Jesus “He is a glutton and a drunkard. You can’t take him seriously as a man of God”. In John’s case, we say, “he has a demon”. Thus, we create obscurity for ourselves through the dialectical interplay of knowledge and will. In other words, we lie to ourselves.
I think we do well never to underestimate the power of self-deception. Conversely, we make a big mistake, I think, if we think we can rationally educate people out of beliefs that they don’t want to give up.
I had a friend who works in the counter-terrorism section of the prison system call me recently. He wanted to know what Bible verses I might offer to a Christian who said he believed that God wanted him to kill all Muslims! I said that while I was no expert in this sort of thing, I didn’t think quoting the Bible to the man was likely to make any difference at all! After all, I can’t imagine that it was a verse from the Bible that drove him to want to murder in the first place. Why would Bible verses be the way out?
I think religious beliefs, and ideologies of all kinds, work this way. We don’t develop our convictions on the basis of rationality – certainly not solely on the basis of rationality – and so rational arguments don’t lead us to change our beliefs either.
I think the human psyche works a lot like a game of Jenga. If you’re not familiar with Jenga, it’s a game where you start with a tower built from fifty-four rectangular wooden blocks, and gameplay consists in trying to successfully remove blocks from the tower, one at a time, without causing the whole thing to fall.
If you are familiar with Jenga, then you know that the key to winning the game lies is choosing the right block to move. Some blocks can be moved without having much of an effect on the greater structure, whereas other blocks prove to be foundational, such that if you threaten to move them, the whole edifice starts to shake!
The things we believe are like this. Some beliefs are strongly supported and, in turn, provide support for other beliefs. Other beliefs bear little relationship to the rest of the structure. We can dispense with them without that making any great difference.
I have beliefs about what the weather will be like tomorrow. I may change those beliefs, or be proven wrong in my beliefs. Either way, I’m not likely to be too shaken.
Take, on the other hand, my belief that the people who said they were my parents really were my parents. That’s something I was probably never explicitly taught, and I can’t think of any particular piece of evidence through which I could prove it to be true. Even so, I hold to that conviction with near absolute certainty! Why? It’s not because (to stick with the Jenga analogy) there are any particular blocks supporting this belief. Rather, it’s the number of other blocks piled on top! So much of my life has been built on this belief, and so many other things I believe assume this, that to question this belief would threaten to topple the whole structure of my life!
I remember some years ago, watching a video on ‘9/11 truth’ with a young American student who was volunteering with us at our youth centre once. We were watching the video footage of the collapse of Building 7. If you’re not familiar with this, the building seems to fall like a controlled demolition. Indeed, as you watch the video, it’s hard to come to any other conclusion other than it was a controlled demolition.
I remember this American student becoming very disturbed by the video and saying, “that can’t be true, because if it is true then my government has been lying to me, and if they’ve been lying about that, how can I believe anything they are saying?”
The video threatened to extract a foundational block from her tower. She had great faith in the truthfulness of her government, and from what I could see that was not because of any great block of evidence supporting that faith, but rather because of all the blocks that had been piled on top of that belief that threatened to come crashing down if her faith in her government proved to be misplaced!
And so we believe what our governments tell us we should believe. We believe that we are the good guys, fighting for the truth, and that if we are bombing and killing other people, that they must be bad people who deserve what they get. We don’t question our governments any more than we question the media, any more than we question the prevailing values of our culture, and the older we get, the less questions we ask because the larger our tower, the greater the crash when it falls!
You may think that I’ve strayed from Matthew chapter 11, but I believe that this issue of self-deception is at the heart of Jesus’ outburst that frames our passage today.
“We played for you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn”, says Jesus (Matthew 11:17), followed by, “Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the deeds of power done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes” (Matthew 11:21)
They should have known better – these people – and indeed, no doubt, deep down, they did know better. If the words of Jesus hadn’t convinced them, then the miracles should have done! If they chose not to believe, it wasn’t for lack of evidence!
Likewise, the prayer of Jesus that follows: “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants” (Matthew 11:25). This is the flip side of the power of self-deception. To stick with the Jenga analogy, the poor and weak are more open to truth because the threat of collapse is less serious when you have no great tower.
What I mean is that if you are well established and powerful, you don’t want your tower to fall. Take the rich young ruler Jesus encounters in Matthew 19:16-22. Jesus challenges the man, you will remember, to sell his possessions and give the money to the poor and follow him (Matthew 19:21) but this young guy has spent his whole life building his tower, block by block, and Jesus wants to bring it to the ground!
That’s all of us, I think, as we grow older and more established – as our towers grow. We don’t want to change what we believe and we don’t want to change the way we live because we don’t want our towers to fall. Conversely, it’s the poor and the weak, those who are fragile and falling apart – those who have no towers – the infants, who hear Jesus’ Gospel and believe it!
And that, I think, answers the initial question about context that I raised at the beginning. Who does Jesus have on view when he invites those who labour and are heavy-laden to find rest in him? It’s the same group who respond to him as infants. It’s the broken and the weak – those who are open to Jesus message of hope because they have everything to gain and not much to lose.
“Come to me, all you that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.”
Is this invitation still addressed to me and to you? I’d like to think so, for it’s an invitation to all of us who are still open to being shaken by Jesus. The cry is to all of us who are willing to see our towers fall and our lives rebuilt on a new foundation.
“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. 30For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:29-30)
sermon first preached on July 9th, 2017, at Holy Trinity Church, Dulwich Hill