There Was Once a Time…, Proper 9 (A) – 2002
July 07, 2002
There was once a time when any of us going to a service of Holy Communion in an Episcopal Church might hear some of Jesus’ words in today’s Gospel. “Come to me all who are weary and carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” Or, in a slightly older form of the English language: “Come unto me all ye who travail and are heavy laden, and I will refresh you.” These words were spoken to us by the Celebrant, right after the Confession and Absolution, and — along with a few other well chosen sentences of Scripture — they were part of what were popularly called, in the tradition of the old Prayer Book, ” The Comfortable Words,” and were introduced by the celebrating priest with the invitation, “Hear what our Lord Jesus Christ saith to all that truly turn to him…” A version of this is still provided in the Rite One Holy Eucharist of today’s Book of Common Prayer.
Those of us who are old enough, and have been Anglican communicants long enough, remember that there was something quite wonderful about hearing those Comfortable Words at that particular point in the liturgy. We had heard the Word of God proclaimed in the lectionary readings of Scripture, just as we do now; and we had heard the preacher’s sermon. We had responded to God’s Word by asserting our faith in God’s unbreakable covenant with us, in the words of the Nicene Creed. We had brought to God all the concerns for “the whole state of Christ’s church and the world” in intercession and petition. Then, as now, we had confessed our manifold sins and wickedness, unburdening ourselves of our grief and guilt by acknowledging our disobedience and our failures of love towards God, our neighbors, and ourselves. We heard the authoritative assurance of pardon to all those who humbly repented and firmly intended to amend our lives-that great declaration of forgiveness intended to raise us up from the dust and ashes of penitence and set us on our feet in joyful liberation and thanksgiving.
And then came the Comfortable Words, to strengthen us and give us courage: “Come unto me …” They were the compass setting, re-orienting us once again towards this gracious God of our hope, the maker and sustainer of our renewed reconciliation and peace, the faithful source of never-ending love in our hearts and lives, the author of that new life in Christ which had been given us in Baptism and was still ours by God’s merciful forgiveness. Now we could affirm and acknowledge the peace of Christ coming into our personal and corporate life — and, refreshed by this, we turned to the Eucharistic offering of ourselves, our souls, and bodies, to be a reasonable, holy and living sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving.
In their Eucharistic context, the words of Jesus, “Come unto me all ye that travail and are heavy laden, and I will refresh you,” were — and still are — comforting and strengthening indeed. But they resonate a bit differently here today in the context of Matthew’s Gospel where, if we look at them more closely, they reveal to us what kind of comfort Jesus had in mind. In this section of Matthew, Jesus is speaking as a teacher — as he so often does, in Matthew. In fact, we can imagine Jesus as a second Moses, delivering the new Law under the same Covenant that Moses himself revealed. Here, Jesus is reassuring his disciples that the yoke of his teaching is easy, and burden of learning from him is light.
We need to realize that the 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 down God’s paths 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 holy living. Those of us who enjoy cooking and read food magazines and cookbooks know that there are some food writers who can turn a simple recipe for mashed potatoes into something so complicated it is intimidating, and not at all the sort of recipe one would give to one’s children who were 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. Of course, by doing this they retained their professional authority and power, but they also managed to turn people away from holiness of life with God, just as a complex recipe for puree of mashed potatoes can send a hungry person off for the box of instant rice.
Throughout Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus the teacher takes great issue with this: God has given his people basic guidelines for holy life, but the Pharisees have ended up making God’s Law inaccessible and impossible to follow. So Jesus assures his disciples that by learning God’s Law his way, they will not be intimidated by complexity or burdened, and condemned to failure, by Pharisaical rules and regulations. Jesus is returning to the simplicity of God’s original Covenant and Law, to give them what they need to steer and guide their path easily, and by following Jesus’ way they will find peace, rest, and refreshment.
By putting these Comfortable Words back into the context of Matthew’s Gospel, we can see they have a depth that is not immediately obvious from their Eucharistic setting. The absolution and forgiveness which we have received as repentant sinners 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 sins don’t matter. The Comfortable Words, “Come unto me all ye that are weary and heavy laden, and I will refresh you,” remind us that God’s incomparable, compassionate forgiveness is a gift that releases us into life with God as responsible human beings who want to grow deeper in love and joyful obedience. After all, we are called not only to find peace, refreshment and rest for ourselves but also to live the kind of lives through which others, too, find God’s peace, God’s refreshing grace, and the joy of placing their lives in God’s hands. AMEN
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