Fourth Sunday after Trinity Matthew 11:16-19. 25-end
“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” (Matthew 11:28)
In the athletics at the Paralympic Games, visually impaired runners are paired with guides – fellow runners who match them step for step and act as their eyes along the track. They run connected by a small piece of rope called a tether, which helps to keep them in their lane. Runners and guides share a tight bond of trust. They train hard together so that they can run in sync, and both receive any medals won.
Jerome Avery, running buddy for USA blind sprinter Davis Brown at the Rio Paralympics in 2016, says: “The biggest misconceptions people have about visually impaired people is that they can’t be athletes. But they have the speed, the knowledge and the fire.”
Yoked to a fellow runner, a blind athlete can achieve what would otherwise be beyond their dreams, watched by crowds of sighted spectators. These spectators may be armchair experts on the sport, but they cannot experience the companionship and sense of achievement that the athletes in the field do.
In today’s Gospel reading Jesus addresses his spectators, who seem unimpressed with what they have seen. John the Baptist has been living an austere life in the wilderness, calling for all to repent and prepare for the Messiah’s coming. People criticised his seriousness. Jesus has come, enjoying the hospitality of sinners and tax collectors as he embodies the Good News of God’s kingdom. People sneer at the company he keeps. Jesus points out the awkward truth – that nothing is good enough for these complainers.
We might have some sympathy. The religiously educated of the day are certain the Messiah will come as warrior hero, not servant king. They know scripture’s warnings against false prophets, so they are taking no chances with Jesus. But these detractors are resisting coming close to and being changed by Jesus. They would rather not hear him challenge their comfortable, religious way of life. They are well versed in scripture, but use their learning to make excuses for not believing. They resist God doing a new thing among them through Jesus. But God is not defeated. Jesus rejoices that others are finding their way into the kingdom. Those who come with a childlike dependence rather than acquired expertise have less to lose, as they receive God through relationship with the Son. They are readier to embrace change and more willing to learn.
Jesus’ listeners would be familiar with the yoke as a wooden frame that links two oxen together. Jesus invites those who are weary and burdened by the demands that are put on them – perhaps even by their religious leaders – to come to him. The way into God’s kingdom is not as a self-sufficient expert, but as one willing to surrender self-rule by being joined to Jesus.
There are constraints, as Jesus guides us along the right track and we keep in sync with him. But he will not crush people with cumbersome demands and expectations from above. He is ever alongside us, leading us firmly and gently in ways that we could not have travelled on our own.
If we have been part of a Christian community for some time, it is all too easy to become settled in our ways. There is much to value in long-serving stability, but we may become less open to change. We may unconsciously assume we already know how things should be, and become spectators more than participators.
Our Gospel reminds us that, although God is unchanging, God can and does do new things down the generations. Jesus may come afresh to us, perhaps through different people, unexpected changes, unfamiliar approaches to worship, or a call to serve in a new way. We are called to be discerning, neither to take on change for the sake of novelty, nor to resist it for the sake of our own comfort. How can we tell the difference? We can do so by being willing to learn, by being prayerfully open to keeping in touch with Jesus. Finally, we need to be honest with ourselves, willing to admit if the reason we are pushing something away is merely out of an unwillingness to face change.