I love how after forty years of being in the Church, the Scriptures can still take me by surprise sometimes. I was excited this week to see that the Gospel for today included Jesus’ beautiful words offering rest and comfort for weary people: “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” (Mt 11.28-29). But what took me by surprise today is how much of a sharp turn this offering represents in the passage.
The passage begins with Jesus complaining about the world’s hypocrisy: His cousin John had been a desert ascetic, and people complained; Jesus, for his part, feasts, and people complain. In the verses the lectionary skips over, he expresses his frustration at the cities that responded to his miracles of healing with indifference or even anger. What is this generation like? he asks: “We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn.”
This complaint is in keeping with a thread in Jesus’ teaching that urges us to do what is appropriate in the moment: When the bridegroom is in the room, you feast. When you are making wine, you pour it into a wineskin that won’t burst as the wine ferments. And so on. It’s interesting to think of the Beatitudes in light of this teaching, for they too reveal a heavenly Kingdom where each is given what they need, what is appropriate in their circumstances: the grieving are given comfort; the hungry are given food; those who long to be right with God will be; those who have been unfairly treated will receive justice.
Last Fall when I was reflecting on this theme, I mentioned the idea of kairos, an appointed time for something to happen. I wrote:
[Kairos] understands that life is a complicated mixture of things in our control and things out of our control, that there are cycles and seasons, but rather than use that to defend a kind of passive fatalism, it sees that, with wisdom, we can learn to read the signs of the times and know when and how to act appropriately to seize the moment we’ve been given. It may not be the time to do what we want, but what then is it the time for?
While I could not have known it at the time, this seems like a perfect lesson for 2020, this year that has left us all scrambling. And with neither the pandemic nor this Summer’s calls for justice going anywhere anytime soon, it’s safe to say that the year’s pressures are going to continue. With temperatures and tempers rising, frustration with both public health measures and those who refuse to abide by them increasing, and calls for meaningful changes to deeply rooted systems being frustrated by active resistance, intertia, and the simple fact of just how deep those roots go, we’re likely in for at least a difficult few months more. And so I’m left again to ask: This may not be the time to do what I want, but what then is it the time for? What does this moment call me to do? How do I love my neighbour as myself — here and now?
Black folk are grieving and calling for justice. What does that call me to do?
Indigenous peoples are insisting once again that their treaty rights be respected and the life-and-death issues of their communities be taken — finally — off the back burner. What does that call me to do?
COVID-19 continues to harm and kill thousands, and the public health measures combating it continue to disrupt lives and economies. What does this call me to do?
And, lest we forget, the planet is warming at an unsustainably and unprecedentedly fast pace. What does this call me to do?
If all this sounds exhausting, well, it should. It’s hard work calling for justice. It’s hard work to come to terms with the fact that the benefits of our society are not as fairly distributed as we had been led to believe. It’s hard work trying to undo the tight knots of five hundred years of unjust relationships. It’s hard work figuring out new ways of doing life — especially when even simple things like getting groceries or going to the dentist suddenly require careful thought and planning.
If we’re feeling tired or our emotions are a bit rawer than we’d like, there’s good reason for that. What we’re going through both as individuals and collectively is exhausting.
And so, as surprising a turn as it may be, I’m glad today’s Gospel reading — beginning as it does with a litany of complaints and woes about a world that doesn’t respond appropriately to God’s activity — ends with an offer of rest for a weary people.
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.
As much as this present moment calls us to respond appropriately, rest is a part of that appropriate response. And in challenging times, that is very good news indeed.
Work hard, brothers and sisters: We’ve got so much work to do. And when you’re tired, remember that our gracious God offers you rest.