If you follow Jesus throughout the gospels, you follow him on a difficult journey. He is received and welcomed along the way. He is ignored or rejected as well, and that must have taken a toll on him. And we see that in today’s gospel passage.
He seems tired, worn out. He needs a break. He has just come from some towns which heard him preach, and as always, some listen, some do not. He needs to pause, to gather himself.
“Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest.” These are gentle words, words for a hot summer day, words that invite a lawn chair in the shade in the back yard and a cool glass of lemonade with ice.
They are words that are addressed to you and to me, words that meet us in a summer of unrest and uncertainty. They are words that recognize that we are carrying a lot in these days. The list is long:
- The unknowability of a virus that has affected everything.
- Deep divisions in our country around the issues of politics and race.
- Uncertainty over how to plan for anything in the coming months.
- A rising sense of anxiety over what the future might hold.
And so in the middle of all that, the gospel today comes to us and simply recognizes that it’s out there, that to be alive in the summer of 2020 means, more than any other summer in our lifetimes, that we are carrying a lot, and it’s not just “those” who labor and are burdened, but “you” who labor and are burdened. The words meet us individually, specifically. The words ask each of us, what burdens are you carrying today?
What were the burdens the people around Jesus would have known as they walked with him and listened to him along the way? To be Jewish in the first century, as Jesus and the people around him were, was to be living under the yoke of the Roman Empire and to be anxiously awaiting some kind of Messiah who would restore Israel’s glory.
And so as people walked with Jesus, they must have told him about their lives, and he must have heard them as they walked along the way. Like any person of any time, they must have spoken about their hopes for their children. They must have spoken about their hopes for peace in a violent world.
They must have spoken about their hopes for some kind of reconciliation and peace with people who were somehow different from them: different languages, races, nationalities. They must have spoken about how this hope for Israel’s glory somehow seemed far off, unrealistic, and how hard it was to hold onto faith in a gracious and merciful God in a mostly pagan world. And as he walked along and listened, he must have heard all that, and he must have realized how tired they all were.
And so in today’s gospel story, he finds a cool, shaded spot by the side of the road. He draws some fresh water from a well. And he invites those who are with him to find a spot in the shade, drink from a cup of cool water, and for a time, to lay all these burdens aside.
He says “come to me”, and amid the burdens and weariness of everyday life, they are three words of simple invitation to a whole other way of living a life. There are burdens that come with living under an empire, Roman or otherwise: you have to fit in, you have to produce, you have to get things done efficiently and on time, you have to buy into the empire’s whole way of life, and there is no room for anything different. And it leads to exhaustion on all levels.
The Roman Empire is gone, but what other “empires” exist in our culture, what ways of living that wear us down and hold us down? Is it a culture of work that allows little or no down-time in our lives? Is it a culture of social media which can build up and tear down peoples’ lives instantly? Is it a culture of beauty which defines who is or is not beautiful? Is it a culture of sports and entertainment which distracts us from deeper questions of civic engagement and justice? Is it a culture of technology which more and more tells us who we are and what we should do?
And these words of Jesus today, amid the burdens of empire and belonging and division and mistrust, these words that tell us “come to me, and I will give you rest.” Come to me, he says, who sees you not as a product of technology, not as one defined by someone else’s idea of beauty or belonging, not as someone defined only by your work, not as a product of the empire.
Come to me, he says, in your anxiety and your fear and your tiredness, and despite everything the empire tells you about what it means to belong or to matter, I will tell you who you are: a child of God, walking along the way amid all kinds of doubts and uncertainties, with you on the way.