Colleen Hartung's Homily, July 6, 2014

Holy Wisdom Monastery Homilies, Sunday Assembly Leave a Comment

“He  Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother”
(Matthew 11: 16-19, 25-30)


“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….  You will find rest for your souls.  For my yoke is easy and my burden is light” (Matthew 11: 28-30).


The Jesus of Matthew’s Gospel likes to tell parables or share scraps of wisdom, like this one, that throw his listeners a little off balance.  He does this in order to make them ponder and rethink taken for granted assumptions.  For instance, it seems logical that taking up the burden of a person who has the salvation and weight of the world on their shoulders would not be easy or restful.


The word “yoke”, as it is used in today’s Gospel, is typically related to the idea of being encumbered or bound by duty to some difficult task.   Pictures of oxen or other strong work animals harnessed to heavy burdens like a massive Conestoga wagon or an unwieldy iron plow come to mind.  And in fact,in rabbinic writings, the yoke is a metaphor for the difficult task of obedience to the Torah. In today’s gospel Jesus takes on this rabbinic metaphor when he identifies his own teaching as a yoke but he turns this image on its head when he calls the burden of his teaching not only light but a source of rest for those who are weary.  This is a statement that, at least on its surface, flies in the face of everything we know about Jesus’ life.


Just a few verses before today’s passage, the author of the Gospel of Matthew gives us Jesus’ answer to John the Baptist’s question about who Jesus is.  Jesus says  “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised and the poor have good news brought to them” (Matthew 11: 2-5).  In the chapters following today’s reading, Jesus heals a man with a withered hand, a Canaanite woman’s daughter and a boy with a demon, he feeds a crowd of 5000 and then a crowd of 4000, and he dies on a cross rather than betray his gift of love.  To take up this yoke seems, at least to me, a monumental, almost impossible burden.  And, as it turns out, I am in good company in this assessment of the difficulty involved in living a life aligned with the teachings of Jesus.


In today’s reading from Paul’s letter to the Roman’s, Paul is obsessed and obviously befuddled as he contemplates his absolute in ability to bring the actions of his body in line with his “delight in the law of God”.  He says, in an almost manic fashion, “I do not understand my own actions.  For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.”  And then a little later he says, “I can will what is right, but I cannot do it.  For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.”  And so he says, “I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand” (Romans 7: 15-25).


Even St. Augustine, one of the founding fathers and champions of Christianity as we know it, takes up Paul’s frustration with this difficult burden of putting on the yoke of Jesus. Like Paul, he ruminates again and again on the struggle between “God’s law” and “the law of sin, which is in his members”; in other words, a part of the body and the material world in general.  In his book, Confessions, Augustine confesses that when he prayed he said, “Grant me chastity and continence but not yet.” (Saint Augustine’s Confessions, trans. By Henry Chadwick, Oxford University Press, 1992, p. 145).  As he tells it, he just cannot overcome the worldly, fleshly pleasures that constitute everyday life.   Echoing Paul, he says, “What will wretched man do?  Who will deliver him from this body of death” (131)?     Augustine, according to his story, does finally prevail.  He converts, at the age of 33, in a garden in Milan, during his time as a teacher of rhetoric in, what is now, modern day Italy.  And as he recounts it, in Confessions, “Suddenly it had become sweet to me…to submit my neck to your easy yoke and my shoulders to your light burden” (155).  But even still, in the end, 43 years later, Augustine dies alone, surrounded by four Psalms of repentance that he had his assistants copy and hang on his walls.  He died alone “crying constantly and deeply”, struggling against what he called, in one of his last sermons, “a poisoned vein of the wasting love of the world” lodged in the deepest recesses of his inner being (Peter Brown, Augustine of Hippo, p. 436).


The tragedy, here, is that while Augustine takes seriously Jesus’ instruction to “take my yoke upon you”, he does not attend to his proclamation to the crowds in the cities that proceed this exhortation.  Jesus, echoing Wisdom’s call from the Book of Proverbs, says to the crowds, “‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn.’ For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon’; the Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ Yet wisdom is vindicated by her deeds.”  So here, potentially, is a clue to the wisdom this gospel says is hidden from the wise and revealed to infants.  It turns out that maybe the desire and the passion and the wasting love of the world, that Augustine seeks to avoid, is our salvation, the yoke from which we can learn and that makes our burdens light.


In 1884, James Wells, Moderator of the United Free Church of Scotland, in his book The Parables of Jesus, tells the story of a little girl carrying a very big baby.  Seeing her struggling in the streets with this load of flesh, someone asks her if she is tired.  With surprise she replies, “No, he’s not heavy; he’s my brother.”  This is a bit of common wisdom has worked its way into our culture as the slogan for “Boys Town” home for children of Father Flannigan fame in Omaha Nebraska and as the title for a song recorded and rerecorded first by The Hollies, in 1969, and then by Neil Diamond, the Osmonds and most recently, in 2012, by the Justice Collective.  “He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother”  “…If I’m laden at all, I’m laden with sadness that everyone’s heart isn’t filled with the gladness of love for one another….  And the load doesn’t weigh me down at all, He ain’t heavy, he’s my brother….”  This is a piece of common, colloquial wisdom; a wisdom of the streets dismissed by the proud and intelligent.  It is a wisdom dismissed by those weighed down by fear who carry banners in the streets saying, “illegal’s out”, “America, stand your ground”.  And it is a wisdom dismissed by those encumbered by greed who would count corporations as people and deny women the right to basic health care coverage.


In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus takes up Wisdom’s call.  In the streets, on the shore, in the homes of commoners and the homes of the wealthy, in conversation with Jews and in conversation with Canaanite’s, Jesus bears witness to and himself enacts an embrace of the fleshy, material world; an embrace that makes the fleshy world a lovely thing and burden that is light.  The Canaanite woman’s daughter is no burden for her mother just as Peter’s mother-in-law, stricken by a fever, is no burden for Peter or for that matter for Jesus who heals her simply because Peter loves her and Jesus loves her too.


“For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”  It’s a common wisdom, born of the streets and proclaimed by Jesus that is not afraid of the fleshiness of the world.  It is a wisdom that is not afraid to dance, and to mourn and to eat and to drink and to be a friend to tax collectors and sinners.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *