A Reflection on Matthew 11:25-30 by Alison Sampson
Tonight’s gospel passage holds a somewhat hideous fascination for me. I’ve always been told that I’m pretty smart, and I’ve studied theology. Yet in the reading from Matthew, Jesus says that God has hidden many things from the intelligent and wise, and instead revealed them to children. It’s a reminder that cleverness is not the be-all and end-all, and that God’s wisdom may often look foolish to our minds – but of course, it makes me very nervous about preaching!
So rather than engage in a big theological exposition, unravelling the text using historical, socio-political, linguistic and liberation-theological tools, I will instead talk a bit about my own journey as a member of this church, and how I think it relates to this passage.
Here I should add that I see church participation as the primary expression of faith. I have been influenced by Elizabeth O’Connor, who argues that the first work of the Christian is to participate in the formation of the church; in fact, she describes it as the only task. “In it,” she writes, “we can find ultimate meaning. We are not looking for that thing which may happen next week, next month, or next year. We believe ourselves to be engaged this very moment in that which is the hope of the world… There will be no peace or healing in our day unless little islands of koinonia can spring up everywhere–islands where Christ is, because he is [how] we can learn to live in a new way.” (Elizabeth O’Connor, The Only Task)
Yet like Jesus’ words, O’Connor’s claim too has a fairly awful fascination to me. I hate joining things, I hate being part of groups, and at some slightly pathetic level I have to admit that I think I’m a little too good to be linked with a bunch of strangers in a Christian community. I’ve been told too many times how fantastically clever and gifted I am, and there seems to be little use for that in the church. So there’s a voice that tells me that I’m wasted here; I should be out doing amazing things with important people somewhere else, always somewhere else. In a coffee house in New York, at a conference in London: somewhere important, I could be doing something important and feeling good. At least, that’s the myth.
Yet I also know that turning up to church here week after week, month after month, year after year, is the primary discipline that has helped me grow and mature, and which has enabled me to articulate what my gifts are. So what do I do with that?
Well, going back to tonight’s text, after putting Miss Clever-pants back in her place, Jesus invites her to link up with him; and he says that his yoke is easy. Preachers often suggest this means we can pretty much put up our feet and rest – even our paraphrase has words to that effect – but I don’t really buy that. The bullock driver doesn’t harness up the animals only to have them sitting around the barn all day! What I hear is a call to work, but not the work that seems important to us and to the world. Instead, we are to engage in the work that Jesus wants us to do; and I’ve thought a great deal about what that is.
Since I’ve been a part of this congregation, I’ve slowly identified that I am a writer, by which I suppose I mean that I can weave words together with relative ease. One dominant myth in our society is that our profession forms our primary identity, and this can be especially true for a writer. When you read writer’s manuals, they usually say, in effect, that the writing is more important than anything else; if you’re a serious writer, life has to fit around the writing. This may mean not having children, or choosing to have just one. This may mean holing up in a garret and writing for hours every day. This may mean sacrificing a marriage or other significant relationships if they get in the way of the craft. And this may all be true if one is to write Great Works of Literature; I don’t know because I haven’t written any great works yet!
So our profession is usually understood to be the same thing as our vocation, perhaps especially for any sort of artist; and the two words are often used interchangeably, even by Christians. In my life, however, I find myself living a paradox. On the one hand, it is through living out the Christian life that I find myself becoming a writer; on the other, following God’s call in its myriad aspects seems to compromise my attempts to write.
This is because the work Jesus calls me to only sometimes looks like writing. Sure, I have a couple of blogs, and write for various publications; and sure, I try to infuse a sense of the holiness of the everyday into most things I write – and when I manage it, it feels like I am doing something good. And yet I am often called to do work that doesn’t look like writing at all, work which, in fact, seems to detract from the writing.
I felt deeply called to have children, not one but three; and I have no doubt that it was the best thing I could have done. Yet trying to write with three children in the house is infuriating. Writing is a slow, contemplative, solitary endeavour, requiring a sharp and rested mind; children are messy, noisy beings who require frequent and immediate attention, often in the middle of the night. So solitude and rest, two things a writer needs, are rarely to be found in my house.
As well, I feel called to be part of church life. Belonging to any community involves commitment and work; here, I do the notice sheet and the kids’ sheets. I don’t mind the work, but any writer’s manual would have hysterics at the precious hours of solitude I spend every week on those jobs.
I feel, too, that being part of a church is often hard work emotionally. Not only do I have to turn up when I’m in a foul mood or exhausted or just plain bored, but I have to work to resolve conflict and engage with all sorts of people. As you all know, it’s difficult at times. Getting along with one another, learning to love one another, is hard. It is the work of long commitment: showing up, and biting one’s tongue, and saying sorry – and at this church it often feels especially difficult. We live far away from each other, so we rarely bump into each other and have those spontaneous conversations that can be so life-giving; we are all different ages, so there is no big peer group that I can slot into and pretend that, with these cool people who affirm my lifestyle choices, I am forming church. Instead, I have to engage with everyone, not just the easy people; and I have to work on the relationships. This is not to say that the relationships aren’t enjoyable – but they’re certainly not always easy.
Most of these efforts – the conversations, the conflict resolution, the kids’ activities, the notice sheet, the child raising, the laundry and the floors – don’t look much like work in the eyes of the world. No one would call them my profession; and few understand how they can be part of my vocation. Yet they all arise out of invitations I have experienced at times of prayer. At my core, I have no doubt that they, along with the writing, constitute the work I am called to do; even so, this lack of cohesion or a dignified title can make me resentful.
That’s when I need to hear the second part of Jesus’ call. Not only am I called to do his work, but he says that his work will suit me, and the burden will be light. It is an invitation to joy – an invitation to find the work that leads to growth and maturity and delight in life.
There are times that I think I want a bit of acclaim as a writer; I dream of being a lonely artist making it in the big city. However, I am actually a very fragile person with all sorts of tendencies towards compulsive behaviour, depression, and self-hate. Loneliness and stress – which loom large in the highly stylized writer’s life – are, for me, doors to a downward spiral, the sort of spiral which results not in Great Works of Literature, but in self loathing and the crumbling of any ability or desire to write, or indeed do much at all.
So what I need, that is, what suits me and has matured me and made me into someone with enough resilience and courage to begin to write, are the stability of a good marriage and loving children; the regular demands of family life; the steadiness of a church community; the practice of doing small jobs for others with faithfulness and humility; and the understanding that this life, too, is valuable. Staying true to these disciplines is part of my calling as I follow the way of Jesus Christ; and engaging in them has indeed eased my burden considerably.
Looking back at the disparate aspects of my vocation, I sense that they have had a great refining effect. The last decade has taught me all sorts of lessons about patience, humility, faithfulness, kindness, gentleness, hospitality and forgiveness. I have a great deal to learn, but I can also see that there’s been a huge shift. I’m no longer the churned up and largely furious person I once was. Although those elements are still with me, I no longer feel dominated by them – and for this I am deeply grateful.
So my conclusion is that responding to the invitation of Jesus to take on his yoke does involve work. It may not be the sort of stuff we think of as work; and it may not lead to great respect or professional fulfilment or any of the other rewards we often think we should receive in return for our labour. In fact, there may be times when the work of Jesus feels absolutely tedious, like a bullock walking circles in a mill pit. But Jesus never promised we’d be ploughing fields with nice views, or that we’d see the fruit of our labour; perhaps our job is just to grind away. It doesn’t matter.
What does matter is that this work, this acceptance of a yoke that, for me at least, means a quiet and largely invisible life built around personal relationships not professional acclaim, is slowly turning my heart of stone into one of flesh, the sort of flesh that can experience not only hurt and anger but also a wildly soaring joy. I used to experience life with a heavy heart, a sort of enforced long march; now I find myself strolling along with a powerful sense of hope. Accepting Jesus’ yoke and its various disciplines has led to my burden being lightened, indeed. And that, of course, is worth writing about.