Sunday, July 9, 2017
Donkeys, Oxen, and The Weight

(Jesus said) ‘But to what will I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the market-places and calling to one another, “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.’

At that time Jesus said, ‘I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will. All things have been handed over to me by my Father; and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.

‘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.’ (Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30)

 

I don’t tell many stories, but today I can’t resist sharing one of Aesop’s Fables.

A man and his son were leading a donkey to town. After travelling for a while, they passed a group of youngsters whom the man overheard to say. “Look at those fools! Both of them walking when one could be riding the donkey!” So the father placed his son on the donkey’s back, and they continued on. A little way down the road they met a group of people. One of them, who seemed to be rather opinionated, said, “Look at that brat, riding the donkey while his father walks!” So the father stopped the donkey and joined his son on the donkey’s back.

Further on down the road, they encountered a different group of people. “I’d say that’s a pretty cruel thing to do to a donkey,” said one of them, “obviously that’s too much weight for that poor beast. Those two ought to be carrying the donkey.”   So the father and son dismounted, tied the donkey’s legs together and slung it on a pole they carried between their shoulders, and struggled along with their load until they came to a bridge.   There they met another group of people who laughed so loudly at the sight of the two carrying the animal that the donkey struggled to free itself, slipped off the pole, and tumbled into the river below where it drowned.

We all have days like that, sometimes weeks like that – maybe even months – when it seems no matter what you do, you just can’t win. If so, it may be of some comfort to realize that Jesus felt like that too – and we heard about that today.

In what comes across as a frustrated outburst, Jesus likened the people of his generation to spoiled children who on one hand rejected John the Baptist because he was too austere and uptight; and then turned around and rejected him, Jesus, for being by comparison too unconventional. He couldn’t win for losing. And yet he managed to be somewhat philosophical about it in offering that lovely “Wisdom is vindicated by her deeds” comeback, by which he essentially urged his detractors to take a look at the bigger picture. You can get all preoccupied and judgmental if you want, he implies, but really, the grace of God is operating right in front of you and sadly, you’re too focused on your differences and disputes to see it. It only takes the humility and openness of an infant, in fact, to know that God’s grace and comfort is within your reach when you’re feeling unbalanced by real or self-imposed preoccupations. There’s a measure of freedom to be had in the face of things we cannot control and have no influence over, summed up in that profound and timeless wake-up call of faith. “Come unto me, all you that are weary and carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest for your souls.”

A funny attitude that I sometimes run into is that faith is like some kind of spiritual vaccine that should protect us from trouble, disappointment, illness, stress, and all the normal assorted misfortunes that befall in this enterprise called life. We forget all too easily that this was never the promise. The promise is rest from them, rest for our souls – an important distinction, I would suggest, because the most sensitive part of us when we are somehow wounded by the vagaries of life is often our spirit. It’s not at all unusual to look at the trouble we have or the challenges we face, and find ourselves wondering where God is in the midst of it all. So while faith offers us no escape from life’s realities, it does offer us a different perspective, and a source of strength in the midst of them. And Jesus offers that very thing in that intriguing image of the shared yoke – a commitment to help us pull the weight, a promise to be present….. because as every one of us would likely agree, a burden shared is lighter by far.

There is a Zen Buddhist story about an old man who walked around every day bent over double with a heavy bag on his back. On his deathbed, he passed the bag to his disciple, who opened it up and found that it was empty. So, he asked the dying man why it weighed so much, and the man replied, “it is the weight of everything in my life that I did not need to carry.” This would suggest that loosening our grip on whatever distresses us is probably half the battle; then we can let Jesus do the rest.

May this ancient wisdom coupled with the words of Jesus lighten whatever worry or concern we may be carrying today, and in the days to come. Amen.