Jesus and John the Baptist came to share an important message with the people: the kingdom of God is at hand! Though they shared a message and were related they lived very different lives. John lived a wild and unusual life, out in the wilderness. Jesus was a wandering rabbi, homeless but very much at home at dinners with the great and the good as well as with the ordinary people. It seems that neither of these lifestyles pleased the religious authorities. However, as we know, you can’t please all the people all the time. Jesus and John were motivated by God, not by people pleasing.
At the noon service on 3rd July the readings were Psalm 145:8-15, Romans 7:15-25a and Matthew 11:16-19, 25-end. My sermon follows.
People can be difficult to please and it seems they haven’t changed much over the centuries, even over millennia!
Aesop, that famous Greek slave and writer of fables, told the story of ‘The Miller, his Son and a Donkey’ to illustrate just how difficult people are to please.
The miller and his son were taking the donkey to market. They walked along beside the donkey, quite contentedly. However, some girls they passed began to laugh at them and call them fools because they were walking when one of them could so easily have ridden on the donkey. Realising the sense of this, the miller placed his son on the donkey’s back and they continued on their way.
When they met an old man, he condemned the son as a lazy boy with no respect for age. The old man said that the miller should ride and the boy should walk beside the donkey. The son was very embarrassed and promptly got off the donkey so that his father could ride instead.
Further on, a group of youths started shouting out to the father, accusing him of being selfish in riding while his son had to walk. In response to this, the miller lifted his son on to the donkey with him and the two of them rode on.
As they were nearing the town, a man stopped them to complain about the way they were mistreating the donkey, expecting it to carry two of them. He told them that the miller and his son were more capable of carrying the donkey than vice versa.
The miller and his son wanted to do what was right and so they tied the donkey’s legs together, hung him on a pole and carried the pole on their shoulders. As they began to walk into the town in this way everyone who saw them laughed out loud. The donkey was frightened by the noise and struggled to free himself from the ropes. When he succeeded he fell off the pole into the river and drowned.
500 years after Aesop, Jesus told a parable with much the same message. He spoke of children playing and bemoaning the fact that when they played music for a dance or lifted their voice in mourning the others were not pleased and did not join in the game. Neither rejoicing nor mourning pleased them.
John the Baptist had come as a strange wild man, living outside society in order to shine a spotlight on it and show people God’s way, preparing their hearts for the one who was to come. Some had listened to him, in fact many had flocked to him, but the religious leaders had looked down on him as some kind of weird religious fanatic. When Jesus came, even though he had no home, no luxuries, he was happy to go to parties, he did not fast as the Pharisees did, and that was enough to earn him a reputation as a glutton and a drunk! Neither John nor Jesus blended in to the society of their day and even if they had, it’s likely that the religious leaders would have said that a messenger from God is supposed to be distinctive and not blend in! There is no pleasing some people.
Fortunately, neither John nor Jesus were particularly interested in pleasing people. Had that been their motivation they might both have lived to a good old age. Instead, they had a message from God burning in them and it was he they wished to please. They faithfully proclaimed what God had sent them to say and, as Jesus often said, ‘Those who have ears to hear, let them hear.’ More often than not, it was the ‘infants’ of society who got the message: the simple, the weary, the downtrodden, the nobodies. The ‘wise and intelligent’ struggled to understand.
Paul was one such wise and intelligent person. He declared in his letter to the Philippians that he was a fully paid up member of the people of Israel and a wise and well educated person in the things of God: ‘circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to righteousness, under the law blameless’. Paul had studied under Gamaliel, he knew the law inside out and he had followed it to the letter. But the bit of that quote I missed out is: ‘as to zeal, a persecutor of the church.’ All his wisdom had blinded him to the message of John and Jesus except to show him that this new teaching was a threat to Judaism. In his zeal for God, Paul dedicated himself to eradicating this heresy.
God in his grace revealed himself to Paul in an amazing way and his life was totally turned around. Despite writing that he was blameless under the law before coming to faith in Christ, when Paul writes in the letter to the Romans, he recognises that the law was not able to rescue him from the wrong things he did. As he said, ‘I can will what is right, but I cannot do it.’ He also said that he delighted in the law of God, but it was not enough. Paul despaired of himself but he recognised that Jesus was the answer to overcoming his problems.
The key to the difference for Paul was in the nature of the ‘yoke’. A yoke is a wooden framework which allows animals, usually working in pairs, to pull farm equipment and so on without discomfort. In the gospel passage Jesus talks of his ‘yoke’. Metaphorically the yoke meant being subject to the rule of another person, being obedient and accepting responsibility. The rabbis could therefore speak of taking on the ‘yoke of the law’, indicating taking responsibility for living under obedience to the law. We read a great deal in the Old Testament that extols the law but by Jesus’ time it had become a burden. In order to make it possible to live out the law properly, keeping their distinctive Jewish identity while under occupation, the Phariees spent a great deal of time working out in great detail what the law meant. The motivation was good, to please God, but as Jesus said in Matthew 23 about the scribes and the Pharisees: ‘They preach, but do not practise. They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to move them with their finger.’
The Law as taught by the scribes and Pharisees had become a huge burden for the people to labour under as they tried to earn their salvation. Guilt oppressed them every time they failed to live up to the impossible demands imposed upon them. (We can hear the defeat in what Paul writes in the passage from Romans.) In contrast, Jesus said that his yoke was easy and his burden light. He was not asking too much of people despite the fact that discipleship is not an easy option. Jesus invited his followers to take his yoke upon them and learn from him. Unlike the Pharisees who sought to impose their rules but did not help, Jesus’ words conjure up the picture of an inexperienced animal being yoked to one with experience so that it can learn. Unlike the religious authorities who looked down on the ordinary people, Jesus gets alongside us, urging us to learn from him, the one who is gentle and humble in heart.
Like Paul, we may see our own lives and despair at our inability to do the right thing. We too may cry: ‘Who will rescue me from this body of death?’ However, as Christians we know we are yoked to Jesus by his Spirit and each day we are guided to walk in the right way, to plough a straight furrow through life, just as an inexperienced animal is taught to do. The Spirit is transforming us day by day, bringing us closer to the image of Jesus. Knowing it doesn’t all depend on us, with Paul we can say with relief: ‘Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!’