Lots of things seem to call for expertise and advanced degrees right now. Masks, safe visiting, vaccines. White supremacy, income inequality, voter suppression. These urgent issues call for complex responses. We want someone with the needed education and expertise on whom we can rely.
Perhaps Jesus’ words sound refreshing:
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.
You may remember a time when these were called “the comfortable words” – an antique term denoting words intended to encourage, strengthen and confirm us. But they can also be “comforting” in the modern sense because they assure us that Jesus not a teacher of difficult, complex or esoteric matters. His teaching was simple and straightforward and assures us that we will not miss out on enlightenment or salvation because we don’t have an advanced degree or don’t know how to read all of the jots and tittles. The comfortable words assure us that what Jesus taught was easy to understand and completely accessible – even to children.
What teaching? If we look back a few chapters in Matthew (Mtt. 5-7) we hear familiar words. Jesus says, “keep the commandments” with special attention to the poor, those who mourn and the meek. “Keep the commandments” and be merciful, and single-hearted. Be a peacemaker. “Keep the commandments” and manage your anger and your imagination. Learn to apologize and to forgive. Keep your word. Give alms. Pray in secret. Worry less about looking good; be good. Don’t judge others: do unto them as you would have them to do unto you.
No esoteric knowledge here. No trick questions. No advanced degree needed for understanding. Understanding Jesus’ teaching is not the hard part. The hard part is doing it.
It took me hours of reading and research with respect to this passage – all of 221 words of it – to figure out who was speaking, to whom and addressing what issue. There is a place for education and scholarship. For what its worth, there is an argument to be made that Jesus never actually said “the comfortable words”. They do not appear in any other gospel. And on the other hand, all of the synoptic gospels agree that Jesus chose ordinary people – fishermen – as his students, and not educated religious scholars or students. So, even if Jesus did not actually say the comfortable words, I am confident that he could have.
We understand what Jesus is teaching here. We don’t need expertise or an advanced degree to understand it. In fact, the advanced degree may distract us from the real challenge. The heavy lifting is not in the understanding. It is in the doing.
Image by Ichigo on Pixabay
A little summer bible study? Try Genesis, Romans and/or Matthew.
In track 1 of the lectionary, the first reading will be one of the great stories in Genesis, through August 16. The second reading will be from Romans through September 13, and the third reading will be from Matthew’s gospel through November 22.