“‘Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, 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 11:28-30
“From that time on Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life. Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. ‘Never, Lord!’ he said. ‘This shall never happen to you.’ Jesus turned and said to Peter, ‘Get behind me Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of the world.’
Then Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Anyone who would come after me must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wishes to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it. What good will it be for a person if they gains the whole world, yet forfeits their soul?’” – Matthew 16:21-26
These two passages offer a curious tension for those interested in following Jesus. On the one hand, we are to go to Jesus when we are weary. Jesus is the one who revives us, offering us a place of rest and healing. On the other, Jesus calls us irrevocably to a life of hardship, loss, suffering, and premature death. What are we to make of this?
There’s an obvious way to bring these together: selfless service to others and love that goes all the way to the cross is the true way to find rest, healing, and true life. And I think this is true enough. Finding true life through service is undoubtedly one of the gospel truths we find in passages such as these.
However, like many simple truths, this way of bringing together these two passages often falls apart when we look at people seeking to live it. Burnout is a far too common phenomenon for those with giving hearts and generous hands. Telling those who give until they break that they are experiencing true rest would be grossly inappropriate and speaks to the need for us to find additional ways of reading this passages together. Related to this is the theoretical disconnect of placing love for people at such a high level that one hates oneself. The point is not only that starving so that others can eat makes those others, in some ways, responsible for that starvation. It is also that it begs the question: if the most truly healing and joyful thing is to starve, why are we not extending that same privilege to those we are feeding?
I don’t have a simple answer worked for these problems and to a certain extent each opportunity for giving and receiving service has different answers, depending on the particularities of each case. I do have four suggestions for how today’s church (and here I am thinking specifically of my denomination of Mennonite Church Canada – these suggestions may not be appropriate for all churches in their different situations) might find additional ways of reading these two seminal passages together.
First, instead of working primarily towards a synthesis of these passages, we might do well to reanimate the tension between them. This may take the form of giving different messages to different people: those who are bodily tired or ill should receive what physical care we can give; those who are exhausted with self-absorption might do well to reach outside of themselves to others; those who have not received love in a long time should feel welcome (not guilty) about basking in the love of God.
Or perhaps playing to the tension means simply stressing one point without the other – whether it be in a sermon, in conversation, in theological outlook. It might do some good to, from time to time, tell people to get out and take up their cross without also telling them that if they’re truly good they should feel fulfilled and rested in doing this. I suspect that sometimes sacrifice is mostly just sacrifice and that sometimes service is mostly just service – and is still good for being this. I hope that the church has theological messages of encouragement for those performing service and practicing sacrifice on a daily and grinding basis beyond the message that what they do is not really sacrifice because they must (or at least should!) receive so much. On the other hand, we might assure people (including ourselves) of God’s love for them, of their worth in God’s eyes and ours, and make real the freedom Christ offers without always tacking on the necessity of extending this goodness to others. Matthew 11 is also the chapter in which John and his disciples express their doubt in Jesus, asking whether he is the one who is to come. Part of their confusion seems to be that Jesus does not fast enough; he spends too much time partying. The point of Jesus’s coming is not that now everyone can learn the joys of starving. Followers of Jesus can feast without guilt or shame, albeit that there are particular forms that this feasting should and should not take.
Or it may often be the case that we can allow the tension between these two passages to come out by proclaiming their combined truth to be, all too often, not at all simple. Instead of saying that everyone should be able to balance the call of these two passages nicely, let’s acknowledge that neither of these passages particularly wants to be balanced out and that even if they did doing so would be a tricky matter. Instead of settling the matter with people, we might ask for unsettlement and ongoing wrestling with how the cross might indeed be an easy yoke.
Second, we should keep in mind that if the call to take one’s cross is addressed to individuals, it is addressed to individuals in the context of a community of Jesus followers. In Matthew 16 Jesus is speaking to his disciples, to the community gathered around him that has already tasted the goodness of his fellowship. I wonder if this context is part of what allows Jesus’s radical call to ring true. My observation is that many individuals who burn out and are not cared for while performing many acts of service often receive very little from the church or from other Christian communities. Though in some cases it may be the case that individuals need to stop believing they can make it on their own and must learn to receive from others and connect with communities, it is often the case that those who give the most receive the least from their communities despite a deep and active investment in them. Therefore, it is first the church body (before individuals) that must keep in mind that individuals may only take their cross if we support those individuals, allowing discipleship to be also a companionship and service to be mutual.
Third, we would do well to keep in mind the different power dynamics operative in our communities as well as the different stations people occupy. The church is called to overcome what divides us while allowing difference to flourish, but pretending those divisions do not exist is not the right way to go about this. There is a difference between a single mother who also looks after others’ children in her community, using all the care and wisdom she has and a professional child-care provider. There is a difference between the person who struggles to make ends meet and regularly signs up for various responsibilities a church and the person with a good salary who “receives so much” from his or her once a week volunteer commitment.
In the Mennonite church, I believe it is important that we consider the difference between paid and unpaid ministers. We believe that all are given the same calling: to follow Christ in all aspects of life and to minister to each other and the world as equals, each according to his or her own gifts. Something happens to this when a few are given good financial compensation for this work and the rest are not. There is a profound difference between someone who is paid to do ministry and another who cannot find work or who does meaningless menial labour who also does and is called to ministry. My point is not necessarily that we have made a mistake in shifting to a professional pastorate: times have changed, communities look different, and there was also great damage done in the past with uncompensated pastors. And I am certainly not trying to say that our pastors are not true servants to the church, that their work is not sacrificial, generous, difficult, and skilled. However, we would do well to find helpful ways of acknowledging and working with this distinction and the various power dynamics it introduces when we consider the call to take up Christ’s cross as well as the offer of Christ to find rest in his embrace.
Fourth, we must learn to rely on the provision of God. The simple truth that service is the fulfillment of our humanity is only fully realized in the context of God’s care for us. I take Matthew’s central theme to be that we should learn a radical trust in God and that God is worthy of that trust. Themes of the rest we find in God and the work God calls us to stem from this.
We find this also in Matthew 11 and 16. Matthew 11 begins with a confrontation between John’s disciples and Jesus. It seems possible, at the very least, that part of the complaint against Jesus is that he is not working hard enough to bring about political transformation; he heals people and proclaims political transformation with seemingly little work towards it. In any case, as Matthew tells it, it is at the end of this discourse that Jesus announces rest for the weary; but he does not do so immediately. First, he offers praise to God: “I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children.” He then proclaims that all things have been revealed to him by the Father and that he is on earth to reveal the Father to us. It is then that Jesus proclaims rest for the weary. It thus follows that at least part of this rest is to receive the intimate knowledge of God and God’s goodness, to receive a new spirit from the God who provides. Rest for the weary comes through the offerings of God.
In Matthew 16, immediately after calling for the disciples to save their life in losing it for his sake, Jesus explicitly links this salvation with the blessings that come God: “For the Son of Man is going to come in his Father’s glory with his angels, and then he will reward each person according to what he has done.” Some of us may find this kind statement distasteful, as it appears to suggest that some sort of reward should be the motivation for good action rather than the goodness of action itself. I agree that it is problematic to think of discipleship in terms of arbitrary hard work given to us to test us for a future reward given in abstraction of that work. We are called to an ever deeper friendship with God and our reward is ever deeper friendship with God. But this verse can also be read as a reminder that the goodness of our work depends utterly upon the work that God is doing in our lives and in our world. God’s blessing is what makes intelligible our work as good.
To this end, I suggest that we will be greatly enabled in bringing Matthew 11 and 16 together, if our acts of love and service take place in the context of prayer and worship. This is not because worship and prayer are good psychological motivators. Rather it is because a cultivated openness to God and receptivity to what God is doing is essential to any who would find true rest in bearing Christ’s cross.