What comes to your mind when you hear the word ‘rest’? Maybe having been stuck at home all through the lockdown, you’re dying for a holiday. That would certainly be restful. Or you need to get away from the cycle of work, managing the home and the family and what not; maybe what you’re desperate for is a time of quiet, where you’re not disturbed. Maybe what comes to your mind is a whole day of uninterrupted sleep because you’ve not slept properly in a while. All these would be valid ways of thinking about rest, they certainly give refreshment – for a time. The problem is that we have to come back to the same or similar situations, once the ‘rest’ is finished. Sooner or later, we would need another break of the same sort. It is worse when this need for change is caused by something problematic within ourselves, in how we live or how we approach life. When we are rest-less within. A few days into our holiday might make us want to go back, as being away from our known environment starts causing more anxiety than letting us forget our worries. ‘Rest’ in the Scriptures, is linked to shalom, peace in its fullest sense. The opposite of this is strife. To be in strife, is to be constantly contending; to be in dispute or struggling. It is to be working, only for things to fail, never be fruitful. The prophet Haggai captured this well in his polemic –
Now, therefore, thus says the Lord of hosts: Consider your ways. You have sown much, and harvested little. You eat, but you never have enough; you drink, but you never have your fill. You clothe yourselves, but no one is warm. And he who earns wages does so to put them into a bag with holes. (Haggai 1:5-6)
Our more common word stress captures something of its meaning, though it is a more reduced form of the same. Both are forms of violence which we experience and tend to respond in kind, leaving us rest-less. Being at peace on the other hand, is not simply the absence of strife. It is flourishing in every way. It is to be healthy, in soul and body; to be joyful – to flourish in your relationships all around, positively. It is to have a life that is meaningful and whole. You are not contending anxiously against enemies within and without. It is a state of profound freedom to fully become who we are.
These might seem like ideals of a woke generation, but they are actually very biblical. The similarities however, end there. Modernity, at least in the West, would see this state as simply one achieved through violence, in the broad sense of the word – we have contended all around and we have won. It is the self-made man (or woman), set over against the world and in control of everything in their life in all circumstances, that we admire. They do not need anyone. Freedom, in this sense is the ability to do anything, to live without constraints.
The biblical understanding of freedom and rest are very different. For a people who started as slaves in Egypt, freedom was a prized ideal. But it was never something they could achieve on their own effort. It could only come as gift. And God would promise them this rest, this state of freedom, in their own land. The first part of fulfilment of that promise, they came through with flying colours, as God delivered them from slavery in Egypt. But to live free was more elusive. It meant to remain in constant relationship with the God who had freely given himself to them, who alone could keep them free. Only God could set them free, first from Egypt and cause them to remain free, against their enemies all around. All this came as free gift. They were called out of slavery to live as a people freely given to God, who freely gave himself to them. In their land, were meant to remain free, by being in relationship with God who had freely given himself to them. And Israel would discover that anytime they were seduced by the ways of the other nations they would be enslaved by those very nations. This state of bondage, is what is frequently described in the Scriptures as the yoke, the bar across one’s shoulders (Isa 9:4). The yoke was what keeps two animals, such as oxen, together, bound to their task, and controlled by their master.
As we come to the gospel today, there are a people under the yoke of the Romans in their own land. They knew this had come about through their failure to live as God’s people. The Scribes and Pharisees therefore, had worked out an entire system of laws covering every activity in people’s lives to live out the commandments and so live in God’s favour. Jesus would accuse the religious leaders, that they had laid a heavy burden – a heavy yoke – on people’s shoulders without doing anything to lift it themselves. The problem was the same. It was the temptation of control, the way the nations contended with their gods or neighbours to achieve what they wanted. And to these people, overburdened, Jesus once again promises this elusive rest. And he offers them a strange remedy – ‘take my yoke upon you and learn from me’. What is this yoke? It is the yoke by which he is yoked to the Father, the source of his life and love. It is in knowing the Father’s love and his life that Jesus remained free – even on the yoke of his Cross, the bar across his shoulders. We were never mean to live independently of everyone else and certainly not independently of God, the source of our life. To ‘learn’ is to take the attitude of a disciple, to be on a journey to become like the master. But taking the yoke of Jesus is not something done on our own efforts, through gritted teeth. The invitation of Jesus is simply to come to him. Being accustomed to the ways of the world, we instinctively respond with violence, even in our relationship with God. This was the response of the Pharisees, with their laws, though done with good intentions. And the Church places before us a word from Zechariah which helps illuminate the gospel. Lost in the prison of our own striving with others and with ourselves, it is Christ who first comes to us; he is victorious, but in a way we could never imagine; he comes bearing victory over our problems, in gentleness and kindness. It is this Jesus who invites us to come to him. If we trust him, we will find that his yoke is gentle – or kind – and the burden he lays on us, light as he is the one who bears it. This is ultimately the state of rest.
Maybe this day, think of what it is you are finding yourself contending with in your life at the moment. It could be something small, some immediate need and/or something big and more prolonged such as a controlling fear. Maybe, in response to the invitation of the Gospel, make an act of faith. Come to the Sacred Heart of Jesus and simply give this problem, this need to him. Allow him to place his yoke on you. And find rest for your soul.