The gospel invitation occurs, or is alluded to several times in Matthew. One of the most complete is found in his 11th chapter, verses 28-30, which reads:
“Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (ESV)
I refer to this as one of the most complete invitations to salvation because it provides a more comprehensive teaching. In doing so, it leads us toward the concept that we are saved today, for transformation and changed lives. Both Jesus and John the Baptist preach messages that point to the immediacy of the kingdom of God, and the necessity of repentance in light of the coming kingdom. Salvation isn’t simply, or even predominantly a legal exchange occurring once and which is forever set. No, salvation is a change of life that must find its expression in our lives.
“Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden….”
Immediately before this verse, we read a passage that Calvinists like to use as evidence to support their argument for the sovereignty of God in the predestination of the Elect. The argument is that the only people that can know God are those to whom Jesus chooses to reveal him, and that’s what that verse says. But then we read “Come to me, all….” spoken as an open invitation to the oppressed and those struggling with life. We then have problem if we are going to take these statements as an either/or proposition. Either God chooses who he reveals himself to, or his invitation is open to all who labor.
The answer it seems is in the preceding verses, summarized beginning in verse 25. Jesus has just spent the past few pericopes making observations about those who have eyes but cannot see; the arrogant, the wise, the privileged. In verse 25, we have Jesus praising God that he has hidden these things (of the kingdom) from the “wise and understanding,” and revealed them to “little children.” What hides these things of the kingdom from the wise and understanding isn’t God, but the wise and understanding themselves.
Eventually the gospel will have its focus changed, or enlarged when Israel rejects her Messiah, and this can give us a parallel to verse 27. It isn’t God that rejects Israel and extends the gospel to Gentiles; rather it is Israel who rejects God. It isn’t that God has predestined these individuals for separation from him, and these others for inclusion in the kingdom. These are choices that we make based on self-interest and prior training. The invitation is open to all who labor, not a select, predetermined group of people.
“…and I will give you rest.”
When we come to God, having been oppressed and ignored, we are invited into the rest available in God. This rest is not found only in God, but is expected to be found in the kingdom peopled by God followers. If the rest is God’s rest, then it is manifest in God’s kingdom. We are called to be people of God and participate not just in enjoying this rest, but in extending it to each other.
In a world where we feel that the world is out of control, that we have no power for self-determination, for continued negation and being taken advantage of, God offers both spiritual and physical rest. Spiritual and perhaps psychological in the sense that we change our focus from this dead-end world toward the reality of life in God. Physical in the sense that Jesus is going to raise the dead, heal the sick, and cure their diseases. Physical in the sense that we come together as people of God to raise each other up; to heal one another.
“Take my yoke upon you and learn from me….”
Here is the expectation in this expression of the gospel. It isn’t simply that “God loves you,” which is certainly important and in fact the motivation for his coming. For those who may have felt, or who may have been told that they weren’t favored by God because of their poverty or physical maladies, being told that God loves you rather than hates you was certainly a load-lifting gift. But God wants more for you; we can’t just sit around and bask in the general love of God. God wants us to learn from him, to grow into him, to be changed into the likeness of God. Paul will call this transformation or allowing the fullness of Christ to dwell in us.
The result of coming to God is that we are filled with the Spirit, develop the fruit of the Spirit, and come to live in the image in which we are made to live. We, in short, come to exhibit the character of God in our lives, today.
“…for I am gentle and lowly in heart….”
God does not overpower us so that we must accept him; that we must conform ourselves to him out of fear or coercion. Rather, he is gentle with us, encouraging us, enticing us as it were toward what is best for us. Approaches to God that focus on fear, that focus on the absolute raw compulsory ability of God miss the point and paint a picture of God that is not true. God wants you to come to him, but he isn’t going to force you into a mold that won’t fit – into a life you don’t want.
“For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”
The Christian life is often said to be difficult, or seemingly unnatural for human beings. It is true that Paul says we must be transformed; that we are to be “renewed in our minds,” but these speak to the change that must be made more so than what sort of life is most natural for us. Humans were originally made in the image of God and even after the Fall, we are told that people are still made in the image of God. We are then encouraged to become the likeness of God or the likeness of Christ; we are encouraged to develop the fruit of the Spirit in our lives. Becoming Christ like and developing the fruit of the Spirit are essentially equivalent concepts. To be transformed into the likeness of God is to live out of the fruit of the Spirit in our lives.
But isn’t this unnatural for humans; aren’t we told that this is difficult for us because it is so foreign? We may well be told that, but it isn’t true. It is true that maturing in God is difficult but it isn’t so because it’s all that unnatural, but because we have become trained to be defensive, to look out for Number One, to live insecurely in a world of dog-eat-dog anxiety.
Our levels of anxiety and our seeming understanding of pursuing more and more before someone else gets what we want should tell us that we are approaching this whole enterprise with the wrong attitude. We understand today that we can make ourselves crazy and that our pushing ourselves out of insecurities contributes to both emotional and physical illnesses. Isn’t it clear, upon reflection, that our “natural” way of living is the most unnatural for us?
If we are made in the image of God, living in the Spirit and developing its fruit is the most natural way for us to live. When we learn to slow down, not want more and more, look to the interests of others, and provide assistance to others who need it, we actually live healthier lifestyles. What is the most unnatural way for us to live, is the way we think is natural for the “flesh.”
This is why Jesus can say that his yoke is easy and his burden is light – because we can just be ourselves (as we are made to be) with God and with each other. It is actually harder, more energy draining, more demanding for us to live the way modern society tells us to live. Conversely, it is easier, energizing, and freeing to live as the image of God.
Salvation as Jesus speaks of it is much more far reaching than simply being saved, or believing some academic argument. It is rather a journey back to a place we have never been (my apologies to Merton for that paraphrase); to a life that is the most natural way for us to live. In fact, salvation is about becoming who we are made to be in this life, right now.
In this passage Jesus doesn’t give us a pass, but gives us an expectation to learn from him; to learn him. As we learn him we become transformed into the very likeness of God, the likeness we are made to become from the beginning of the world. As we learn to let go of “earthly” things and incorporate the Spirit life into our lives we come in contact with who we really are. Life indeed becomes easier and less burdensome because we come to see the Creation as God sees it. As we do, we come to give ourselves for it and do so with renewed energy and positive outlook.
This is the life God calls us to – to become as much like God in this life as we can possibly become. Certainly not overnight, but through a consistent movement toward his life as we learn from our Master what life really is. The gospel then is not a ticket to Heaven as much as it is freedom and acceptance to grow into the person you are made to be.