Zechariah 9.9-12; Psalm 145.8-15; Romans 7.15-25a; Matthew 11.16-19, 25-end
O God, the protector of all who trust in you, without whom nothing is strong, nothing is holy: increase and multiply upon us your mercy; that with you as our ruler and guide we may so pass through things temporal that we lose not our hold on things eternal; grant this, heavenly Father, for our Lord Jesus Christ’s sake, who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen
ANGLICANS who grew up with the Book of Common Prayer may recall childhood puzzlement over the mysteriously titled “comfortable words” that follow the confession and absolution in the order for holy communion. If what comes to mind is an ample sofa, or a familiar garment, these sentences (Matthew 11.28, John 3.16, 1 Timothy 1.15 and 1 John 2.1,2) will not match the description.
The 16th-century use of “comfortable” was much stronger, and intended worshippers to understand that these were utterances capable of giving comfort to anyone who needed encouragement while pursuing the journey of faith. Three of the sentences were borrowed from the Church Order prepared for Cologne in 1543 by the city’s reforming archbishop, a book that was to be a strong influence on the compilers of the Prayer Book.
The first sentence (Matthew 11.28), however, was an innovation. Its promise of the light burden of obedience to Christ in exchange for something much heavier — the yoke was an established metaphor for the Torah — made a fitting addition. But is there more to it than that?
Cranmer had a practical and pastoral interest in burdensome things: excessive ceremonies and arcane ritual elements in worship; and the oppressive consciousness of sin. Whether by accident or design, the statement explaining that some surplus ceremonies had been “put away” because “the burden of them was intolerable” (1549 Prayer Book, “Of Ceremonies”) was repeated in the abject words of the confession at the eucharist. “The remembrance of [our sins] is grievous unto us; the burden of them is intolerable.”
The people, having pleaded for God’s mercy in the name of Christ, and having received the assurance of forgiveness, would have had this assurance immediately consolidated in the words of Jesus, who came not to abolish the Mosaic Law, but to fulfil it (Matthew 5.17-20).
The section of Matthew’s Gospel in which the promise occurs does not present the straightforward logic that can be created by strategic use of biblical passages in other contexts. Even John the Baptist was perplexed: the Messiah who was going to appear with winnowing fork in hand was unexpectedly delaying his mighty judgement of the world in order to teach and heal (Matthew 11.2-6; 3.12).
When John’s followers returned with Jesus’s answer to the question about his identity, Jesus tested the crowds’ understanding of John’s message. They had gone to see a prophet, but they had not properly grasped what John was telling them. Jesus accuses them of being like children who play at weddings and funerals, but will not co-operate with the rules of the game (Matthew 11.7-17).
Soon enough, this analogy will take a darker turn. Matthew prefaces the account of Jesus’s trial and death with a warning about the judgement when he returns in glory. The bridegroom will come unexpectedly, and the foolish bridesmaids who have not filled their lamps with oil in preparation will be shut out of the wedding feast (Matthew 25.1-13).
Paul writes to the Romans about the inner conflict that is generated by keeping the law of Christ. Keeping slavery as an illustration (Romans 7.6, 14), he enacts for his readers the struggle in his own being between a mind that turns obediently to God, and the opposite inclinations of his embodied self.
Commentators divide over the first-person speaker in this vivid account, some treating it as autobiography, others as the kind of rhetorical technique that invites the audience to imagine themselves engaged in the same battle. On the whole, the second interpretation seems more persuasive. Paul is alert to the evangelistic value of a way of teaching which puts him on a level with the people he is addressing. Like his readers, he is making a conscious effort to keep God’s law.
He is not a paragon who has already conquered his rebellious physical being, but a disciple who longs for the good, and yet cannot liberate himself from evil in which he is implicated, because his body anchors him to the world (Romans 7.21).
Paul’s depiction of the tussle between the mind or heart and the flesh confronts our own age’s much more positive attitude toward the body, and its readiness to consider the soul, mind, and body as a single, integrated being. But he is not the dualist that we might over-hastily accuse him of being. The struggles of the present time are not the final word for those who have been baptised into Christ (Romans 6).
Christ’s resurrection has already transformed the “body of death” for all time (Romans 7.24), and the invitation to claim that transformation lies open. If Christ’s people cannot do this on their own, the next chapter will explain how they are strengthened by the gift of the Spirit dwelling in them.