I SOMETIMES quote Matthew 11.30 to people who are exploring faith. “His yoke is easy,” I tell them. “His burden is light.” The point is that it may be human nature to make religion a complicated business of shared but secret knowledge accessible to the few, but true faith is about openness, simplicity. We should not feel weighed down by spiritual complexities. If our faith is burdensome, we cannot be fully trusting of what it promises.
Some outside the faith might say that Paul has corrupted Jesus’s “easy yoke” and “light burden”, supposedly turning a “good man Jesus” into a “scoundrel Christ”. His words in Romans 6 will weigh on us differently, depending on our individual experiences of faith: on how far we recognise ourselves in his theological tussling.
I take Romans 7.23 as pinpointing our need for liberation from the temptation of the “purity spiral” — a kind of moral arms race, in which different sectors within a group disagree over ideology, trying to outdo each other in scrupulosity and freedom from the taint of ideological error.
Obsessive effort will not — cannot — bring us closer to God. Those of us who are tempted by sanctimonious one-up-person-ship in our faith can also recognise ourselves in Paul’s impassioned outburst, his entangled desire and devotion. So, we repent and look, instead, for his “more excellent way”.
Saying this much, though, is the beginning, not the end, of a longer exploration; for there is no denying that faith can feel onerous at times. We do not need to add another item to our long list of failures in faith by not being positive enough — by not being holy enough to find the life of faith “easy” or “light”. The yoke is still a yoke. The burden is still a burden.
Looking for guidance from the Gospel, but finding it rather disjointed, I consulted a commentary, and read a statement on vv.18-19 which cheered me up: “Jesus seems to have had a habit of taking up his opponents’ accusations and doing something positive with them.”
Being a Christian suggests certain standards of behaviour and attitude: if we are accused of mingling with sinners, it is understandable to want to reply, “Me? Never! I am pure in word, deed, association, and belief!” Thus the purity spiral starts to spin, as we lay ourselves open to scrutiny, imperfect beings inviting upon ourselves judgement by impossibly perfect criteria. Downfall and disgrace become inevitable. Recent examples of this in our public life, in politics and the media, are not difficult to find.
Jesus goes another way. He highlights the inconsistency of those who attack him and his kinsmen, and, at the same time, refuses to offer any self-justification. This leaves his critics nowhere to go with their inquisition. Later in the Gospel, he will make his preference for sinners over the self-righteous even plainer.
His concluding comment about wisdom being vindicated comes in two, equally puzzling, versions: “by her children” or “by her deeds” (“wisdom” is grammatically feminine in both Hebrew and Greek). Both seem to be ways of saying what he teaches elsewhere (7.16): that we should judge people by the fruits of their actions. Some say that “wisdom” is his way of referring to himself; but that cannot be entirely right: what he says must apply both to himself and to John the Baptist.
The Gospel passage focuses on the positive. It leaves out the “woes” that Jesus pronounces like an Old Testament prophet (11.20-24). Instead, it hurries on to thanksgivings, and to a statement about the relationship of Father and Son which is evocative of John’s Gospel (11.27; also Luke 10.22). Any one of the disparate themes in this passage would repay further meditation.
What draws them all together is Jesus himself, challenging illogical hostility, denouncing hard-hearted refusals to recognise God’s acts of power, and laying claim to his unique relationship with the Father.
Matthew 11.28 is the antidote to purity spirals. “Come to me, all you who are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” That text is written, in Greek, above the altar in Caius chapel. But there is a tiny mistake in the Greek. I see this error as a felix culpa (“happy fault”, a reference to the Fall). I like to think that it embodies the truth that no Christian need fear falling short of perfection.
The Revd Dr Cally Hammond is Dean of Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge.