“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, 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.” This is probably not the first time you heard that saying. It’s one of those favorite sayings of Jesus that almost everybody’s heard.
It sounds so inviting, and it is. It’s especially inviting these days of pandemics and racial injustice and transphobia. Who isn’t weary? Who isn’t carrying heavy burdens? Who doesn’t need recharging, that is, rest?
But there’s also something just a bit outrageous going on here, and it’s easy for people in our time to miss that. Bear with me for a minute while I give you some background, and then we’ll look at this saying again. Maybe you’ll read it differently.
When Jesus’ first listeners heard this, they heard echoes of another saying. Listen to this one:
“Put your feet into [Wisdom’s] fetters, and your neck under her yoke. Stoop your shoulders and carry her and be not irked at her bonds. With all your soul draw close to her; with all your strength keep her ways. Search her out, discover her; seek her and you will find her. Then when you have her, do not let her go; thus will you afterward find rest in her, and she will become your joy. Her yoke is a golden ornament and her bonds a purple cord.”
This is from the book of Sirach (6:25-30), a book in the Apocrypha that most Protestants don’t usually read. Catholics, the Eastern Orthodox and Anglicans still read it, and people in Jesus’ day read it too. Anyway, do you hear the echoes here? It’s not a perfect match, but here’s this saying about putting on a yoke and finding rest. Only in this passage the yoke belongs to a mysterious figure Jesus’ first listeners knew as Sophia or Lady Wisdom.
Lady Wisdom was with God from the very beginning. In Proverbs 8, which IS in Protestant Bibles, she says, “When there were no depths I was brought forth … When [God] established the heavens, I was there … When he marked out the foundations of the earth, then I was beside him like a master worker; and I was daily his delight” (8:24, 27, 29-30). There’s nothing God does that doesn’t involve her. In fact, maybe it’s better to think of her as another way to imagine God. When John wrote, “In the beginning was the Word, and the word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1), he was thinking of Lady Wisdom. He called her “the Word,” but he got the idea from Proverbs and Sirach and other passages like those.
Now pretend you already knew all this, just like Jesus’ first listeners, and hear his words again: “Come to me … Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me … My yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” Jesus is making just about as outrageous a claim as you can imagine: “I’m Lady Wisdom.” “Wisdom is vindicated by her deeds,” says Jesus, and now he claims that she and he are one and the same. He’s really messing with our heads.
For one thing, he seems to be doing a little gender-bending here. He had just finished calling himself God’s Son, but now, practically in the same breath, he’s Lady Wisdom. Both at once. Jesus seems fairly OK with being identified as male—usually—but now he’s identifying as female. And the activity of God he embodies is not exclusively male. He does want us to think of God as his Father, but that’s not the only way he wants us to think of God. So if you ever find yourself caught up in debates about which pronouns to use, keep this passage in mind. Son of the Father, Word made flesh, Lady Wisdom, God with us, “God from God, light from light, true God from true God”—we use all these words and phrases to speak of Jesus, plus a few more, because he turns all our everyday ideas on their heads.
So let’s not obsess too much about Jesus’ pronouns, or God’s—he, she, ze, they. We can and should respect the pronouns people use for themselves. Jesus is being at least momentarily non-binary, implying that gendered pronouns are not simply imposed on us—or on God—by our DNA.
Sound outrageous? Why not? If it doesn’t sound outrageous, it’s probably not Jesus’ good news.
And that’s not the only outrageous theme at work here.
Jesus claims, “I’m God’s Wisdom,” and the crowds aren’t buying it, but it’s not because they’re worried about pronouns. They just don’t see much Wisdom in how Jesus lives. To them Jesus looks like “a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.” It sets people grumbling, especially the ones Jesus calls “the wise and the intelligent.” “Doesn’t Jesus realize that Wisdom is all about getting control of your life, about not getting mixed up with the wrong people? I mean, read Proverbs. That’s what it says—stay in control, don’t mix with the wrong people, and your life will prosper. That’s Wisdom.”
Of course Ecclesiastes and Job say almost the opposite, but “the wise and the intelligent” didn’t want to remember that just then. They want the wisdom of success manuals. Get control; stay away from the wrong people; above all, succeed.
But apparently Jesus likes partying more than success. He goes out of his way to welcome all sorts of shady characters, and he’s not worried about the people who’d like to see him dead. What kind of wisdom is that? What kind of success is that? What could be more ridiculous than this carefree party animal claiming to be the Wisdom of God? Maybe John the Baptist was way too strict, but let’s not overreact. Use some common sense, for God’s sake. Get control. Stay away from people who’ll drag you down. Protect yourself from those who are out to get you. Get real. That’s the crowd’s reaction to Jesus, and maybe it’s our reaction too. But apparently he isn’t listening.
Now let’s be honest. Self-control is a valuable thing. We can’t make it through a single day without it. If you cut me off in traffic, I’m grateful to have enough control not to say everything that pops into my head, especially if I’m wearing my collar. You might read lips. We’ve been learning to practice self-control ever since we got out of diapers. There’s a lot of wisdom in self-control, and we’re not wrong to want it.
But it’s not the Wisdom of God, not the Wisdom of the God who comes to us in the life, death and risen life of Jesus. This is the God who won’t let us go, no matter what. This is the God who does hang out with the shady characters just as much as the respectable, even shady characters like us. We’ve tried turning our backs on God, running away from God, even murdering God, and nothing works. God is still there, loving us just as much as ever, loving us more than we can ever imagine. God isn’t here to control us; God is here to love us into a common life—a life we share with God and one another—that doesn’t have to be controlled by anybody.
We’re not there yet. We can’t even imagine how to get there, but in Jesus life, death and risen life it’s already begun.
It’s not up to us. “Wisdom is vindicated by her deeds,” not by ours. Part of God’s Wisdom is that we don’t have to make a god out of being in control. We can try to do as well as we can. We can even succeed at lots of important things. That’s fine. But none of these things are admission tickets into the party God is throwing for us. We’ve already been admitted, ready or not.
Jesus says, to paraphrase, “Come to me when you’re worn out from trying to succeed, from trying to get control, and I will give you rest.” That’s God’s Wisdom speaking. It’s not up to us. That’s the rest we’re promised.
We’re beset by destructive, hateful forces. We refuse to give them the last word, but they have a way of sneaking back, sometimes hidden within our own efforts. We’re not in control and can’t imagine how we could ever be. That wearies us. But we can rest and recharge in the realization that there’s a Wisdom at work beyond our control—and more importantly, beyond the control of destructive, hateful forces.
You will “find rest in her, and she will become your joy. Her yoke is a golden ornament and her bonds a purple cord.”
Her yoke is easy, and her burden is light.