I just sent this article (the first of three) to Jesus Manifesto. The series will be about work and giving freely, a topic I've written about much before, though not much lately. Recent conversations have encouraged me to start talking about this again:
"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." (Mt 11.28-30)
These words of Jesus resonate powerfully with those of us who feel burdened by labor. For those driven by our needs and hungers and vulnerability to work long hours under heavy strain to provide food and shelter and medical care. And now, as our economy struggles, the weight seems so much heavier for so many. In times like these, Jesus' words sound good, so very good. Even too good to be true.
Which is perhaps the reason they are usually dismissed as an ideal, or spiritualized in a way that offers no real rest to the physically weary. But this is not as it should be.
Jesus' words here, along with his other teachings related to work and money, offer us true rest for soul and body. Jesus offers us a restoration of work, as it was meant to be when God formed human beings, work as a satisfying fulfillment of our creation. Work that we want to do, that we do for joy, in obedience to our unique nature given by God. Work that is not a burden, but a relief, a rest for our souls.
In offering this, however, Jesus also radically challenges the way we currently work in our world. He offers us rest and the true meaning and satisfaction of work, but in order to receive this we must follow his example, leaving behind the means and purposes and rewards of labor in our society. We must lay down the yoke we have fit ourselves to, lay it down, and take his yoke, learning from him. It is a lowly yoke, one that perhaps seems flimsy to us. But it is much, much lighter.
Our understanding of work in our world is so much tied to money that the word "work" has become synonymous with "a job." Which is to say, work for us primarily means labor that we are paid to do. We make this connection automatically, yet of course work, in the truest and best sense of the word, does not mean "what we do to make money." It means exerting physical or mental effort to build something useful, or create something beautiful, or serve someone in need. Money, or personal profit of any kind, need not have any part of it. When we think of work primarily as "for money" we show how deeply we have been conditioned by our society, how ready we have been made to sell ourselves.
We also automatically connect work with "providing for ourselves." Everyone has needs and everyone is expected to labor to acquire the goods necessary to meet our own needs and the needs of our own families. For this reason, "hard workers" are admired and honored by all. And, to the extent that our work is productive and useful to others, we can usually expect to be rewarded with material wealth, seen as the source of physical security for the future. We are taught that hard work is the answer to our vulnerability and need, and that hard work will be richly rewarded.
But these lessons, deeply woven into the fabric of our society, also lead us into lives burdened with continual mental stress and physical exhaustion. We measure the worth of our work by its (ever changing) price tag. We struggle to continually satisfy the boss or the customer, the person with the money always being the one we must please. We feel driven by our uncertain needs (and our uncertain economy) to work harder and harder and harder. And, if we are successful and gather some measure of wealth to provide for our future, we become targets. Targets for merchants or servants who charge us excessively for needed services we haven´t the time or the skills to do for ourselves, targets for politicians who tax us heavily, targets for thieves who see what we have and want it for themselves. And with the natural erosion of our property (and sometimes the unnatural erosion of the economic markets), we watch as our hard-earned money continues to turn to dust, requiring us to work harder and longer.
To us, facing these challenges, Jesus says, "Come to me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest."
But he also says:
"Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also." (Mt 6.19-21)We cannot receive the rest Jesus offers without coming to him, following him, which includes following his harder teachings like these. But how can we do it, in the society we live in? With the many needs we have, and all the people around us—the people we depend on for help—always demanding pay, pay, pay?
"And do not seek what you are to eat and what you are to drink, nor be of anxious mind. For all the nations seek these things; and your Father knows that you need them. Instead, seek God´s kingdom and these things shall be yours as well." (Lk 12.27-31)
"Do not labor for the food which perishes, but for the food which endures to eternal life, which the Son of man will give to you…" (Jn 6.27)
How can we lay down the yoke that has been strapped securely on us—how can we possibly afford to?