“ ‘Come to me, all you who are struggling hard and carrying heavy loads, and I will give you rest. Put on my yoke, and learn from me. I’m gentle and humble. And you will find rest for yourselves.’ ”
Matthew 11:28, 29 (Common English Bible)
In the deepest disquiet of the day I am reminded of Ernest Hemingway’s words in The Old Man And The Sea, “’ But man is not made for defeat,’ he said. ‘A man can be destroyed but not defeated.’”[i] We live in an anxious time. Trouble and tumultuous trials capture the larger narrative of the present day. Jesus is correct that there seems to always be present some war or rumor of war – both wars of combat and wars of poverty, illness, disillusionment, and failure. A thousand-antagonist line-up to squash any optimism we once may have had about life. As I have written elsewhere, we may profess faith but that faith is hesitant, uncertain, and unsatisfactory. If Hemingway is correct, if men and women are not made for defeat, then some resource must be available to combat the destructive forces that rage all around us – something more sound and sturdy than the temporary escape various addictions provide.
The Russian novelist, Fyodor Dostoyevsky captures the psychological and spiritual impact such anxiety, despair, and disillusionment can imprint upon our consciousness in his short story, The Dream of a Ridiculous Man.[ii] The protagonist despairs of life, fails to find any meaning in life, and is convinced nothing in the whole world made any difference. One evening, a little girl desperate for help suddenly grasps him by the elbow. But he did not help her. On the contrary, something made him drive her away. If life is meaningless, if nothing really mattered anyway, then this little girl is nothing more than a distraction. Arriving at his small apartment he is resolved to take his own life. Before the decision is executed, he falls asleep. Through a startling and poignant dream, he is made to realize that as long as he is alive, life was not meaningless and that the world – in some way or other – now depended on him.
This invitation from Matthew’s Gospel is set in a larger teaching where we learn that God has chosen to reveal the same truth to the world. Life is not without meaning and each one of us is called – in one way or another – to make a difference. When life’s storms rage and swirl and we are disheartened and disillusioned Jesus offers himself – “come to me, all of you who are struggling hard and carrying heavy loads, and I will give you rest” (Matt. 11:28). Jesus becomes for each of us that inner resource that guarantees that we are not defeated. Here, Jesus is immensely practical, “Put on my yoke, and learn from me” (Matt. 29). In that culture, the yoke was a symbol of obedience to the wisdom of God. Similarly, Jesus’ yoke is obedience to all Jesus teaches and Jesus’ call to serve others, to recognize that the world is dependent upon us. To come to Jesus is to learn from Jesus and to join Jesus himself in serving the world in a manner that God’s Kingdom flourishes.
Each one of us is under a divine compulsion. We must go out and try to take a world that is upside down and set it right. That requires that we lay down our arms of rebellion and turn from seeking our own desires and ambitions and begin to be concerned with God’s own purposes in the world. It is accomplished by living in obedience to God’s will. It is God who can accomplish the inexplicable. God can bring to pass in our turbulent, confused, and frantic day a peace that is transformative – a peace that recognizes beauty where once we only saw brokenness and hears the cry of a little girl and realize that we cannot drive her away. Does that mean a life now lived with ease? Not at all! But it does mean that in those moments when we grow weary from life’s strains, moments when disillusionment seems as close as the next breath we take, we can find rest in a prayerful communion with Jesus. This is the deepest form of prayer that the disciples knew.
[i] Ernest Hemingway, The Old Man And The Sea (Norwalk, Connecticut: The Easton Press, 1952), 96.
[ii] Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Best Short Stories of Fyodor Dostoyevsky: “The Dream of a Ridiculous Man” (London: The Folio Society, 2021)