In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus tells us a very short but quite puzzling parable, which is called the parable of the children in the marketplace. In Jesus’ days, children didn’t have many toys. So they made up their own plays and acted them out. And their favorite plays were a wedding, and strange enough, a funeral. Imagine with me a group of children playing a wedding.
Two of them play the bride and the groom. And another child starts to pretend playing music on a flute. Now, a joyful dancing is supposed to begin. This is the fun part. But the rest of the children refuse to dance. Then, they turn to play a funeral this time. One of them is a dead person.
Some of them carry him out. Now, the rest is supposed to mourn. But again they refuse to mourn. So the children who led the plays tell the rest, “We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn” (Matthew 11:17). What’s going on with this parable?
One thing for sure, through this parable, Jesus is pointing out some religious leaders of his days. These religious leaders misled people and taught them that God is most pleased when they follow all the law and the rules and maintain external holiness. Actually, they had over six hundred religious rules to keep. Bound up with their legalism, they were the ones who rejected Jesus and John the Baptist in history.
In the parable, they are described as the children who don’t dance in the wedding play. Here, a wedding symbolizes Jesus’ good news that reveals the way of new relationship with God like a marriage. But to the eyes of the religious leaders, Jesus is too liberal. His good news indiscriminately brings the joy of new life to all the sinners who don’t even deserve it. So they criticize Jesus, “Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners” (11:19). And the parable also portrays religious leaders as the children who don’t mourn in the funeral play. Here, a funeral symbolizes John the Baptist’s stern message that calls people to repent, like dying to one’s past self, like having a funeral. But to the eyes of those religious leaders, John the Baptist is too radical. His message encourages people to leave empty religious formalities, so it’s too subversive. So they stigmatize him, saying, “He has a demon” (11:18).
Like this, religious leaders were blind and hard-hearted. Rules and duties filled up their religious life. And they demanded ordinary women and men to keep their religious rules too. So what they did was, in short, making a religion a burden, a yoke. Many were misguided by them, got weighed down by burdensome religious practices, and ended up losing joy and comfort in serving God. Jesus was surely quite upset with these things happening in his days, and this short parable shows his disappointment.
Now, what does the parable have to do with our life, with us living in a totally different context? Let me ask you a question in this way: “Have you ever felt like our church is a burden to you?” The work you do, the rules you keep, the position you hold, the events you participate in or organize, the meetings you attend or lead, the offerings you give, (and many boxes you carry like yesterday)… have you ever felt all these responsibilities become heavy burdens? I know we, including myself, cannot easily say no to this question. Yes, in the church life, we do feel weighed down sometimes. And when we feel pressured, our hearts get hardened, and it becomes hard to find joy and rest, comfort and freedom, and sometimes, even hard to keep our faith in God. When our religious life becomes duty-bound and rule-bound, we cannot dance at feeling Jesus’ love, and we cannot mourn at having the serious call for repentance.
Today, to all who feel burdensome on their own journey of faith, (3) Jesus says, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest” (11:28). How sweet it sounds! Jesus calls us to find rest in him, “Come to me. I will give you rest.” We want to hear only thus far, no further. But Jesus continues, “take my yoke upon you.” Oh no, can we skip this part? “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” (11:29-30). What does this mean?
When I was young, I used to see my grandfather use a yoke to fasten two oxen and attach a plow to them. The yoke that I know was not for one ox but two. And I didn’t know whether that is common or not. But as I was preparing this sermon, I found that a yoke is originally built to tie two oxen so that two of them walk side by side, become strong enough together to carry the burden that couldn’t handle on their own.
Even the Oxford dictionary defines the word “yoke” like this: “a wooden crosspiece that is fastened over the necks of two animals and attached to the plow or cart that they are to pull.” So when Jesus says, “take my yoke upon you,” I firmly believe that he means to wear the yoke together. It’s not like Jesus hands over his yoke upon us. But again Jesus means to wear the yoke together along with us, walk closely with us as we get through our life carrying our burdens.
Sisters and brothers in Christ, there is no yoke-less life or burden-free life. Believing in Jesus and following him don’t remove all the problems in life like a magic wand. And Jesus himself didn’t make such a naïve promise to us. Instead, Jesus tells us that his yoke is easy. More precisely, his yoke is good to bear. And bearing this yoke, we will learn from him how to find true rest. For those who take the journey of faith seriously, life can come with extra-burdens and extra-rules. It’s because we try to follow Jesus. We try to be good, deny ourselves, and love others. However, with Jesus, the yoke of faith is good to bear. Staying close to Jesus and sharing the yoke with him, we will find joy and rest, comfort and freedom, as we walk beside him.
All we need to do is to stay on the right track as we follow Jesus and do not let some burdensome feelings close our hearts to the church or turn us into the children in the marketplace. Let’s not forget. Our Redeemer Jesus Christ, who gives us new life and takes away our sin, is not the one who burdens us with guilt and heavy responsibility. Rather, he is the one who bears the cross for us. No matter what kind heavy burden we carry, he walks through it with us in our lives. “Come to me.” “Take my yoke upon you.” Jesus calls us today. Let us give our thanks to him for his unchanging love and grace. Amen.
 Douglas R. L. Hare, Matthew, Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Westminster John Knox Press, 1993)