By Sr. Constance Joanna, SSJD.
Genesis 22.1-14 Psalm 13 Romans 7.15 25a Matthew 11.16-19, 25-30
The Old Testament reading today is a wonderful love story on one level. On another level, it is a story that is meant to show how God uses ordinary people to achieve God’s purposes. Abraham, one of God’s early agents, has left Haran as directed by God, and gone off to the unknown country of Canaan. The story is familiar to all of us – after many years he has a child, Isaac, when he and his wife Sarah are very old. Now that child has grown up, and Abraham sends his servant – a special envoy – to find a wife for Isaac from among his own people in the land of Haran.
When the servant arrives in Haran, he goes to the village well and prays that God will give him success in his task, and he asks that whoever responds to his request for water for himself and his camels might be the woman God intends for Isaac.
Before the words have even gotten out of his mouth, Rebekah appears, and says exactly what the servant had prayed. She offers him water, and freely offers to water his camels as well. The servant asks Rebekah what family she comes from, and when he learns that her grandfather is Abraham’s brother, he knows that God has led him to the right place, and that he has found the right woman to be Isaac’s wife. Rebekah takes him to her father’s house, where her brother Laban is the first to come out to meet them.
Laban and the rest of her family respond positively to the servant’s request that Rebekah go with him to marry Isaac, but they want her to wait awhile. However, the servant wants to get right back to Isaac. Her family, instead of refusing, call Rebekah into the consultation and ask her what she wants to do (not a common thing to do in an era when fathers and brothers had control over unmarried women). Rebekah chooses to go with the servant immediately, and her family support her in this. So you can imagine what kind of wife Rebekah is going to be. She is a decisive woman who knows her own mind and recognizes that God is working in this, and she will become the strong matriarch who will help to advance not just Hebrew history but Christian history. In fact, she might be considered a forerunner of Jesus long before John the Baptist. Jesus’ heritage is a strong one.
The end of the passage gives us a beautiful picture of what Rebekah is like, and is very moving to me.
Isaac went out in the evening to walk in the field; and looking up, he saw camels coming. And Rebekah looked up, and when she saw Isaac, she slipped quickly from the camel, and said to the servant, “Who is the man over there, walking in the field to meet us?” The servant said, “It is my master.” So she took her veil & covered herself. And the servant told Isaac all the things that he had done. Then Isaac brought her into his mother Sarah’s tent. He took Rebekah, & she became his wife; and he loved her. So Isaac was comforted after his mother’s death.
And then we move from this love story to the gospel narrative from Matthew, which sounds very obscure at first. And what in the world does it have to do with the reading from Genesis?
I think the link is in the loving way that God deals with us. It comes in the context of Matthew explaining the relationship between John and Jesus. John the Baptiser was an ascetic who preached repentance and encouraged people to fast and pray. Then Jesus comes along and seems to enjoy life more than John. He eats and drinks with all kinds of people, attends parties, changes water into wine at a wedding, and cultivates deep and lasting friendships. John seems to be the one that mourns, and Jesus the one that celebrates. That is the context of this passage, which opens with Jesus talking about children playing in the market place.
Jesus said to the crowd, “To what will I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to one another, `We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn.’” For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, `He has a demon’; the Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, `Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ Yet wisdom is vindicated by her deeds.”
The children here seem to be a symbol for the hypocritical people who listened to the preaching of John and Jesus. They blamed John for fasting and they blamed Jesus for eating, because they didn’t want to listen to either of them.
When Jesus goes on to say that “Wisdom is vindicated by her deeds,” he is saying that the source of wisdom lies beyond our attempts to understand God. Sometimes in fact it is appropriate for a prophet to foretell doom, to live an ascetic lifestyle fasting and praying for God’s people – as John the Baptist did. Sometimes it is appropriate and needful that a prophet or preacher call people to know the love of God, to come into a deeper relationship with God – which was a major part of Jesus’ message.
The fact is that we need both – we need to be held accountable for the gifts God has given us, and to repent of our sins, of all the ways we misuse our gifts and perhaps hurt other people. But we also need to be reassured and loved and encouraged – we need spiritual nourishment as well as spiritual tonics.
If you think of how our liturgy unfolds, you can see a reflection of these two roles of John and Jesus. The first part of the liturgy is instructional – readings and a homily – telling us what God is like – much as John did – and encouraging us to repent of our sins as well – which is why we normally have the confession after the readings and prayers. Then we proceed with the Eucharistic prayer and communion – Eucharist meaning thanksgiving, and we give thanks to God for all that God has done for us – and then we sit down, as it were, at a meal with Jesus. And we are fed by God, divinely hugged, and sent out to share that love.
And that is why the passage from Matthew’s gospel ends with those famous and wonderful words:
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.
John invites us to repentance. Jesus invites us to know and share his love. He offers us rest from the personal burdens we carry and offers a relationship of friendship and intimacy.
Ultimately, when we are invited into God’s rest, we know God not as a taskmaster but as a lover. Not as a punishing parent but a divine spouse who longs for us as much as we long to fulfill that ache in our soul that we feel sometimes. With the greatest of human loves, we can experience a bit of heaven on earth. But as the poet Jean Paul Sartre once said, there is a God-shaped hole in every human being, a hole that a human being or community can never fill. And that is why Mother Hannah insisted so strongly that our community must be centered on prayer, and that our active ministries must be a response to our prayer. What we do is less important than the fact that we do it in response to God’s love as we experience that love in our personal and corporate prayer. And so we end this reflection with the end of today’s gospel: “my yoke is easy and my burden is light. It’s still a yoke and a burden. Like Abraham’s servant, and like Mary, we seek God’s direction for us and respond to God’s call. But it is easy and light because our work is done in response to that joyful love relationship that we each seek, day by day.