At seminary I was introduced to the writings of the German martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer. The first of his books I read was The Cost of Discipleship in which he exposed the dangers of what he called “cheap grace.” This term referred to the pseudo-gospel peddled by those who promise salvation without transformation, redemption without conversion, sanctification without obedience, and resurrection without crucifixion. I was deeply affected by Bonhoeffer’s insights. Much of his book is an exegesis and application of the Sermon on the Mount. However, I wondered how to relate his words about costly discipleship to God’s unconditional and indiscriminate love. We sing, preach, and bear witness to God’s amazing grace, but at the same time we sing, preach, and bear witness to the cost of discipleship. How can we square the demand of the gospel with the gift of the gospel? How can we say in one breath that God loves us no matter what and in the next breath talk about the cost of discipleship? Matthew’s gospel deals with this very issue.
All through the history of the church we find two extremes: the libertines and the legalists. The libertines tend to focus so much on the gospel as gift that they ignore the cost of following Jesus. As a result, their faith is based on what Bonhoeffer called “cheap grace.” They may be found among those, who in Paul’s words, seem to live by the slogan, “Let sin abound so that grace may multiply.” Their logic goes like this: “God is love. I’m saved and once saved, always saved. Therefore, I’m immune to God’s judgment. After all, God is always in the forgiving business.”
A different form of this libertine Christianity is found among some Evangelicals as they cling to the belief of “once saved, always saved.” Such an approach to the gospel doesn’t allow for much growth in discipleship, focuses on the trivial “hot sins” usually associated with matters of sex and behaviors like dancing and drinking, and leads to an “us versus them” mentality: “we’re in and they’re out.” Clarence Jordan witnessed an example of this form of libertine Christianity. He grew up in Talbot County, Georgia. His childhood home was located one hundred yards from a chain gang jail where prisoners were shackled and kept in cages at night similar to those used in the circus for animals. The warden of the camp was an active member of the Baptist church the Jordan family attended and sang in the church choir. He would sing hymns like “Love Lifted Me” with tears running down his cheeks. And yet this was the same man who would put prisoners on “the stretcher” which was similar to “the rack” in medieval times. At night Jordan could hear the cries of agony from the prisoners as their muscles, tendons, and ligaments were stretched and torn and their bones were dislocated. One particular night Jordan could tell from the cries who the prisoner was who was being tortured. His name was Ed Russell—a black man whom Jordan had frequently talked with through the fence surrounding the camp.
How could anyone sing with deep emotion the hymn “Love Lifted Me” and then torture so brutally a fellow human being? Because he never heard the full ethical implications of being a Christian. Because he was “once saved, always saved” and believed that nothing could negate that salvation. Because he never heard from the pulpit of that church that, according to Jesus, compassion was the primary characteristic of God we are to emulate. Because he never could apply the truth of the gospel in ways that required him to repent of his racism. Libertinism comes in many forms. It is at the root of much of the “fake” Christianity so prevalent today in the religious right. It has no concept of how unconditional and indiscriminate the love of God really is. It has never heard in the recesses of the human heart the good news that “God so loves the world.” And it is motivated by fear, hatred, and cruel exclusivism.
And then there are the Christian legalists. For them religion is a very selective bunch of “dos and don’ts.” A faith that is supposed to set us free becomes a new codified religion. At its heart it is impersonal and arbitrary. Legalism always degenerates into a religion where “man was made for the Sabbath.” In other words, laws are more important than people; being right is more important than being loving; and rigidity is more important than mercy. Legalism results in one of two conditions: hatred of self when one can’t fulfill the requirements or hatred of others who cannot live up to what some group has decided is necessary in the eyes of a harsh and judgmental God. Sadly, many legalists suffer from both conditions. One reason they are so demanding and cruel to “others” is because they are so unloving toward themselves. They project their own fears and failures onto “others” whom they treat as scapegoats. When you are obsessed with rules and requirements, you have no energy for love, compassion, forgiveness, and joy. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin said, “Joy is the infallible sign of the presence of God.” But joy is a stranger to legalists. There is no place for the Jesus who could party around the table with lepers, tax collectors, prostitutes, and sinners who couldn’t keep the rules. And there is no place for a compassionate God. The lives of legalists are too busy counting, calculating, and checking off scorecards—their own and those of everyone else.
So, how does Matthew deal with the tension between the demand and the gift of the gospel? Between the “freedom” of the libertines and the harsh requirements of the legalists? To discover Matthew’s wisdom, we must read his Gospel as a book and not in extracted passages with no awareness of their literary setting. Throughout his book, he presents in alternating fashion the gospel as both gift and demand. In doing so, he asks us to accept the paradox that the gospel can be both. My definition of paradox is something that on the surface seems to be a contradiction, but through deeper thought and/or experience reveals itself to be true. Let’s look at how Matthew alternates between the gift and the demand of the gospel.
1. As we saw in the previous article, the Sermon on the Mount (SOM) presents the gospel as awesome demand with seemingly difficult if not impossible demands like loving our enemies, turning the other cheek, giving the coat of your back to those in need, “lending” with no expectation to be paid back, etc. We also saw how Jesus ended the SOM with four different ways of saying that he meant what he said and we neglect his teachings at our own peril.
Here we have awesome demand, and Jesus never backs away from this demand. He never says, “Yes, I gave some hard teachings, but I really didn’t mean what I said.” However, if you look at the verses before the SOM, you will find accounts of healing, forgiveness, grace, and incredible patience. And if you look at the verses after the SOM, you will find the healing of a leper, a Roman centurion’s servant, and Peter’s mother-in-law. The SOM is cradled in grace. With the SOM isolated from its context we have legalism. With the cradle only, we have cheap grace. With both, we have the gospel. And this pattern continues throughout the Gospel.
2. Jesus’ statement that foxes have dens and birds have nests, but he has no place to lay his head is followed by a harsh demand to a would-be disciple who wants to first go and bury his father. Jesus tells the man to “let the dead bury the dead.” The man should follow Jesus and forget about his sacred obligation to his father. But then right after that episode, we have the account of Jesus calming the sea and healing two demoniacs and a paralytic.
3. Jesus’ next call to follow him with all the accompanying cost of discipleship is directed to a tax collector named Matthew. Here we see both demand and gift. As a tax collector Matthew would have been regarded as a sinner beyond the possibility of forgiveness and grace. And yet Jesus calls him to be one of the Twelve closest disciples. But Matthew had to leave his tax tables and profession to become a disciple. Following this astounding story, we have an account of Jesus sitting down with all kinds of sinners and sharing a meal in spite of the objections of the legalists who want to restrict the grace of God.
This pattern of going back and forth in Matthew between gift and demand continues throughout his Gospel. But the question still remains, “How can we understand the gospel as both gift and demand? How can we reconcile what seems irreconcilable?” I believe the key is found in a passage familiar to most people in the church.
Come unto 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. (Matthew 11:28-30)
Did you notice how in these three verses Jesus goes back and forth from gift to demand? Weary and carrying heavy burdens—rest; yoke and learn—gentle and humble and rest for your souls; yoke—easy; burden—light
The clue as to how the gospel can be both gift and demand is the yoke. The yoke was used as a symbol by the wisdom teachers as that which distinguishes the wise from the foolish. The wise are yoked by wisdom and thus know how to live and in what direction to go. The foolish are unyoked and stray like dumb beasts. The rabbis used the yoke as a symbol of the law. Jesus takes up this familiar terminology, but he says his yoke is easy. That word “easy” means it fits. It does not chafe. It is a yoke that corresponds to the wearer. Perhaps Jesus would say today that his “shoes” fit, do not cramp, are not too big, have a good arch support, and are comfortable.
So much religion, some of it offered in the name of Jesus, doesn’t correspond whatsoever to who we are, to what we need, and to what will make us whole. And that’s what makes such religion a burden. The “weary and heavy burdened” in this teaching refers at least in part to those who are shackled and weighted down by a legalistic religion which brings no joy or deep peace.
Let me give a silly analogy of what I’m referring to. Suppose one winter day you were suffering from some terrible illness—high fever, terrific pain, rash, congestion, digestive problems. What would you do? You would go to your physician. And suppose your doctor, after examining you, told you to do the following: “I want you to find a dead skunk on the road. Then I want you to go out at midnight to Fort Harrison State Park and climb a tall maple tree. I then want you to swing that dead skunk over your head counter-clockwise while singing ‘Yankee Doodle.’ If you do this, you will be cured.” Would you follow the doctor’s orders? What’s wrong with the doctor’s prescription? Besides being ridiculous, it doesn’t correspond to your condition. It can in no way cure or improve your condition. In fact, it might give you even more physical problems such as infection from a dead and rotting animal, a broken neck from falling from a tree, pneumonia from being out on a cold night, etc.
Many demands made in religion are just as ridiculous as climbing a maple tree and swinging a dead skunk over one’s head while singing “Yankee Doodle.” Just as the physician’s prescription doesn’t fit the patient’s condition, so many approaches in religion don’t fit the human condition. They simply don’t correspond to what we need to be whole, But Jesus says his yoke fits. What he requires is exactly what we need to be whole, to experience life in all its abundance, and to know joy.
And once again, we are driven back to the God question. What is the nature and character of God? Is God arbitrary in God’s demands? And let’s be honest—sometimes what has been presented as God’s will is about as appropriate and helpful as our skunk example in the field of medicine. Or is Jesus correct in saying that God is Abba/Papa/Daddy? Is God one we can trust to will our best and our joy?
Jesus repeatedly says to his followers, “Don’t worry. Don’t be afraid. Instead, trust the good news. Trust the One you can know as Abba. Trust the One who demands what you need to be whole, free, and joyful. Trust the gift as you trust the Giver.” May we all come to experience the wonderful paradox that the gift is to be found in the demand.
[Please read the communion meditation and commission below. They reveal a very important aspect of the yoke that is both gift and demand.]
Jesus says, “Take my yoke upon you.” In what way is it his yoke? Is it his yoke because he commands it, or is it his yoke because he shares it? In his fellowship, the yoke becomes a double-yoke—a shared life—a common witness. In communion with Jesus we can celebrate the gift of the gospel and remain faithful to the cost of discipleship because we are cheered and empowered by his presence. This Bread and Wine remind us of that double-yoke. In communion with this one who is Emmanuel/God with us and who has promised to be with us all our days, we can live in the abundance of God’s life.
If we are yoked with Jesus in the joy of communion, we must be yoked with him in mission and service. And if we are truly yoked with our Lord, then wherever he goes, we must follow. With the yoke that fits—that corresponds to our greatest needs, let us go forth into the splendor of God’s peaceable and righteous Kingdom.