As many of you know I went to graduate school in New York City many years ago now, and I did my PhD in philosophy there. During graduate school I came to realize that when I told people that I was getting a PhD in philosophy most of them managed to at least pretend to be sort of vaguely impressed. It sounded smart; it sounded intellectual; and eventually I managed to impress myself with the sound of it—“I’m getting my PhD in philosophy.”
Well on one of my visits back home to Texas during these years of being impressed with myself I got invited to a friend’s family reunion. Most of her relatives were not Texans but from Louisiana. And while I grew up middle class and both of my parents have graduate degrees, this friend’s family was a little lower than middle class, and I don’t think there was even a college degree anywhere in sight.
While eating barbecue and drinking beer with the extended family, I fell to talking to one of my friend’s distant relatives, somebody’s cousin or uncle or something. He was a lineman; his job was to maintain the telephone wires in rural Louisiana. When he asked what I did, I told him: “I’m getting my PhD in philosophy.” “Is that right?” he said. “Well, I tell you what, I have always enjoyed my readings of the Republic of Plato.”
I was certainly stunned. It turned out that this gentleman had not ever formally studied philosophy. He had not even read anything much else by Plato except the Republic. But he had read that many times over and knew it very well. In fact he knew it much better than I did.
Jesus tells us that God has revealed the truth about God’s self in Jesus himself, and that this truth has been shown not to the wise and the intelligent but to the simple, even to infants.
I don’t think this means that there is anything wrong with being wise or intelligent. We have many verses in Scripture that teach us to be wise and discerning and thoughtful, but we also know from Matthew as well that we are also to be like little children, maybe even like infants when it comes to the truth of what God has made known to us in Jesus. An infant is dependent on a parent and unashamed to be dependent on that parent as we are to be un-self-consciously dependent on our heavenly Father.
That the truth of who Jesus is, that he is the heir of all things that have been given to him by his Father in heaven, that no one knows the Father but the son and those to whom the Son has revealed the Father, that this truth has been given first to those who are childlike in their trusting dependence rather than to the wise and intelligent is the way God the Father wants to be revealed. Jesus says, “such was thy gracious will.” This is the way God wants to be known, by those who are ready to know and depend upon him.
Wisdom and intelligence can be an obstacle to the knowledge of God because the wise and intelligent are not dependent but independent and proud of their achievement; the wise and intelligent are often not humble but self-assured; the wise and intelligent are often not ready to admit their need of God the Father or of the saving grace of God’s son.
The lineman I met at the family reunion was probably not one of the “wise and understanding.” Whereas I had convinced myself that I was one of the wise and intelligent, that I knew what I was talking about when it came to philosophy, and yet here was a guy who knew more than I did about the foundational text of Western philosophy. Meeting the simple lineman who knew the Republic better than I did made me nervous.
Because here is the thing about graduate school as I experienced it: On the one hand, it teaches you to be impressed with yourself because you are learning and acquiring rare and valuable skills. On the other hand, it also teaches you to be wildly insecure and self-conscious before your peers, all of whom you are sure are smarter than you and can tell that you are just a fraud and a poser.
I suspect this is the way it is with many of our pursuits. We strive after accomplishments and achievements that pay the bills and give us prestige in the eyes of others and help us achieve many worthwhile goals. But at the same time many of our pursuits make us insecure and anxious; we pursue our goals restlessly and with uncertainty about our own worth and success no matter how much money we make or how lavishly we are praised by our peers.
This vexation of spirit is not our Lord’s will for our lives, and we know this because of the invitation he issues to us at the end of today’s Gospel passage. This invitation is to all of us; it is to the wise and successful and to the humble and simple.
“Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden.” This is the only time in the New Testament that Jesus uses these exact words. “Come to me.” Oftentimes he says, “Come after me,” that is, follow after me, follow my way, take up your cross and come after me. But this time he says come to me. It is as if he is not now ahead of us and inviting to follow along but waiting for us, face to face.
And if we come to him, he says, “I will give you rest.” I have said that there is nothing wrong with being wise and intelligent, and I think that is so. There is nothing wrong with getting a PhD or running your own business or working strenuously at whatever job you are called to take up. But I have also said that all these things can be sources of anxiety and frustration and self-doubt.
When Jesus invites us to come to him he is not inviting us to another frustrating struggle, to another popularity contest or to another rat race. He is inviting us to rest.
Paradoxically, at the same time, this rest is to be found in another kind of yoke or burden. “Take my yoke upon you,” Jesus says, “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.”
This invitation from our Lord is an invitation to learn from him; Jesus wants us to be his student.
And being Jesus’s student is indeed like picking up another burden; the Christian life is not an easy one in the sense of being devoid of effort. It is difficult because it involves childlike humility and dependence, and these things are hard, but the Christian life is not frustrating in its difficulty. The Christian life is not to be yet another source of anxiety, another contest, another unrewarding struggle fraught with anxiety and despair.
This is what I think my simple friend the Louisiana lineman understood about reading Plato: He knew that in the end I knew more about philosophy than he did—I knew more about Aristotle and Kant and Hegel and Kierkegaard and even more about Plato. But I don’t think he cared. For him his study was challenging but not an occasion for him to go into a panic when he met someone more knowledgeable or accomplished than he. For him it was not about impressing a professor or outdoing a classmate or getting a better academic job. His burden of study was one he carried easily, and he found philosophy not stressful but restful.
This is the attitude that I think Jesus invites us to have when he calls us to learn from him. In fact, the Greek word translated here as “from” can also be translated as “about,” to “learn about him,” and I suspect the double meaning is purposeful. For Jesus calls us both to learn from him and to learn about him. He is both our professor and our curriculum; he is the one we are to learn from and learn about.
By contrast, many of us I imagine are heavily burdened by our cares and concerns. Many of us are weary, tired out by the expenditure of our energies. In and amidst these projects and tasks that we take on, let’s not allow them to become sources of anxiety and exhaustion and to take away all our joy and peace. Let us respond warmly and gratefully to our Lord’s invitation to take on his teaching. And when we do so, let’s be sure we don’t make of the Christian life yet another care and concern that exhausts our energies.
There is no need for vain and frustrated struggle when it comes to studying the way of Christ. There is nothing we can do to make ourselves more lovable or more accomplished in a way that will impress God. The opposite of this pointless striving is not to do nothing at all but to do what we are called to do while depending confidently upon the revelation of God the Father in the person of Jesus Christ and to accept the rest—the precious rest—that our Savior promises us today.