By Charles C.K. Robertson
Recent years have witnessed a flood of books offering variations of a formula that will bring happiness and fulfillment to the privileged initiate. Indeed, to the one who holds the key, who knows the secret, to the wise and intelligent, life’s oyster opens itself and all manner of treasures await. Sounds attractive? Many would agree, as evidenced by the number of such books that follow one another in succession week after week, month after month, on the various bestseller lists.
Turning to the biggest bestseller of all time, however, we find a twist on the usual formula. In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus gives thanks to his heavenly Father, remarking that God “has hidden these things from the wise and intelligent, and revealed them to infants.” Aha, a hidden truth. Sounds good, but what is it? And why would it be hidden from the wise and intelligent? Shouldn’t they be the ones to uncover it?
To understand what Jesus is talking about, we need to take a step back and look at what immediately precedes these words.
“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.’” Sound familiar? “Nothing I do is ever enough!” Ever heard that from someone? Ever felt that yourself? It doesn’t matter how much you do, how much you say, how much you pay, how much you save, how much you exercise — it just never seems to be enough! Jesus acknowledges this reality, and then offers a somewhat enigmatic word of hope about true wisdom being “vindicated by her deeds,” and then adding his thanks that God has hidden these things from the wise and intelligent.
It is a twist, a reversal, that Jesus is describing here. While we continue to enmesh ourselves more completely in an ever-tightening web of clever ways and means to please ourselves and others, Jesus suggests that we have it all backwards. It is, as he bluntly puts it elsewhere in the same Gospel, an impossible task. There is no magic key, no secret formula, to take the pressure off of us.
Indeed, trying so hard to find such things will only add to the pressure. “Buy this product, use this tool, visit this establishment, meet this person, and then you will be okay. But we will never be good enough, clever enough, attractive enough, anything enough — not to the world around us, not even to ourselves. John the Baptist lived a sparse, ascetic life and was criticized. Then Jesus himself came and ate and drank with others and was criticized for that! We can’t win.
In a delightful movie from the 1980s, WarGames, a young computer whiz helps a group of military leaders and the national defense program’s supercomputer learn the sobering truth that nuclear war is a deadly game that cannot be won. “The only way to win,” they acknowledge at the end of the film, is “to not play.” It takes a kid too young to drive to see what a roomful of so-called experts otherwise missed. The apostle Paul spent much of his adult life acting just like those cocky experts. In the realm of faith and religion, he had studied everything he could get his hands on, obeyed every commandment put before him, followed every ritual.
He was determined, and he was successful — at least that is what he tried to convince himself. But as he later admitted to the Christians living in Rome, it was not enough; it could never have been enough. “I can will what is right, but I cannot do it,” he said. He thought he could. To anyone looking at him, it looked like he did. He was one impressive person! He wanted so badly to possess the key, to know the secret, to fulfill all the demands, to arrive. “Wretched man that I am!” he said. “Who will save me from this body of death?”
It is a humbling thing to let go. “Let go and let God.” Looks good on a bumper sticker or tee-shirt, but the reality is much more difficult, because it is far easier to add to a resumé than to stand before the mirror naked. It is far simpler, or so it seems, to work harder to be loveable than to recognize how beloved we already are.
Years ago, I spent considerable time, money, and energy overseas working toward a PhD. I was back in the States as a parish priest when the word arrived that I had successfully defended my dissertation and could now be called Dr. Robertson. When the mother of a young girl in my parish told her daughter the news, the girl looked at me with wonder and asked, “Does this mean you can operate on people now?” The mother was quick to explain, “No, dear, Fr. Chuck is the kind of doctor who doesn’t help anyone.” Immediately realizing what had just escaped from her lips, the mother turned to me red-faced and stammering. For my part, I could not help laughing and admitting, “That’s okay. Actually, it’s a pretty good description of a Ph.D.”
Now let me say. We have reason to be grateful for the opportunities to read the various books, do the various tasks, learn the various things that will help us grow and mature as individuals and as people. As Paul told the Corinthian Christians, it is important to transition from the milk of infants to meatier substances.
But at the same time, in another sense we can — no, we must — be born anew and become as little children. An adult recognizes the importance of responsibilities, and that is good. But it is so dangerously easy to think that the mastering of such responsibilities will somehow save us and make us whole. A child knows better. Or rather, a child young enough not to have been taught otherwise knows how much she needs help. And a child innocent enough not to be caught up in the world’s deceptions knows that he is loved just as he is. In fact, it is not even a matter of knowing — for the infant in our arms, it is matter of experiencing love, being held by love.
It is no wonder, then, that this particular Gospel passage concludes with words that rank as some of the most comforting and most sublime ever uttered. “Come to me,” Jesus invites, “all you who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will refresh you. 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.”
“Nothing I do is ever enough!” Yes, that’s right! And the sooner I recognize that truth, the sooner I can embrace the deeper reality that God already knows me more fully than I would like to admit, and still calls me “beloved.” The devotional writer Henri Nouwen once said, “When you are able to create a lonely place in the midst of your actions and concerns, then somehow, slowly, your successes and failures lose their power over you.” You and I, we are not God, and we don’t have to try to be. You and I can dare to let go of the heavy, wearisome yokes we put on ourselves and allow others to thrust upon us, and instead take up that blessed yoke that is no burden, the yoke of acceptance of our own beloved self in Christ, the yoke of acceptance of the beloved nature of other weary, heavy-laden ones still striving all around us. “Come to me,” Jesus invites, “come, my beloved.”
Let us pray. Almighty and eternal God, so draw our hearts to you, so guide our minds, so fill our imaginations, so control our wills, that we may be wholly yours, utterly dedicated to you; and then use us as you will, and always to your glory and the welfare of your people; through our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
The Rev. Dr. Charles C.K. Robertson is Presiding Bishop Michael Curry’s canon for ministry beyond the Episcopal Church.