Come hither to me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, I will give you rest.
Over the next few days I’m going to be exploring Søren Kierkegaard’s exposition of the above verse as he writes in the opening chapter of his book Training in Christianity. While perhaps I wouldn’t read scripture in the same way he does, I have enjoyed his exploration of the call of Christ and the Gospel. Kierkegaard breaks down the verse and writes a short exposition after each point, and that is the pattern I plan to follow in these posts.
“All ye that labor and are heavy laden”
Jesus’ pronouncement recorded in Matthew’s Gospel and exposited by Kierkegaard is no isolated statement. It fits into a context in the story of the Gospel. In the prior verses of this chapter we read a conversation between Jesus and John the Baptist’s disciples. The disciples come to Jesus and ask if he is truly the one promised of God. Jesus draws attention to his mighty works and the disciples seem to leave satisfied. Yet not all left satisfied.
He continues by condemning those who had seen his great miracles and refused to repent. He is scathing to the religious authorities of his day who have not only refused to recognise John’s ministry, but have chiefly failed to respond to Jesus. The powerful and prestigious and influential have not perceived the great goodness of God delivered to them in Jesus. It is in this context which Christ’s proclamation rings loudest.
He prays aloud:
I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to little children; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will. (Matthew 11:25-26)
Of interest here is the notion that the wise and learned are, in some way, excluded from Christ and therefore excluded from God. Does this advocate an abandoning of intellect in order for someone to enter the Church? Some churches might act as though this was the case! Or perhaps only the destitute and hopeless in life are qualified? The poor, needy? Are the rich excluded? Am I, a white westerner in Bible college excluded also? I think Kierkegaard, in his exposition of the notion of being ‘heavy laden’ can offer some illumination.
But what then is it to labor and be heavy laden? Why does He not explain it more precisely, so that one may know exactly who it is He means? Why is He so laconic? O, thou petty man, He is so laconic in order to not be petty; thou illiberal man, He is so laconic in order not to be illiberal; it is the part of love to prevent that there be a single person who is thrown into alarm by pondering whether he also is among the invited.
Has he not just contradicted the seeming exclusivity of Christ’s pronouncement? Didn’t Jesus strictly qualify those who might come to him? That is a tempting reading, one which some might use to claim Christianity is a faith for the desperate and poor and acts as an opiate for the masses. No, I think perhaps Jesus is saying something different. The invitation extends to all, yet amongst His contemporaries there were those who excluded themselves in their refusal to repent. They were excluded because they did not believe they needed him.
So then perhaps the childlike faith and humility Jesus speaks of is the admission of the need for help.
Indeed it is my conviction that faith begins not at the observation that there must be a designer behind the complexity of the world, but in the confession that I am helpless in myself and this world cannot offer what I need in the fullness of my being. Perhaps the criteria for meeting Christ are merely the realisation that one’s efforts are hard labor and that one’s yearning for fulfilment are nothing but an immovable burden.
Kierkegaard helps us expand this notion when he says:
The invitation throws open the Inviter’s arms, and there He stands, an everlasting picture. So soon as the closer definition is introduced, which perhaps might help the individual to another sort of certainty, the Inviter has a different aspect, and there passes over Him as it were a fleeting shadow of change.
In other words, when I choose to draw confidence in my own understanding I immediately distance myself from Jesus. If I can be certain of myself apart from Christ, if I leave other options open, I miss Him and walk on by. Kierkegaard seems to expect from me, then, a trust that the Inviter will be all I need him to be. Oh to have such a faith! Then perhaps I might leave sin and folly behind me.
Perhaps Kierkegaard’s words can offer to me some small hope, a spark of faith.
“All ye that labor and are heavy laden.” Wonderful! The only thing He is concerned about is that there might be a single one of those that labor and are heavy laden who failed to hear the invitation. As for the danger that too many might come, He had no fear of it. Oh, where the heart-room is, there house-room is always is to be found.