Come to me, all who labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.

Matthew 11:28 

It is possible to spiritualise this text and view it in a limited context referring only to a person’s sinful life. Arguments can be made for this position, but I would like to reflect on this text from a justice perspective and see it as an occasion on which Jesus reaches out to oppressed persons and offers to ease their burdens.

Throughout his earthly ministry Jesus expressed a special concern for the poor, the down trodden and persons on the fringe of society. This concern is set within his opening remarks at the beginning of his Galilean ministry:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed (Luke 4:18).

There is much debate as to if this was the prescribed passage for the day or if it was deliberately chosen by Jesus. Whatever the outcome of the debate, the text shows that concern for the poor, captive and oppressed, was important to Jesus. These are the “all who labour and are heavy laden” that Jesus invites to come to him in today’s Gospel reading and find rest.

The rest that Jesus offers the oppressed and down trodden is not a form of opium for the people as enunciated by Karl Mark in his critique of religion. It is liberation and freedom from bondage, a bondage that robs them of their true humanity as persons made in the image and likeness of God.

We should see today’s Gospel as a challenge to the churches to be actively involved in the life of the society and to a work assiduously for the creation of a just society. The Gospel invites us to listen once again to the voices of the prophets, “But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (Amos 5:24), and “He has showed you, O man, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8)?

The Gospel of Jesus Christ invites us to identify with people who live in bondage to sin and physical conditions that cheat them of an authentic life. We are to give rest to the down trodden- help those who are oppressed and by so doing we help them to share in God’s love and to live abundant lives. All baptised persons are required to be agents for justice and righteousness in the societies where they live. Shortly, the parents and sponsors of those to be baptised will be asked: “Do you renounce injustice and all the evil powers of the world?”

The social evils that exist in our societies and their magnitude become an indictment against the churches in our land. Their presence speaks to our failure to be agents of justice and change; it points to disconnect between what we preach and we witness to in the society. If we are to be true to God and ourselves we must confess that as churches we have not always been intentional in our response to the social gospel of Jesus Christ and in many instances we have paid lip service to the liberation message of the Gospel. Some churches have organised and continue to be engaged in ministries that respond to human need and suffering, but there is a lot more that can be done and which must be done at a deeper level in order to fulfil our mandate to liberate people from bondage.

Our failure to be agents of real change is related in most cases to our limited view of salvation and its implications for living. We get caught in religious trivia as we argue about drink and food, tithes, day of worship, forms of worship, dress and the like, issues which have nothing whatsoever to do with salvation and social justice. We waste time and consume our energies trying to determine if people we consider immoral are fit for entry into God’s kingdom. So very often our concerns with immoral behaviour are limited to human sexuality – gay people, prostitutes, adultery, fornication and the like. This is not to say that these moral issues are not important to us, but they distract from focusing on the real issues that need to be addressed in society. We must not allow these problems that will be dealt within the context of God’s love and mercy at the day of his appearing, to move us away from what we are called to do in the nation. While we consume our energies on these issues Rome burns and burns violently.

Immoral behaviour has to be widened and must also include white collar crimes, exploitation, corrupt behaviour by public officials, unethical practices by some of our professionals, exorbitant prices, and the list can be extended. These more than the moral sexuality issues make life difficult for our people, these are problems we must confront if we are to truly give rest to people who are ‘heavy laden.’

Our faith must be translated into action as we take an option for the down trodden. Our faith must be visibly expressed in deeds as we use our resources to give rest to the weary. Faith without works is dead. James writes:

What does it profit, my brethren, if a man says he has faith but has not works? Can his faith save him? If a brother or sister is ill-clad and in lack of daily food, and one of you says to them, "Go in peace, be warmed and filled," without giving them the things needed for the body, what does it profit? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead. But some one will say, "You have faith and I have works." Show me your faith apart from your works, and I by my works will show you my faith (James 2:14-17)

Just recently Barak Obama said: "In time, I came to see faith as being both a personal commitment to Christ and a commitment to my community; that while I could sit in church and pray all I want, I wouldn't be fulfilling God's will unless I went out and did the Lord's work."

Our churches are failing our nation as they use secular values and standards to satisfy personal egos, ambition and institutional interests, as this happens there is no real Christian growth in our nation. We are witnessing a movement of people from church to church; the church’s numerical growth is not expanding. As a result we are not having any impact on a large section of our society.  Success is now judged by large numbers, huge attendances at services and big bank accounts. There is a misunderstanding of what the church is. This manifests itself in the proliferation of sects across the nation as every school, warehouse and community centre is now the home of a ‘church’ built around the personality of individuals who in most cases, having found it difficult to submit to the discipline of their churches have moved out in search of freedom. Today’s gospel invites us to become the church and not to play church as is happening at the present. To become a servant church that gives rest to the weary and not to be a triumphant church that seeks its glory. We become the church when we use the gifts of the Spirit to liberate people from sin and the sinful structures of society. In so doing we follow the example of our Lord Jesus Christ who came that we might enjoy an abundant life.

Our failure to affect meaningful social change and to create a just society can be linked to our teaching which in many instances espouses a pie in the sky theology which is not related to daily life experiences. It is disconnected from the real world and does not address the issues that affect our people on a daily basis.  Sometimes it seems that we make it the opium for the people, something to make them happy and restful as they await the Promised Land where they will drink milk and honey, walk on golden streets and live in ivory palaces.

Our churches need to reflect on their teaching and its relevance. How can we preach about heaven and not be involved in ministry to those who live in poverty, drug addicts, victims of sexual abuse, persons who experience victimisation because of their beliefs?  How can we preach about the good life to come and be not involved in action to transform the sinful structures of society that contribute to injustice in our nation and world? How can we point people to heaven and not be involved on earth with the struggle to ensure the rights of workers, economic justice for all, and freedom for those who live in oppressive conditions? How can we speak about heaven and divorce ourselves from the life threatening issues that affect our society on a daily and continuous basis? We must spend less time in trying to get people into heaven and spend more time in helping them to live authentic lives on earth as intended by God for human kind.

But our message of liberation from social injustice must be built on the scriptures and sound biblical doctrine. We are not politicians, social workers or humanists.  We are the Church acting out of love. Our churches and their leaders cannot identify with any one political philosophy or thought; if we do we compromise our independence. Our churches and their leaders cannot identify with any one political group of party; if we do we run the risks of compromising our impartiality and our message will be questioned. Our churches and their leaders cannot endorse any political system, party or organisation, in our work of Christian social action. They are all sinful, only God is absolute and worthy of our total allegiance. If our churches and their leaders publicly identify with any one political system, party or organisation, we will not be able to stand in the market square and say, “Thus saith the Lord.”

The ministry of the social Gospel is always a challenge.  We will be criticised for taking a stand on social issues.   We will be condemned for seeking people rights and we might be called trouble makers. We will be accused of being political. Businesses might not support our fund raising efforts. But we have to take a stand for justice and fair play even it if means that we are ostracised by our own members and the society at large.  There is no escape. 

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