The readings are from the Catholic lectionary for daily mass while the headline is meant to keep my thinking real:
ISAIAH 40: 25-end
To whom then will you compare me,
or who is my equal? says the Holy One.
Lift up your eyes on high and see:
Who created these?
He who brings out the army of stars and numbers them,
calling them all by name;
because he is great in strength,
mighty in power,
not one is missing.
Why do you say, O Jacob,
and speak, O Israel,
‘My way is hidden from the Lord,
and my right is disregarded by my God’?
Have you not known? Have you not heard?
The Lord is the everlasting God,
the Creator of the ends of the earth.
He does not faint or grow weary;
his understanding is unsearchable.
He gives power to the faint,
and strengthens the powerless.
Even youths will faint and be weary,
and the young will fall exhausted;
but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength,
they shall mount up with wings like eagles,
they shall run and not be weary,
they shall walk and not faint.
Naturally enough the captive Jews in Babylon were a bit snippy about their God. If he was real, why had he permitted the destruction of his people? And even if the people had sinned in his eyes, did it make sense to wipe them out altogether? The prophet answers these good questions by reminding the doubters that God is not just a tribal deity focused on their needs, he is the creator of the universe, whose wisdom cannot be fathomed. The course of history has been painful but God gives power to endure. Those who rely on their own strength will fail, but those who “wait for the Lord” will effortlessly surmount all difficulties.
It’s always good to note that the force of the prophecy is in the poetry of the prophet as well as his vision. The image of God commanding the army of the stars, for example, speaks across the centuries even to space-age minds. “Not one is missing” which compares the night sky to a muster of troops, is a succinct image of the creator’s power.
The meaning of the prophecy can’t be separated from its poetry. Many modern translations seem to think that if they strip out the poetry the meaning will remain. Some of them imagine that setting words in lines makes them poetry even if the words are banal and the rhythm lame. The days when the church could call on the best wordsmiths in their nations have perhaps passed, but there are marvellous writers in poetry and prose who might be invited to work with translators to reinvigorate the translation of the bible in this century. The translation I’ve used above is fairly literal and reasonably eloquent, but it is based on the King James Version and does not therefore speak in the langauge of our time. Those who turn to the bible for inspiration need words that live in their minds and memories. Certainly when you’re asking why God has disregarded your needs, it helps to be promised the eagle’s wings.
Matthew 11:28-30 ©
Jesus exclaimed, ‘Come to me, all you who labour and are overburdened, and I will give you rest. Shoulder my yoke and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. Yes, my yoke is easy and my burden light.’
This is not a bad translation, but notice the unfortunate yoo-hoo (you who) and the jingle of gentle / humble.
But compare it with the King james Version:
28 Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.
29 Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls.
30 For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.
No, this is not our language; it uses unfamiliar grammar and archaic words. But it is simple, forceful, gracious and memorable which can’t be said of the modern one. Both are quite close to the Greek of the gospel, but we should remember that Jesus spoke in Aramaic, so that his spoken words are unavailable. The gospel writers had the task of representing Jesus’ words in Greek, just as ours have the task of representing them in Engish. If we realise how much of our image of Jesus is generated by his words, we’ll know how important a good translation is.
Here Jesus speaks in the style of Lady Wisdom (Proverbs 8) who is depicted as a companion of God and humans, to whom she offers directions for true happiness. Doubtless he is speaking about his Way as opposed to the way of the Pharisees whom he criticised for adding burdens to people. He asks followers to share the yoke which is already on his own shoulders; they will be united with him in obedience to God. The teaching of Jesus follows the principle that the Sabbath is for Man not Man for the Sabbath, in other words that God’s commands are for human good, not his good. Those who have succeeded to any degree in accepting Jesus’ invitation testify that it does bring peace to the soul.
On the other hand, as Soren Kiekegaard noted, we could call Jesus’ yoke a cross, and he did also ask his followers to carry their crosses. That would suggest a tougher meaning, that only those prepared to give up worldly peace would find peace in following Jesus. Otherwise it woud be a burden.
Although Jesus never pretended that discipleship was without cost, I reckon that in these words he was commending the joy of sharing his Way