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Is His Burden Light? (Sermon for XIV Sunday through the Year, July 9, 2023)



The Lord teaches a lot of hard truths in the Gospel. We can think of several famous examples, such as to turn the other cheek. Not to resist those who would belittle or injure us seems contrary to our basic notions of justice. And even more difficult than apprehending this teaching is putting it into practice!


Then there are teachings of the Lord that are particularly repugnant to our contemporary world, such as those against divorce and remarriage, or against possessing material wealth.


Or the teaching we heard last Sunday that seemed to relativize the importance of the family: “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.”


It would seem, then, that we get a pleasant break from such hard teachings today. “Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest. … For my yoke is easy, and my burden light.” The Lord promises comfort amidst a troubled world. And it’s true – the Lord does want to offer rest for our wearied souls, and the consolation that comes from truly resting in Him.


But at the same time, these words are some of the most challenging of all our Lord’s teaching, because you can look at your life, or the lives of those around you, and see that the Lord’s yolk is oftentimes manifestly not light at all. You could see a family suffering a great tragedy, or a very good person who gets hit with hardship after hardship, a struggle with mental illness, or a feeling that life has just become too hard to bear, and think – this burden the Lord has placed on him, her, or me is not light at all.


For many people, the presence of suffering in the world is not only a challenge to receiving the consoling love of the heart of Jesus, but an obstacle to believing that God exists at all. It is a classic and consistent objection to God’s existence known as “The Problem of Evil.”


The “Problem of Evil” argument holds that if God is really all powerful (or, in technical terms, “omnipotent”), He is capable of removing all suffering from the world. And if God is really all good (or, in technical terms, “benevolent”) then He would desire to remove all suffering from the world, since it is good to relieve suffering. However, since there evidently is suffering in the world, then either God is not really benevolent (or all good), since He apparently does not want to relieve all suffering; or He is not really omnipotent (or all powerful), since if He does desire to remove all suffering, apparently He cannot. Either way, He’s either not all good or all powerful, which is to say, whomever we’re talking about here, it’s not really God, because, this argument would seem to prove, God doesn’t exist, because a God who is either not all good or not all powerful is no God at all.


Philosophers and theologians have recognized for centuries that this objection could be made, and answers to it have been given by the saints and doctors of the Church. However, for most of human history, this was really just an intellectual exercise, since no serious thinker really held to the argument against God’s existence from the Problem of Evil. Not, that is, until the 19th Century, when atheism first emerged as an ideology.


The atheist confronting God over His seeming inability to or disinterest in stopping suffering was most famously captured by the Russian author Dostoevsky’s brilliant portrayal of the Grand Inquisitor, in which the cynical atheist Ivan confronts his simplistic brother Alexi, a novice monk, over God’s existence and the Problem of Suffering, purporting to prove that God cannot exist because so many innocent children suffer. Ivan, though, is a cynic. He doesn’t actually care about anyone’s suffering. He’s just out to make a point.


Many people, though, especially in our own world, actually do care about the suffering of others and find that suffering to be an obstacle to faith in God. But here is a place where we must be attentive to the tricks and wiles of the Evil One. While in the past he used man’s pride and conceit to turn his heart against faith in his Creator, today he uses the softness of the hearts of men and women to shake the foundations of faith in God. And thus is born a uniquely contemporary preoccupation: That God needs to explain Himself to us.


One of the chief problems of the Problem of Evil preoccupation, is that it sees suffering from the outside rather than from the inside. While experiencing suffering, loss, and tragedy can certainly shake one’s faith, parts of the world that regularly experience much greater suffering and poverty have, on a broad scale, greater faith in God. On a societal level, it seems that less suffering actually leads to less faith.


One answer is to attribute the faith of those who suffer to ignorance. If these peoples were better educated, if they had the same opportunities as those in the developed world, they would leave their childish ignorance behind and recognize that the suffering they regularly experience is incompatible with the supposed existence of an omnipotent and omnibenevolent God.


Quite different is the perspective of our Lord in the Gospel today: “I give praise to you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, for although you have hidden these things from the wise and the learned you have revealed them to little ones.” It is the experience of these little ones that can teach us how to keep our faith amidst suffering.

The faith of the little ones is present in the response of that famous sufferer, Job, to His wife, who seems to question God’s existence after all that Job (and, consequently, she, suffers): “Shall we receive good at the hand of God, and shall we not receive evil?”


Job’s response, which I have seen echoed in the firm faith of many of the Lord’s little ones who often face unspeakable tragedy, flies in the face of a deeply rooted tendency in contemporary men and women: to think that I am entitled to good things from God.


The contemporary preoccupation with the “Problem of Evil” finds its root in thinking that we have a right to our own ease, comfort, and pleasure. Now, I want to be clear that we should not belittle those who face serious doubts about God’s existence or His goodness or His omnipotence because of the experience of suffering, by asserting that they just think they have a right to be comfortable. That’s not the point at all.


Rather, it’s about the power of habit. When we habituate ourselves to constantly seeking our own pleasure, we easily develop a mindset – as individual persons and more broadly as a culture – that sees suffering as unacceptable.


I’m sure you’ve had the experience of what one person says and what another person hears not being the same. (And I’m not just talking about your husband being hard of hearing!) How we hear, or receive, what is being said is deeply affected by our own concerns and preoccupations. So when the Lord says that His yolk is easy and His burden is light, and we have an image of the good life that consists mostly in ease and comfort, we imagine that He’s talking about something similar. But He’s not!


Holy Mother Church wisely pairs these words of comfort with a timely exhortation from St. Paul: “We are not debtors to the flesh, to live according to the flesh. … If by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.”


The Lord’s burden is the Cross, which means that it is the Christian’s burden as well. Every suffering that we encounter is the opportunity to put to death the deeds of the body, to re-orient your life away from a pursuit of pleasure and towards something deeper and longer-lasting, towards the life of holiness to which Christ calls you.

When you allow suffering to re-orient your life, to change your priorities, to put to death the deeds of the body within yourself, then you will be ready for the Father to reveal the mysteries His has hidden from the wise and learned and revealed to the little ones, whom the Lord invites to encounter the One who suffered, and thus infused the smallest and greatest of human sufferings with the power to give life.



The Rev. Royce V. Gregerson

Parish Church of St. John the Evangelist, Goshen

XIV Sunday through the Year, A.D. MMXXIII

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