Do not labour in vain

Arsenius, was a Roman Senator of the late C4, who was tutor to the sons of the Emperor Theodosius. At the age of 34, he had what we might call a mid-life crisis.  He secretly left Rome and sailed for Egypt, to join a community of monks.

One day in his cell,  he heard a voice say to him,  ‘Come and I will show you the works of men’. He went to a place where he observed a man cutting wood and making a great pile, which he struggled to carry, but instead of taking some off, he piled on more. He tried again to carry it, but failed repeatedly. Then he saw a man drawing water from a lake and putting it into a broken container, so the water poured back out. Finally he saw two men on horseback carrying a beam between them, one beside the other; they tried to enter the door of a temple but the beam would not fit crosswise and neither would draw back to let the other go first so the beam might go in lengthwise. Arsenius was left with the message, ‘Let every one be watchful of his actions lest he labour in vain.’

It is one of the great ironies of modern life, that following the development of so many ‘labour-saving devices’ we seem to be busier than ever. We no longer have to wash clothes by hand, go to the river or the well to collect our water, or light candles around the house. Cars, buses  and trains swiftly take  us where we want to go. The idea of having to walk across the room to turn the channels of the television set seems like something from the Dark Ages. Everything seems to be  remotely controlled, and instantly done.

What do we do with all this labour saved and time gained? Do we squander it? 

At Winterton-on-Sea there is a large stone in the centre of the village at the crossroads. That stone had been rubbed smooth as a baby’s bottom over the years, by the retired fishermen who used to sit there, and have a mardle, put the world to rights and observe what was going on. Then one of them would decide that it was time, and they would 'go around the world’ which was they called doing the circuit of the village. Their world was contained within the village, there was no need to go to Hemsby or to Martham. Those old boys had a serenity about them based on taking time to do nothing in particular, and observe.

Jesus bids all who are weary and heavy laden to come to him and he will give us rest. What an invitation, these words are music to the ears and balm to the soul. How can he do that? We cannot all run away to a desert hermitage like Arsenius, we cannot simply drop our family obligations, our work, our responsibilities. But by coming to Jesus here in this Mass, or in prayer, it as though we put down the heavy load, for a time. We rest in the Lord, and then we pick it up again, to carry it a little further, strengthened by his Spirit.

We must never be too busy to pray. If we were so busy that we never ate, drank or sleep we would eventually keel over. All of these are essential to human life, and so is prayer to the life of the Christian, it is essential.   If we are too busy to pray, we are too busy. Martin Luther famously once looked ahead to an extremely busy day, and realized that he would have to pray twice as long at the start of it in order to get through it.

Jesus does not wave a magic wand to make our burdens vanish. He may actually seem to add to them, as he invites us to take his yoke upon ourselves, like a pair of oxen, hauling a plough. His yoke is easy, his burden is light. He was comparing himself to the Pharisees, the teachers of the Law who instead of making it easier for the people and simplifying the law, made it more burdensome. The Pharisees laid the yoke of some 613 commandments on the people. Whereas Jesus, essentially reduced them to two: love God and love neighbour. Indeed reciting and living according to the great commandment to love the Lord your God will your heart with all your mind with all your soul’ was known as ‘bearing the yoke of the reign of God.

To love God is to worship God, which is what coming to church enables us to do. Jesus reminds us that this is a commandment, not a recommendation. It is the basis for a balanced life. We all have our obligations and our priorities. But putting God first helps fit everything else into place. Our time with God in worship and in prayer enables us to put life into perspective.  

We have an obligation to love God, to love our neighbour, but also to love ourselves. We must take care of ourselves, physically, mentally and spiritually, to better enable us to do all that  we need to do. And we need to come to Christ for guidance, lest we labour in vain.