I remember when I first read Matthew 11:28-30. I was in Taiwan, bewildered with grief over my brother’s suicide, and suffering from an undiagnosed depression from a car accident that resulted in head trauma a few months prior. I was homeless, in a sense, coming from New York, where I had been out of work and staying in my boyfriend’s apartment, to my current year’s teaching position in Taiwan, and on my way to a year in Paris where I hoped things between my boyfriend and me would work out for the long-term. (They didn’t, by the way, which is another story, and which you can read about in my memoir over there on the sidebar).
If you’re not familiar with Matthew 11, this – this is the scripture:
Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.
I had just discovered the Bible as more than a talisman to carry with me against bad luck. Not that I did that – someone had to give me a copy. I discovered it was more than an antiquated story with good moral lessons. In it, I discovered words of life. And when I read the words in Matthew 11, I know I gasped. I probably breathed a sigh of relief. And though I’ve often since stumbled on scriptures that made me laugh – whether because it was funny or because God hit the nail on the head – that’s one thing I’m certain I didn’t do because it was at least a year after my brother’s death before I was able to laugh again.
Am I weary and burdened? Oh yeah.
More than seeking wisdom at the time, I had been seeking knowledge. I was touched greatly by Dostoevsky’s The Idiot, whose Prince Myshkin, I had been told, was supposed to have been modelled after Jesus. Someone so pure, so self-sacrificing, so good that the world could only look on him as an idiot. I was ploughing through nearly all of Dostoevsky’s works (for fun – I was never a popular kid), but The Idiot stood out to me the most – the concept that someone could be so good as to be misunderstood and eventually put away.
It has been … 21 years since my brother Mark died. He killed himself on January 3, but since I was in Asia, I didn’t find out about it until January 4th, which remains the significant date in my mind. I didn’t know that such a bone-chilling bleakness could exist until I was in it with no way out.
By the time I left Taiwan, and had moved to Paris, I now owned a Bible and offered up occasional, tentative prayers. Some time that fall before the anniversary of my brother’s death, I was also treated for depression and was able to function again.
And it was just about that time, as a fan of Dickens, that I had moved on to reading The Pickwick Papers. I was surprised to read in the foreword of the book that Dostoevsky had found no other model as near to what he hoped to achieve for his Prince Myshkin in portraying a simplistic good man than in Dickens’ Samuel Pickwick.
(And, in full disclosure, I just found out that is not precisely true, based on the following, quoted from this website):
The first installment of The Idiot was scheduled to appear in the the January number of the literary journal Russkii Vestnik, and Dostoevsky wrote in a letter to his niece, S. Ivanova, desribing the central idea for his new novel:
The idea behind the novel is an old and precious conception of mine, but so difficult that for a long I have not dared to attempt it; and if I have decided to attempt it now, it is only because I found myself in an almost desperate situation. The chief idea of the novel is to depict a “positively beautiful” (polozhitel’no prekrasnyi) man. . . . There is only one positively beautiful person in the world—Christ—and the appearance of this measurelessly, infinitely beautiful person is, of course, an infinite miracle. . . . I’ll simply say that of the beautiful persons in Christian literature the most perfect is Don Quixote. But he is beautiful only because at the same time he is funny. Dickens’s Pickwick (an infinitely weaker conception than Don Quixote, but all the same immense) is also funny, and succeeds only because of this quality. Compassion arises for the beautiful when it is laughed at and ignorant of its own worthÐand so sympathy arises in the reader. This rousing of compassion is the secret of humour. [The Dostoevsky Archive, 120]
So, now I understand that Don Quixote was a greater influencer, as was Dickens’ novel Our Mutual Friend. But at the time, I was doubly impressed that Dickens’ character could influence Dostoevsky’s to such a great extent and was excited to dig into the book. And I was at a time in my life when I was ripe for humour and ready to be entertained.
Oh, I laughed while reading The Pickwick Papers. I laughed from the opening lines until the ending. It was the first time I remember laughing after my brother’s death. I laughed so hard that when I was in public, I had to close the book so people wouldn’t drag me to an asylum. I laughed so hard I cried.
Now I can see some of the underlying, more somber, social statements in the book that I wasn’t ready to see at the time. But Pickwick Papers remains for me the book that made me laugh for the first time in over a year.
Where am I going with all this? I’m not sure. But Jesus is more than the morose self-sacrifice of Prince Myshkin. And he is more than the innocent jovial gaiety of Samuel Pickwick. These are just two minor facets of a perfect diamond. No one could mistake him for an idiot because in all his “positively beautiful” goodness, there is also strength. He is someone who can stand at the rubble of humanity as he is about to be sacrificed and say, “Be of good cheer. I have overcome the world.”*
* John 16:33 (I have referenced this before, but it bears repeating).
“Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.” (MSG)
Jesus’ yoke is not a set of religious rules; it’s freedom. It’s walking with someone who understands suffering, but who remains steadfast and lighthearted. His way is so unlike our way where human worth is based on achievement. The very notion of his simplistic goodness seems … idiotic.
Nevertheless, it’s real.