Commentary on Zechariah 9:9-10; Romans 8:9.11-13; Matthew 11:25-30
THERE ARE TWO APPARENTLY contradictory sides to the Gospel. On the one hand, there are very radical demands made on us in the following of Jesus. An example of these ‘hard sayings’ was the Gospel of last Sunday. “Anyone who prefers father or mother… son or daughter to me is not worthy of me. Anyone who does not take his cross and follow in my footsteps is not worthy of me…” Luke’s Gospel in particular emphasises the absolute and unconditional demands made of the Christian disciple.
Before making the decision of becoming a disciple of Christ, sit down and count the cost because “whoever does not give up everything he has cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:33). Following Christ is all or nothing, you cannot at the same time serve God and long for material possessions and all the things that money can buy.
Yet that passage from Luke is followed immediately by chapter 15 and the three stories of God’s longing to bring back the sinner: the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost (prodigal) son. In other words, another side of the Gospel speaks with equal emphasis of God’s warmth, compassion and his desire for reconciliation with the weak and the sinful.
Finding the balance
So if you found last week’s readings rather demanding, they need to be balanced against the passages into today’s Mass. It would be wrong to come down too much on either side. The Gospel still calls for total giving of self, not as the denial of that self but as the only way to find one’s true self. At the same time, our God is a God of infinite patience and compassion as we stumble along in our efforts to unite ourselves fully with him.
The theme of today’s readings is very much one of peace and consolation. The First Reading from the prophet Zechariah speaks of a king entering Jerusalem riding on a young donkey. The scene is one of humility but also of peace. He rides on a placid donkey rather than on a prancing war horse. This is confirmed later in the words: “He will banish [war] chariots from Ephraim and [war] horses from Jerusalem; the bow of war will be banished.”
Our king is a king of peace. “He will proclaim peace for the nations.” He is a king of peace, not just in the sense of an external absence of violence but of a deep, inner peace, shalom. Jesus, who is identified with the king in Zechariah’s passage, also brings peace. He is the Prince of Peace. (He also brings the “sword” but this is not contradictory, as we will see below.) “Come to me, all you who labour and are overburdened, and I will give you rest .”
Through the tough times
Whatever demands Jesus may make on our following of him, he wants to be at all times truly a source of comfort, of consolation and of forgiveness and reconciliation. Whatever demands life may be making on us, he is there too to be called on. When we are in difficulties and pain, we can ask him to take them away. He may not always do so but we can expect him to restore our peace. For we need to remember that Jesus is not to be seen as an escape from our problems. Sometimes he will give us peace not from our pain but within our pain. There can be the danger that we expect Jesus or his Mother or some other saint or the Church to be there to wave a magic wand that wipes away all our problems, all difficulties, all obstacles.
Jesus’ own life is an excellent example. In the garden of Gethsemane, faced with imminent arrest, torture and execution, he did not want to have to go through it. This is a perfectly normal human reaction to the threat of death. Anything else would be very strange (yet one sometimes hears people speak as if Jesus actually wanted to go through all those terrible experiences).
Jesus begged his Father to spare him going through this appalling ordeal. “Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me,” he prayed but then, at the end of his prayer, said: “Nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will.” (Matthew 26:39) The Father was silent and his will was clear. Jesus should face what is coming. And, when sometime later, Jesus rises from his prayer, he is a very different person. From that moment on and for the rest of his Passion experience he reveals nothing but quiet dignity and strength in the face of all kinds of abuse and humiliations.
He is full of an inner peace, which had come once he had said that total ‘Yes’ to his Father. His prayer in the garden had been answered, although not in the way he originally requested.
Here we might say we have the two sides of the Gospel coming together. On the one hand, Jesus makes that absolute and total surrender of himself into God’s hands but, at the same time, experiences the “rest” that comes to those who “labour and are overburdened”.
There is a similar example from the life of Paul. He had some kind of (physical?) ailment which was a source of great distress to him. He felt that it was a serious hindrance to his work of proclaiming the Gospel.
“Three times I begged the Lord about this,” he says (2 Corinthians 12:8), “that it should leave me.” And, he says, God answered his prayer but again not in the way he had asked. He was told, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in your weakness.” His ailment, far from being an obstruction to preaching the Gospel, in fact made the power of Christ more visible. From then on, Paul, far from wanting his problem to be removed, says “I will all the more gladly boast of my weaknesses, that the power of Christ may rest upon me.” He begins to realise that “when I am weak, then I am strong”. And Paul found peace. He had learnt, as we need to do, that “God writes straight with crooked lines”.
How different from the way we sometimes approach God, or Jesus, or Mary! “God, give me this… God, I must have this or I can’t go on… Not your will, O Lord, but mine be done! My will be done in heaven as I am trying to get it done on earth!” Everything is upside down. It is not surprising, then, that such prayers seem to go unanswered.
There are some things which can be changed in life, and it is up to us to do the changing, mainly by changing ourselves. There are other things which cannot be changed and need to be accepted and lived with. Peace comes from saying a sincere Yes to what is clearly God’s will in our life. This will of God is most often made known by the realities by which we are surrounded. Peace comes when I want – really want – what God wants.
When God’s will and mine coincide. This is not passive fatalism; it is an active and joyful response.
Sharing the yoke
So Jesus says today, “Shoulder my yoke… and you will find rest… Yes, my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” A yoke we think of as a heavy (and very burdensome, even painful) piece of wood laid on the shoulders of an ox. But, because of the yoke, the ox can pull the weight of the cart behind it more easily. It is a burden which is also a help. The words of Jesus often seem, at first sight, to be very burdensome. “‘These are hard sayings; who can take them?’… After this many of his disciples drew back and no longer went about with him” (John 6:60,66) Yet, in fact, once understood, we know that there can be no other way of living in true freedom and peace.
There is still another way of understanding the image of the yoke. Think of it as a double yoke, where two oxen can work together better. We now have a lovely image of Jesus and me yoked together, pulling together. “Shoulder my yoke” then becomes “Share my yoke”. Where I go, he goes along with me, pulling together with me and making it all the easier.
There is really no conflict between the two sides of the Gospel. There is only one Jesus, only one Gospel. We are called to be with Jesus all the way, accepting his life vision, his standards, his values – unconditionally. This calls for the simplicity and openness of children rather than intellectual sophistication. Accepting Jesus all the way is not intended as a burden but as a source of comfort, peace, liberation and joy.
Happy are those who carry the “burden”, the yoke of the Gospel. Jesus has the secret of living well. Is it not time that we Christians discovered this wonderful secret and began to share it with others?