9 July 2017
14th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A
“Come to me all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest,” says the Lord. And he’s speaking to those who labor to the point of exhaustion, whether physically or mentally. He’s speaking to those who are not just burdened, but heavily burdened and weighed down. It’s very possible he could be speaking to us.
The National Institute of Mental Health reports that 18.1% of the U.S. adult population deals with anxiety in some form or another. That’s about 40 million people. They also report that 25.1% of teens (13-18 year olds) deal with anxiety in some form or another. Of course, anxiety is a part of life that comes and goes, and sometimes it’s even a good thing. But for these adults and teens, anxiety is burden beyond the average; it’s a labor that exhausts both body and mind.
“Come to me all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest,” says the Lord. Maybe he’s speaking to those of us who are exhausted by the heavy weight of anxiety.
Or what about those of us who have a fear of death and dying. Back in Victorian times, death was more commonly accepted as a part of life. Of course, at that time, people didn’t always live as long as we do today; infant mortality rates were quite high—anywhere from 15 to 50%, depending on living conditions. And people saw mourning as a process, with rituals and customs, and there was no rush to get through it. That’s all very different from today.
Today, we live in an age of youth, vitality, health, and vibrancy. And death is a threat to all of that. Old age is a threat, sickness and frailty are a threat, funerals and mourning are a threat. How many of us are burdened by the realization that, someday, death will catch up to us.
“Come to me all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest,” says the Lord. Maybe he’s speaking to those of us who are exhausted over our fear of death, and our efforts to deny it.
And then, lastly, what about those of us who are worn down by the seemingly endless discussions and debates about church buildings and Mass times. It takes a lot of energy to fight any battle, and that’s no less the case when it comes to tension over parish-related questions. Of course, some people thrive on that tension; but that’s for another homily.
“Come to me all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest,” says the Lord. Maybe he’s speaking to those of us who labor within the dynamics of any human community; in this case, the parish. But it could also be the family, or at work, or at school.
This invitation from the Lord to come to him is truly “good news,” especially today when so many of us labor and are burdened to the point of physical or mental exhaustion. Whether that’s because of anxiety, or fear, or the desire that life would be more clear cut and simple, the Lord’s invitation is like a cool drink on a hot summer day; it’s like collapsing on your bed after a long day. “Come to me all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest,” says the Lord.
But, you know, the thing about our anxiety and fears and frustrated desires is that they’re just going to be there until something in life changes. An afternoon nap can be refreshing, but unless we take care of what makes us tired in the first place, we’re going to have to keep taking those naps; we’re always going to be just a little bit too burdened. And that’s why Jesus goes on to say, “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me.”
Whatever labors and burdens we carry around, Jesus doesn’t want to just speaking soothing words to us; he also wants to help us actually lighten our load. And so, he invites us to “learn from him.” We can find comfort and rest in Jesus himself, but we’ll have a deeper transformation if we take on the character of Jesus, and become like him
Jesus is, as we heard, “meek and humble of heart.” And that’s what he wants to teach us: how to be meek and humble of heart ourselves, because apparently that’s the remedy for those of us who labor and are burdened.
Our reading today from the Prophet Zechariah is pretty instructive on this. He points out that the Messiah was to come in on a donkey, an animal whose whole purpose is to work; it’s a working animal. It was also viewed in ancient times as an animal of peace; an animal that’s mild, gentle, and dignified, with a calm sense of confidence. But then Zechariah contrasts the donkey with the horse, an animal whose purpose, at the time, was focused on war and aggression; it’s an animal for battle.
But, if you notice, Zechariah writes that the Messiah (riding on a donkey) will “banish the chariot from Ephraim, and the horse from Jerusalem; the warrior’s bow shall be banished, and he shall proclaim peace to the nations.” In a world where the expectation is that people will be strong and fierce, aggressive and warlike, like a horse, Jesus comes along and says, “No, be like a donkey, an animal that’s more like me: meek and humble of heart.”
“Take my yoke upon you and learn from me,” says the Lord. And that’s a key phrase: “Learn from me;” learn to be meek and humble, and your labors and burdens will be lightened. Of course, being meek and humble aren’t really values of our society today. They kind of go against what we so often hear is important; things like vitality, health, vibrancy, and strength.
But to be meek is to be strong. To be meek is to be vital and healthy, and even vibrant—but in a quiet, self-assured sort of way. To be meek is to be at peace with oneself, to be self-confident without worrying if we’re matching up to somebody else’s expectations.
When you think about it, how much of our “labors and burdens” are about trying to be who and what other people expect us to be? How much of our “labors and burdens” come from us trying to be something or someone that we are not? I think of teens, especially, here, but adults aren’t immune from the pressures to be like everybody else. It’s much less work to just accept our personal strengths and weakness as what they are, and go with that.
To be meek is to be strong, and vital and healthy, and even vibrant—but in a quiet, self-assured sort of way. Just think of all the anxiety and fear that could be done away with if we just accepted who we are, and accepted the reality of life and death, so that we could just get on with living. Jesus never said to go out and be in competition with everybody. He never said go out and scramble to be the best, or to win the acclaim and the esteem of others. No, he just said, “Be like me, be meek and humble of heart.” That’s all. Be like a donkey that just quietly goes about its work, at peace within itself.
And with meekness goes that humbleness of heart. Again, humility isn’t something our world values too much today. Instead we hear the message—the expectation—to be entirely self-reliant, strong, and always galloping toward success after success, win after win. But it’s hard to be at peace, it’s hard to be at rest, when we’re in a constant state of trying to outdo someone else, or when we feel it’s our personal mission to see our vision of the church come to be. It takes a lot of energy to keep that up, and it keeps us in a constant state of agitation.
To be humble of heart is to put God first, and to give our neighbors the benefit of the doubt and love them. To be humble of heart means I don’t have to everything; it’s an admission that I can’t do everything. I need other people, and other people have something valuable to offer me. And so, like meekness, to be humble of heart is to be quietly strong, inwardly strong and at rest.
Now, this advice from Jesus our Teacher about being meek and humble isn’t all that popular. But he’s not going to change it to make it popular, because he’s not in competition with what others think. He himself is meek and humble of heart; his teaching is what it is, whether or not we follow it. If we find ourselves to be “labored and heavily burdened,” it’s worth it to “learn from the Lord” another way of life, the ways of quiet self-assuredness and greater dependence on God and our brothers and sisters in Christ.
After all, that’s the way of the Spirit. As St. Paul says, “If the Spirit of the one who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, the one who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also, through his Spirit that dwells in you.” The Spirit of Christ is meekness and humility. And if that Spirit is part of us, then we can let go of our labors and burdens, and discover life again.
We can let go of what others think of us, and all that gives us anxiety. We can let go of our fears about death and dying. We can let go of having our thoughts dominated by buildings and Mass times. If the Spirit of Christ is part of us, then we can let go of our labors and burdens, and discover life again.
“Come to me all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest,” says the Lord. “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart; and you will find rest for yourselves.” What a beautiful gospel passage that is, and what “good news” that is for us who need to hear it.