ZECHARIAH 9:9-10. ROMANS 8:9-11 MATTHEW 11:25-30
In this Sunday’s Gospel we read one of Jesus most popular sayings.
“Come to me, all you who labor and are heavy burdened, and I will give your rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart; and you will find rest for yourselves. For my yoke is easy and my burden light.” It’s a loving invitation on one level, and a challenge on another. Let’s take a good look at this beloved saying because its message is so important.
To properly understand the depth of his invitation, we need to take his statement very personally. Jesus is reaching out with profound compassion and empathy to anyone who might listen to him. He sees our inner restlessness and our deeply felt unhappiness. He offers us healing. But we need to prepare ourselves in order to hear his message and accept the healing by questioning ourselves at the deepest level. How might I describe my unhappiness? What’s that inner restlessness that’s continually churning within me blocking my peace of heart, my inner peace?
Let’s turn to today’s reading from St. Paul’s letter to the Romans to assist us in our inner reflection. He writes, “If you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.” Be careful here, however. This passage has been misinterpreted often.
Many ascetics throughout the history of Christianity have taken this to mean that anything that has to do with bodily pleasure couldn’t possibly come from God but could come only from the evil one. As a result, a cult of mortification, penance, self- flagellation, and the condemnation of human sexuality have stubbornly persisted in Christianity and has enthroned an image of a wrathful god in Christian spirituality. We want to avoid this type of thinking as we ponder St. Paul’s teaching.
The best definition for “flesh” that I’ve come across is this: “Flesh recoils from anything that might cause us to be anything less than the center of the universe.” This is what St. John refers to as “the world” in his Gospel. It’s whatever distracts us from the love of God. Self-centeredness is, perhaps, the clearest definition of “flesh” or “the world.”
St. Paul is teaching that “flesh,” our stubborn self-centeredness, doesn’t reward us with a deeper experience of life. Rather, it detaches us from the love of others, and leads to the destruction of our sacred and God-given humanity. He calls that death.
The challenge St. Paul places before us is to live a Spirit-filled life that puts “to death the deeds of the body,” self-centeredness. A Spirit-filled life frees us to reach out, to love. This is life to its fullest. Jesus is offering the same challenge in his teaching. It’s part of his invitation, “Come to me all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest.”
When we recognize that deep inside we feel weighted down, burdened, unsettled, not truly content – incomplete, we have to assess our basic motivation, our modus operandi. Am I expending all my energy on trying to be happy? Has securing power and fame not been successful in helping me feel whole and complete? Has financial security not made me happy? Has sculpting the perfect body for myself not made me feel any better about myself? Have my family, friendships and relationships never really brought me contentment of heart. Do I ever wonder why I’m here on planet earth?
Jesus is inviting us to live differently. He’s promising us “rest” from these inner burdens that weigh down our souls. His promise isn’t a free gift though. We have to work for it. We have to challenge our thoughts and actions and begin to live differently. “Learn from me for I am meek and humble of heart.” We have to study Jesus. We have to look at his life and listen attentively to his teaching. He tells us so clearly, “Whoever wishes to save his life will lose it!” We have to come to the realization that self-centeredness is our original sin. It isolates us from God, the people around us and ourselves. It bars us from paradise.
Jesus could not have been any clearer in directing us to a new way of living than when he gave us the new commandment. “Love one another as I have loved you.” This isn’t romantic, feel-good love. This is sacrificial love the opposite of self-centeredness. His commandment goes on to clarify what he means by love. “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”
I believe we’re living in a very special, Spirit-filled time. The powerful illusions we’ve worshipped, wealth, security, prestige, health – all have been challenged by a virus – one hundred twenty-eight thousand deaths and forty million unemployed in the United States. But the Spirit has liberated his gifts throughout this time. The Spirit has been guiding us through the darkness with the light of love. Many of us are putting our lives on the line by caring for one another. Our health-care professionals and essential workers have been willing to lay down their lives for the greater good.
That virus has uncovered terrible inequalities and injustice in our society and our culture. The voice of prophecy is being heard, once again. We’re being challenged to judge our way of thinking about each other. We’re being challenged to rebuild our society. We’re being challenged to care for one another. We’re being challenged to lay down our lives for one another. We’re being challenged to love. May the day come soon when we all hear the voice of Jesus saying to us, “Today, you will be with me in paradise.”