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Easy Yokes, Light Burdens and a Gentle, Smiling Lord

July 3, 2017
Fourteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A - July 9th, 2017
During one of my summer undergraduate study programs in France, I recall visiting the Abbey of Saint-Honorat on the Îles de Lérins in southern France. I was particularly struck by a medieval figure of the crucified Christ in the Abbey Church. The Crucified One, hanging on the Cross with his eyes closed and head tilted to the right, was smiling. The old monk who showed us around that day told us that this was Christ souriant (“Christ smiling”). Several of my classmates from various countries, especially those of other faiths, were quite perplexed in seeing the crucified Christ with a peaceful smile on his face and asked the monk how this could be possible.
I have often wondered why we in our own time don’t depict Jesus smiling or laughing. Yes, there are some well-known prints or depictions of a smiling Christ, but they are few and far between. I dare say that many of our depictions of Christ specialize in capturing the rather bleak, serious, and sad images of Christ that are reflective of the late Middle Ages – a period when the Dance of Death and the Black Plague haunted Europe.
While it is true that the New Testament is silent about Jesus smiling, laughing, or enjoying himself and those around him, the Scriptures are not afraid to tell us that he did express other human emotions. We know that he wept bitter tears at his friend Lazarus’ death. He was not afraid to show his anger in the Temple when people turned it into a shopping mall. He expressed irritation at the traps being set for him by some religious leaders of his time. How many times did he get frustrated with his disciples’ inability to grasp the situation and meaning of his words, parables, predictions of the passion and imminent departure from them? We must ask ourselves: how is it that the Scriptures don’t mention anything about Jesus smiling or his humorous responses to his slow disciples? How could he not have laughed and smiled when he was swarmed by children who obviously loved his company?
What did Jesus look like when he stared at Zacchaeus hiding in that Jericho sycamore tree? I am certain that there were smiles, laughter, and humour. When the crowds took leave of him on that Galilean hillside, having eaten their fill, how could Jesus not have smiled in relief? When Jesus spoke about the hypocrites’ gloomy looks in Matthew’s Gospel, he was also revealing something about himself. Yet there are many in the Church today who have difficulty in the image of a smiling, happy Jesus. They would prefer a stern, dour, tragedy-stricken figure who doesn’t seem to offer much hope!
Jesus’ prayer of rejoicing
Throughout his life, Jesus experienced that the humble of heart found it easier to accept his revolutionary doctrine than did those who were full of their own self-importance. In today’s Gospel, Matthew’s Jesus offers an exultant prayer of praise that defines for us more clearly who he is and with whom he wishes to be identified (11:25-30).
There are three movements in today’s section of Matthew’s Gospel (11:25-30). In the first movement, Jesus addresses himself to the Father, rejoicing that the Father’s special love for the poor and lowly is being manifested in his ministry. In the second movement, Jesus addresses himself in a kind of self-definition. Jesus is the Son to whom full knowledge of the Father is given. The heart of the Son’s mission is to reveal the Father to us. Finally in the third movement, Jesus speaks directly to all those who long for relief, consolation, and refreshment. I cannot help but think that in each moment, Jesus smiled, breathed deeply, and was filled with joy at what was happening among his own disciples. He smiled with compassion as he invited the broken and lowly to find peace.
Priority over relationships
Though this particular message does provide rest and encouragement to the downtrodden, Matthew’s Gospel as a whole is not always so comforting or easy to receive. In Matthew 10:37 we read: “They who love father and mother, son or daughter, more than me are not worthy of me.” Jesus takes priority over the relationships between even parents and children! These texts must be understood in their original context – the losses incurred by first-century Christians who joined the Christian movement and who, in doing so, left behind everything that had given them comfort and strength – parents, siblings, children, indeed all family ties and all possessions, however great or meagre.
Today’s Gospel responds directly to those who lost everything or gave up everything – it is Jesus, the great comforter, the one who opens his arms in welcome to those beaten down by their experience, those who find themselves ostracized and rejected, overburdened and crushed. The saying found in 11:25-26 is identical with Luke 10:21-22 except for minor variations, and introduces a joyous note into this section, so dominated by the theme of unbelief. While the wise and the learned, the scribes and Pharisees, have rejected Jesus’ preaching and the significance of his mighty deeds, the childlike have accepted them.
Accepting the Lord’s yoke
To accept the yoke of Christ upon our shoulders is to be assured of a gentle and humble master; any burden given and accepted in mutual love will seem light. Today’s Gospel also contains one of the most well-known and popular passages from all of the Christian Scriptures. Who of us cannot be moved in some way by the consolation that Jesus offers when he says (11:28-30):
Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens,
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.
The word “yoke” is used metaphorically to describe those things that control the lives of people. Peasants always had a yoke. For the most part, their lives as tenant farmers were governed by the wills and whims of the landowners. Their lives were also controlled by religious leaders who grew fat on tithes that they hoarded in the Temple instead of redistributing them to the needy. Pharisees laid the yoke of their 613 commandments upon the followers and others who sought their advice about how to please God. For all Israelites, reciting and living according to Deuteronomy 6:4: “Hear, O Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might,” was known as “bearing the yoke of the reign of God.”
In today’s Gospel, Jesus gives himself as a model for his listeners and invites them to “learn from me” (11:29). His invitation echoes that offered by Wisdom in Sirach (51:23, 26): “Draw near to me, you who are uneducated, and lodge in the house of instruction […] Put your neck under her yoke, and let your souls receive instruction.” In place of the yoke of the law, complicated by scribal interpretation, Jesus invites the burdened to take the yoke of obedience to his word, under which they will find rest (cf. Jeremiah 6:16).
Jesus demonstrates a way of life, a yoke, that differs markedly from the one taught by the other religious leaders of his day. He promises a yoke that is easy and a burden that is light. No wonder many poor people found his words enormously appealing! Spiritual elitism repels many more than it attracts. The best guides are those who practice what they preach. Jesus walked his talk, and gives us a wonderful and challenging example to embrace and imitate each day. And I cannot help but imagine Jesus uttering these words of consolation with a gentle smile.
Why Jesus is still attractive today
Jesus was attractive then, and still is attractive now, to millions upon millions. The Messiah came among us, not as a conquering warrior, but in lowliness and peace. Not like the last kings of Judah, who rode in chariots and on horses (Jeremiah 17:25; 22:4), but like the princes of old (Genesis 49:11; Judges 5:10; 10:4), the Messiah will ride on an ass. The evangelists see a literal fulfilment of this prophecy, contained in today’s first reading from Zechariah (9:9-10), in the Saviour’s triumphant entry into Jerusalem (Matthew 21:4-5; John 12:14-15).
Jesus of Nazareth attracted townspeople and country people, poor and rich, fishermen and tax collectors, women like Mary of Magdala and her cohort who provided for him and so many others. He had the ability to wow simple and sophisticated souls alike. I am sure he did it with his powerful words, but also with a gentle smile, with humour, kindness, and just plain love. His divine origins, despite the utter seriousness of his mission towards his Cross and Resurrection, made him an extraordinary human being who was able to bond with others. How could he not have smiled when he uttered the words of today’s Gospel: “Come to me. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” These are hardly admonitions that necessitate a stern gaze and heavy voice! They are words that flow from one who is a lover and a friend.
Constant challenge of Christian living
After his warning in Romans 7 against the wrong route to fulfilling the objective of holiness expressed in Romans 6:22, Paul points his addressees to the correct way. Christians still retain their flesh, but it is alien to their new being, which is life in the spirit, namely the new self, governed by the Holy Spirit (Romans 8:9; 11-13). Under the direction of the Holy Spirit, Christians are able to fulfil the divine will that formerly found expression in the law (Romans 8:4). The same Spirit who enlivens Christians for holiness will also resurrect their bodies at the last day (8:11). Christian life is therefore the experience of a constant challenge to put to death the evil deeds of the body through life of the spirit (8:13). This life in the spirit is a life lived “bearing the yoke of the reign of God.” It is living life with the easy yoke, light burden, and great affection of a gentle, smiling Lord.
[The readings for this Sunday are: Zechariah 9:9-10; Romans 8:9, 11-13; and Matthew 11:25-30.]
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