This morning’s Gospel reading is Matthew 11:25–30:
At that time Jesus exclaimed:
“I give praise to you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, for although you have hidden these things from the wise and the learned you have revealed them to little ones. Yes, Father, such has been your gracious will. All things have been handed over to me by my Father. No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son wishes to reveal him.
“Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you 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.”
A belated happy Independence Day to Hot Air readers, especially to those who read the reflections here. Hopefully you spent your Fourth in fun and celebration of freedom, or at least of family and friends. I spent mine liberating my laundry room of the tyranny of junk and bad storage decisions over the last twenty-plus years, and then had a great social-distancing visit from good friends to liberate me from that. Not the greatest of Independence Days, but overall … not too bad.
By the way, my laundry room is only mostly liberated. There are still holdouts against the tyrannical former regime, but I’m planning a Yorktown for later today … assuming my back’s up to it. (It could end up being more of a skirmish, to be honest.)
Jazz wrote our holiday post yesterday, but today’s Gospel readings speak to freedom and liberty in their own way. The entire arc of salvation history through both the Old and New Testaments are really about liberty and individual choice at their cores, with the eternal question that faces each of us singularly, in communities, and as a whole: Do we freely choose to accept the Lord and His Word? Or do we wish to reject Him and make ourselves into gods of our own?
The reading from Zechariah nearly echoes our reading from Matthew today in message and tone. The prophet proclaims the Lord’s message to His people in terms that almost sound like a love letter. When their savior arrives, Zechariah says, he will come in humility and justice, not in oppression and cruelty. “A just savior is he,” Zechariah says, “meek and rising on an ass, on a colt, the foal of an ass.”
This not just foreshadows Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem that we now celebrate on Palm Sunday, it also communicates the nature of the new “regime.” While this savior will put an end to war, he will not impose himself on people. This new king will be “meek,” a word that has a specific nuanced meaning that sometimes escapes the ear of modern listeners. Meek in this Biblical sense does not mean milquetoast or powerless; in fact, it means almost exactly the opposite. It signifies someone who willingly lays his real power aside for mercy’s sake. “Weak” means powerless; meek means power intentionally set aside for a greater purpose. When Zechariah says that this meek king will “come to you” in humility rather than grandeur, the prophet does not just mean directionally. This king will come to His people to seek them out rather than dominate them, even though He has the power to do the latter.
Jesus uses the same term for the same purpose, only more explicitly, in our reading from Matthew today. “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart,” He tells the disciples, “and you will find rest for yourselves. For my yoke is easy, and my burden light.” Jesus also adds to His prayer of praise to the Father for having “hidden these things from the wise and learned,” a point which we sometimes take for granted in Jesus’ preaching. But why would God “hide” His nature and command in the first place?
Because He loves us, and wishes us to love Him. And that cannot happen on command and through domination, as we know full well from our own political histories of freedom and tyrannies.
To fully reveal Himself would be to dominate mankind through the revelation of His great power. We have glimpses of this throughout the scriptures, even in the theophanies; God comes to Moses as a burning bush, and then only in a glimpse on Mount Sinai. He comes as a massive cloud to John the Baptist and Jesus at the river. God never reveals anything close to His massive splendor, because to do so would enslave humanity. We would obey His word, but not out of choice and love but out of fear and terror.
The Lord loves us too much to force us into slavery. He wants us to come to Him in love, to enter into His family as sons and daughters rather than into slavery. This is the ultimate expression of “meekness,” of deliberately setting aside that power and authority in favor of love. Jesus would later show another expression of meekness on the cross, allowing Himself to suffer the most humiliating and excruciating execution rather than wreak vengeance on those who betrayed and rejected Him.
Jesus freed us from death in that moment, defeating what humankind had long seen as a tyranny of its own — our own mortality. That shows the power of God’s love, but also the lightness of His yoke as well. After all, the commands of the Lord come down to Jesus’ own commandments to His disciples: love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and mind, and love your neighbors as yourselves. How hard is that?
Well, pretty hard sometimes, as we all find out. But this is not the yoke of slavery; it is a recipe for liberation. We are not called upon to create the Pyramids of Giza for our salvation, nor to conquer vast lands by the sword. Jesus and the scriptures consistently urge people to love the Lord and put aside the worldly ambitions of those who would make themselves into their own gods. The Lord has no need of conquerors for the sake of conquest; it’s all His world, anyway. He has no need of pyramids either, and truly no “needs” at all. What God longs for is our love, our free-will choice to be His sons and daughters, and those commandments serve to simplify our lives and distill our ambitions to that purpose.
We can choose not to listen and to harden our hearts to Him. We are not slaves, even though the Lord has the power to make us into such. In that, we have our independence, but it’s what we do with that liberty that matters. God calls us to choose Him and His light yoke; will we listen?
The front-page image is a detail of a mosaic from the Cappella Palatina, Palermo, Sicily (12th century).
“Sunday Reflection” is a regular feature, looking at the specific readings used in today’s Mass in Catholic parishes around the world. The reflection represents only my own point of view, intended to help prepare myself for the Lord’s day and perhaps spark a meaningful discussion. Previous Sunday Reflections from the main page can be found here.