First reading: Zechariah 9:9-10
Psalm: Psalm 144(145)
Second reading: Romans 8:9,11-13
Gospel: Matthew 11:25-30
Link to readings.
Today’s Gospel, Matt 11:25-30, features one of the most remarkable scenes in the Gospel of Matthew (the first part has a parallel in Luke 10:21-22). The disciples—and by extension ourselves—are given access to a moment of intimacy between Jesus and his Father. We “overhear” a joyful exclamation that Jesus makes directly to the Father, rejoicing that he has communicated to “mere children” (his disciples) some sense of the knowledge of the Father that he enjoys as divine Son. This privileged knowledge is not something that can be gained by learning or study; that is why the “learned and clever” have no purchase upon it through their own efforts. It is something directly revealed by God’s grace to those most capable of receiving it: “mere children”.
The point about little children, of course, is that, being so unlearned and weak, they have nothing “useful” to contribute in an adult world. All they can do is receive what is given to them. What they give in return is simply what they are really good at: affection and love. Jesus comes back again and again to this image of the child to communicate a sense of human relationship to God.
We should realize, too, that when Jesus speaks of “knowing” God, he is using the word in the Semitic sense where, beyond intellectual knowledge, it has the deeper resonance of real experience. To “know” a person is not simply to know a great deal about her or him: implied is a communion of love, entailing deep intimacy. This is the kind of knowledge of God of which Jesus is speaking. He blesses the Father because he has communicated such knowledge to the disciples— and, by extension, to ourselves, who are their heirs.
In the second part of the Gospel, Jesus issues an invitation: “Come to me, all you who labor and are overburdened and I will give you rest. Shoulder my yoke and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart”. The invitation takes us to Matthew’s characteristic presentation of Jesus as the One who bears and lifts humanity’s burdens. The view of humanity depicted in the Gospel is that of being weighed down and burdened by a multitude of afflictions (4:23-25; 8:16-17; 9:35-36; 14:13-14). In the guise of the “Servant” figure of Isaiah (12:15-21; see Isa 42:1-4; 49:1-6; 50:4-9; 52:13–53:12) Jesus comes to lift that burden, which includes but is by no means exhausted by the burden of sin. He rails at the scribes and Pharisees because, in their interpretation of the Torah (the Jewish law), they make human life more rather than less burdensome: “They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them” (23:4). For Jesus, on the hand, the cardinal rule for interpreting the law is the divine intent made clear in Hosea 6:6: “What I (God) want is mercy not sacrifice” (see Matt 9:13; 12:7). For Jesus, God did not give the law to Israel to impose or add to the burdens of the human race but rather to regulate a way of life worthy of a people chosen by God. It is in the context of being an interpreter of the Torah in this sense that Jesus claims that his yoke is easy and his burden light.
The heart of that “ease” and “lightness”, however, is the “knowledge” of which he spoke earlier. To those who do not really know God or who worship God as a distant and threatening potentate, religious and ethical norms promulgated in God’s name will indeed appear burdensome. To those who have allowed Jesus to draw them into his intimacy and knowledge of God they will not appear this way. The values they enshrine and seek to foster will already be encased in the heart.
The First Reading, Zech 9:9-10, interpreted in a messianic sense (as when cited in connection with the entry of Jesus into Jerusalem [Matt 21:5]), proclaims the kind of Messiah that Jesus in fact turns out to be—not a conquering ruler armed with the weapons of the world but the compassionate, burden-bearing figure emerging from the Gospel.
Interpretation of the Second Reading (Rom 8:9, 11-13) is beset by the difficulty of rendering Paul’s sense of living “according to the flesh”, here translated as “the unspiritual”, which rather begs the question. “Flesh” for Paul denotes human existence in the era before Christ, ruled by selfishness and sin. “Spirit” denotes the life of the new creation, pulsating with Christ’s unselfish love. It is this Spirit that has—or ought to have—“made his home” within believers, setting their bodies on track to share Christ’s resurrection.
Brendan Byrne, SJ, FAHA, taught New Testament at Jesuit Theological College, Parkville, Vic., for almost forty years. He is now Emeritus Professor at the University of Divinity (Melbourne). His commentaries on the Gospels can be found at Pauline Books and Media