by Br Julian McDonald cfc
“You have hidden these things from the wise and the learned, and have revealed them to little ones…”
“Take up my yoke and learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart…”
Matthew 11, 25-30
The following is a story that I have shared several times over the years of writing these reflections, but I believe it bears repeating:
Towards the middle of the 17th century, the Japanese Zen Buddhist master, Tetsugen Doko embarked on a project to have printed 7000 copies of a Japanese translation of the teachings of the Buddha. To raise funds for his venture, he travelled around Japan seeking donations. After ten long years of collecting, he had enough money to meet the printing costs. However, just as the printer was about to embark on the job, the river Uji flooded and broke its banks, leaving countless people without food and shelter. Tetsugen halted the printing and spent all his collected funds on bringing relief to the flood victims. When the crisis was over, he set out again collecting for the printing. After ten more years, he had collected enough, and returned to the printer. However, just as the printer was about to begin a second time, a plague broke out across the land, claiming many lives and leaving many others sick and disabled. Tetsugen spent all he had collected on relieving the suffering of the sick, and burying the dead. When that crisis eased, he set out a third time on his collecting rounds, and years later realised his dream of seeing the sacred texts finally printed. The printing blocks are still on display in the Obaku monastery in Kyoto. Those who practice Obaku Zen Buddhism recount how Tetsugen actually had three editions of the sacred texts printed: the first two are invisible, but far superior to the third.
What Tetsugen did effectively models for us the exhortation of today’s gospel-reading: Jesus’ message is best proclaimed not in fine rhetoric but in the way in which we reach out to others through our compassion, care and generosity. It is through our actions that justice and mercy come to life.
Both the English word “yoke” and its Greek equivalent carry the meaning of something that is a burden. As Jesus looked at the way in which the Jewish religious leaders of his time expected their people to live, he came to see that ordinary people had been taught to see the Law as an endless set of rules and regulations that affected every aspect of their lives. Religious practice became such a heavy burden that it was almost impossible to be faithful to it.
It is important to remember the political context in which Matthew’s Gospel was written. Matthew was writing for a newly-formed Christian community that was coming together shortly after Jerusalem had been destroyed by the Roman Emperor Vespasian. The traditional, orthodox Jews of the time had their hopes set on the restoration of a Jewish State. The members of the new Christian community had their hearts set on the “reign or kingdom of God”, which Jesus had proclaimed in his life time. While those belonging to the Christian cult spoke of gentleness and humility, those who adhered to traditional Judaism had a very strong political agenda. The image of the ”yoke”, which Matthew put into the mouth of Jesus, was a very fitting one. Those who owned oxen had yokes specially made to fit their animals, so that they were not too heavy, but rather, fitted comfortably. So, Matthew’s Jesus speaks of a way of relating to God which fits comfortably on people. Jesus was inviting those who would be his disciples to relate to God and to the people around them not in a measured, legalistic way but in a way that is built on the gentle, compassionate way of God’s love for us. It is a love that grows out of gratitude and hope; a way that looks more like the way in which children love and relate – with directness and optimism, free of the kind of self-interest, rationalisation and complexity that are often features of the way in which adults relate.
As today’s gospel-reading concludes, Jesus invites all of us who would be his disciples to learn from what he has learned from God: “Take my yoke upon your shoulders and lean from me, for I am meek and humble of heart. Your souls will find rest, for my yoke is easy (comfortable) and my burden light” (Matthew 11, 28-30). This invitation follows on immediately from his comment that all he is and has comes from God. If he is “meek and humble of heart”, so, too, is God meek and humble of heart. To be like Jesus, to be like God is to be meek, gentle and humble – a far cry from the way our world wants us to be – people of power, control, status and importance.
In contrast to all this, we can probably remember times when we tried to live our lives conforming to what we thought our Church and the people we knew expected or wanted of us. Being a Christian is not about trying to live in accord with a set of rules we fail to follow. Rather, it is about following in the footsteps of Jesus who was a law-challenging, justice-promoting, selfless, loving, and generous-hearted person who had been labelled by his critics as a glutton and drunkard because he ate and drank with sinners. He challenged unfair and unjust social and religious systems. He had the ability to enjoy life even as he critically engaged with it.
In today’s gospel-reading, Jesus makes reference to things hidden from the wise and intelligent and, yet, revealed to ordinary, little people. Perhaps those “hidden things” are things we have failed to grasp: that we can set aside the burdens we and others create and come to Jesus. We can stop being weary of our own inadequacies and failings and rest in a God whose mercy is limitless. We can get so trapped in “Catholic guilt”, so preoccupied with the belief that we are not good enough, that we don’t even recognise that we contribute to systems, structures and practices that dehumanise and harm our sisters and brothers whom God has loved into life. Our social sins get buried under our own personal efforts to be perfect.
There is nothing to be gained from trying to hide from the world of which we are a part nor from letting ourselves be drawn into submitting to the status quo. But, if we were to live our lives with meekness, gentleness and humility high on our list of priorities, we might find ourselves involved in transforming our world and ourselves into the dream Jesus had for us all.