The Gospel this week presents us with two contrasting images of Jesus Christ. One is of ultimate knowledge and power, a claim to have the highest position possible as one with the Father. The second he speaks of being gentle, ‘humble’, reaching out to those in stress. The first reading tells us this contrast was revealed in the Old Testament.
This comes from the latter half of the book of this name, and may have been written by a different author than the first 8 chapters, being more poetic in form. The date is not clear, but would be after the return from the Exile in Babylon, the time of the rebuilding of the temple. Our verses refer to a period of peace, brought by an earthly king after God had subdued enemies of Judah (Zechariah 9:1-8). The evangelists will use the description of the peaceful king riding on a donkey for Jesus on Palm Sunday. ‘Daughter’ of Zion/Jerusalem’ is a poetic name for the country. Those who like me who have a love of horses may wonder why they should be banished, but they like the chariots were at that time known to the Hebrews as only used for war. A comparison for our times might be the difference between a simple family car (such as the one Pope Francis uses) compared to an armoured tank. There are now even more deadly weapons we would happily see banished with a time of peace over all the world, as symbolized here by ‘sea to sea’, and to the ‘ends’ of the earth.
Psalm 144:1-2, 8-11, 13-14
This joyful psalm of praise fits the peaceable king of the first readings, but also in the last lines foreshadows the compassion of Jesus in the gospel reading. The words in the second set of verses are echoed frequently in the Old Testament as almost a definition of God as Love, kindness and compassion.
Romans 8:9, 11-13
This reading is part of a consideration of our relationship with the Holy Spirit, and the way we have a part in the divine life of Father, Son and Spirit – Paul varies this description as ‘Spirit of God’, ‘Spirit of Christ’, and ‘Jesus’. The contrast he makes between ‘spiritual’ and ‘unspiritual’ is spelled out in more detail in Galatians 5:19-23 where he uses the term ‘flesh’ for all of the vices he sees around him in his world – and we can see around us as well today: ‘sexual immorality, impurity, debauchery, idolatry, drugs, outbursts of hatred, fanaticism, fits of rage, outbreaks of selfishness and dissension, factions and envy, drunkenness and carousing,’ and just in case he missed some out, he adds, ‘and things like these. ‘In contrast he names the fruits of the Spirit as ‘love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.’ These are what the Spirit offers all of us who accept as our ‘home’ living with the presence of Jesus and the Father.
While the main thrust of the passage is clear, this short selection gets eleven pages in R. T. France’s commentary on Matthew. A less detailed background can be still helpful for fuller understanding.
It is probably composed of two separate selections Matthew made from the material available to him. The first five verses are found in Luke 10:21-22, with some variation in the introduction. The opening verse is a prayer of Jesus which we are, as it were, overhearing. They come in a context in this chapter about those who would not respond to Jesus’ preaching. ‘Wise’ and ‘intelligent’, France points out are not things wrong in themselves – rather Jesus is speaking of those who are ‘wise’ in their own judgment- we might say, ‘know-it-alls’ – and therefore are not open to hearing God’s revelation. ‘Mere children’ – more than age is meant by this. In this gospel, ‘little ones’ and ‘little children’ are Matthew’s words for the disciples who will respond to Jesus in simplicity without insisting on their own judgements and clinging to their control. ‘Hidden’: it has been made clear through out the gospel that Jesus is not saying God has pre-chosen only certain people to receive his message, rather only certain ones will choose to respond and for those who don’t, much will remain unknown. France: ‘To describe this effect as God’s actively “hiding” the truth reflects the Jewish tendency to ignore intermediate causes and to attribute the end result directly to the divine purpose.’
The next words in the third person seem addressed to disciples, here they not a public claim of Jesus’ identity which does not come in Matthew until the trial of Jesus, 26:63-4. They are the strongest words in Matthew about the intimate relationship of Jesus to the Father. This is the one time in the first three gospels when we hear Jesus speaking, as he does so frequently in John, of the unique relationship of himself and the Father. ‘Knows’ is better translated as ‘fully knows’ – a depth of intimacy it would be impossible for unaided humans to achieve. The Son’s ‘choice’ of revealing is the same as described above: he has offered himself and his teaching freely, but there must be a choice to receive it for that to become ‘revelation’.
The final words are only in Matthew, and use an image that is not frequently seen I our world – a yoke was a bar laid over the shoulders to make it easier to carry heavy weights. At the time of Christ, an image of the ‘yoke of the Law’ was common, and both the Gospels and Paul discuss how burdensome ordinary people would find it to observe the over 600 regulations set out in the Old Testament. It might have been heard originally as comparing the commands of Christ. But the invitation can also be more universal call to all who feel their human weakness, in difficulties they can’t avoid, leaving them exhausted or depressed. ‘Gentle’ is the same Greek word found in the Beatitudes (5:4). ‘Humble in heart’ has something of the same resonance as ‘poor in spirit’ (5:3). Jesus say now that he is what he taught the disciples to be. The word most often translated ‘easy’ has several possible meanings, such as ‘good’, pleasant,’ or ‘manageable’. France chooses ‘kind’. The effect is a paradox: that which seems in itself, hard, burdening and tiring – like labouring under a yoke – with Jesus becomes restful and good to experience. France says this yoke is not a ‘relaxation of the demands of righteousness… but a new relationship with God which makes it possible to fulfil them.’
This passage has many allusions to Wisdom literature, especially Sirach 51:26, and for finding ‘rest’ Jeremiah 6:16. Wisdom personified in the Old Testament was treated an aspect of God. There is a subtle comparison in the gospels of Jesus as God’s ‘Wisdom’ but Matthew has stressed how closely united Jesus is to God the Father, going beyond the earlier idea in the figure of the Wisdom of God. In Jesus is found all the depths of God, and the idea that Wisdom reaches out to the people is seen now in the person of Jesus.[For those using a Protestant translation, Sirach, sometimes called ‘Ecclesiasticus’, may be missing or in a separate section called ‘Apocrypha’. The text was found in the Greek translations of the Bible and is accepted as part of the canon by Catholics and Orthodox.]