At a time when many people are feeling financial insecurity and other pressures of modern life,
the Gospel today may offer the comfort and encouragement of trusting in God’s love. We are given two contrasting images of Jesus Christ, the first is of ultimate knowledge and power, as one with the Father. In the second our Lord speaks of being gentle, ‘humble’, reaching out tenderly to those in stress.
This reading also shows us these two aspects of power with gentleness in images of God. This selection comes from the latter half of the book of this name, and was probably written by a different author than the first 8 chapters. The date is not exact, 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 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 at that time they were known to the Hebrews only for pulling the chariots used in warfare. That meant the donkey was a symbol of peaceful intent and humility. In David’s time, it had been a royal mount, so that is also in the background of the prophecy.
In our time, there are far more deadly weapons than archers in horse chariots, which 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 faithful love, kindness and compassion.
Romans 8:9, 11-13
This reading is part of a longer consideration of our relationship with the Holy Spirit, and the way we have a part in the divine life of Father, Son and Spirit. The opening word ‘unspiritual’ from the Jerusalem is a translation that has not stood the test of time, but it was an effort to find a better translation for the Greek word sarx. Most modern translation have gone back to the traditional ‘flesh’, defined in the Oxford dictionary as used now ‘only biblically’. It means the sinful nature of humanity, not just bodily frailty but all types of failure and evil-doing. A good description is Galatians 5:16-21 where St Paul uses the term ‘flesh’ for all of the vices he sees around him in his world – and not so different from our times: ‘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 is made possible for us by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit which brings our lives into the love and power of God the Father and our Lord Jesus.
The liturgy has left out most of Chapter 11, and we hear just the final verses. These are not logically joined and may come from Jesus speaking on two separate occasions. The first five verses are found in Luke 10:21-22, with some variation in the introduction. This begins as a prayer of Jesus which we are, as it were, overhearing. In Mathew’s context, just before Jesus spoke in pain about those who would not respond to his preaching. This selection offers one explanation for that rejection. ‘Wise’ and ‘intelligent’: R.T. France says in his commentary 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. The idea that God reveals the truth to ‘children’ and ‘the simple’ has an Older Testament history, mostly in the Wisdom books. Human judgements from those who think they are wise or know everything are fallible, in comparison to the vast and perfect knowledge of God. It is those who are open or even eager to being taught, as children so often are and ‘the simple’ who do not insist on their own ideas or cling to their control that can learn from what Jesus has taught. ‘Hidden’: it has been made clear throughout the gospel that Jesus is not saying God has pre-chosen only certain people to receive his message, rather only that some will choose to respond and for those who don’t, much will remain unknown, as if hidden from them. 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, 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 one time in the gospel 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. In Semitic languages, to know has aspect of experiencing or living out. 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 decision to receive it for that to become ‘revelation’.
The final words are only in Matthew’s gospel. Jesus uses as an image something not frequently seen in the modern world: a yoke is a bar carried over the shoulders to make it easier to balance and manage heavy weights. At the time of Christ, the idea of the ‘yoke of the Law’ was a common saying, and both the Gospels and Paul discuss how burdensome ordinary people could find it to observe the over 600 regulations set out in the Older Testament. It might have been heard originally as comparing these commands of the Torah with the grace coming from Christ. But the invitation can also be a more universal call to all who feel their human weakness, stuck 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’, even ‘kind’. The effect is a paradox: that which seems in itself, hard, burdensome and tiring – like labouring under a heavy yoke – with Jesus becomes easy to do, restful and possible to accept with peace, or even joy, because he bears so much for us and with us.
Although the individual yoke is the most likely meant, there is an alternative that is appealing, which is the yoke used for animals, linking two together. In this interpretation, that being yoked with Jesus he carries our burden with us, which makes it light and easier, even ‘comfortable’.
This passage has echoes to Wisdom literature, the yoke in Sirach/Ecclesiasticus 51:26, and finding ‘rest’ in God is in Jeremiah 6:16. Wisdom personified in the Old Testament was treated an aspect of God. There is a subtle comparison in the parts of the gospels of Jesus as God’s ‘Wisdom’ but Matthew has just stressed how closely united Jesus is to God the Father, going beyond the earlier idea in the figure of the Wisdom as coming from God. In Jesus is found all the fullness of what God is. Wisdom was seen as reaching out to the people and guiding them, but something even deeper now comes to us in the humanity of Jesus. We are called here to come to him, to be with him. In Matthew, Jesus is always ‘God-with-us’ and here Jesus stresses his closeness to those who are struggling in any way, as Jesus with us in bearing our burdens.