Fourteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
July 09, 2023 – 10:30 AM
Saint Cecilia Catholic Community, Palm Springs CA
Rev. David Justin Lynch
Zechariah 9:9-10 | Psalm 145:1-2;8-10;14-15
Romans 8:9-11;13  | Matthew 11:25-35

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, AMEN.

One of the more challenging choruses in Handel’s Messiah is, “His Yoke is Easy, His Burden is Light.” It is totally contrapuntal. That is, each of the four parts is independent of the others and of the accompaniment.  Unless you really know your part and can carry it without leaning on someone else, it is easy to get lost and off track. The standing joke among choristers is that this chorus is both a difficult yoke and a heavy burden on those whose musicianship is less than superb.

So what is a yoke? It is a wooden structure that enables farm animals like oxen or horses to pull a plow or wagon. In the Bible, however, the term is used metaphorically to denote the weight of a task or obligation. A yoke was an instrument of control from which people wanted to be free.

For example, in the Book of Kings, the monarch Rehoboam tried to instill respect for himself by threatening his subjects with “a heavy yoke.” The phrase, “Breaking a yoke” symbolized freedom from oppressors in First Isaiah. The agrarian society in which Jesus lived could certainly relate to what a yoke was when he spoke the words about a yoke in today’s Gospel.

But the followers of Jesus were not even as high on the socio-economic totem pole as today’s working-class construction laborers. His followers were peasants who worked in the fields and tenant farmers. Their lives as rustic folk allowed them to live only from day to day on subsistence wages. They were yoked to the wills and whims of the rich and powerful people who owned and controlled the land on which they worked. These were the same people who ultimately murdered Jesus by way of crucifixion because Jesus threatened the system that provided them with material comforts.

In the religious sphere, the followers of Jesus fared no better. The religious scholars in the days of Jesus were the Pharisees. They laid the yoke of their six hundred thirteen commandments upon their followers and others who sought their advice about how to please God. You may recall that Jesus called out the Pharisees for imposing the heavy burden of a rules-based religion on the backs of the poor. All the while, the Pharisees, along with the temple priests known as the Sadducees, grew fat on tithes that they hoarded in the Temple instead of redistributing wealth to the needy.

Jesus taught and demonstrated a way of life that differed markedly from the one other Judean leaders taught. Jesus promised an easy yoke and a light burden. Given their life situation, the peasants found this enormously appealing. They saw Jesus as their ticket to freedom from the yokes around their necks and the burdens on their backs.

Religion in today’s world imposes its own set of yokes and burdens that include detailed rules for fasting, the time and manner of prayers, and detailed rituals. This is true not only for the Roman Catholic Church, but the Eastern Orthodox Church, Orthodox Jews, and radical Muslims. Radical Protestants use the Bible as a weapon to yoke and burden anyone who will listen to them,

To some small extent, we are guilty of this sort of thing here at Saint Cecilia Catholic Community. For example, we require that all liturgical ministers be vested and that the readings at Sunday Morning Mass be chanted. But that is a very light burden compared to that of other religious communities that require months or even years of classes just to be baptized or even to receive Holy Communion.

The several thousand pages of canon law and catechism found in the Roman Catholic Church and other faith communities are not our style. Although our ritual may be a bit complex compared to other churches, we try to keep the substance of why we do what we do as simple as possible. We do not impose the yoke and burden of doctrinal orthodoxy as a condition of participation. We give you food for thought, but whether or not and how you digest it, is between you and God.

A church that threatens people with damnation to Hell in the afterlife is not a place I want to be. The God I worship is full of compassion and mercy, long-suffering, and of great goodness. God demonstrates these qualities by respecting human freedom.

Freedom and independence go together. This past week, the United States celebrated Independence Day, traditionally a time when public officials talk about freedom from tyranny. However, today we live in a country that does not respect human freedom and instead imposes yokes on people to control them. Mask mandates, legal prohibitions against abortion, school pronoun regulations, and library book bans are some of the many examples. Those yokes disrespect human freedom. People want to be free of the yokes imposed on them by other people, whether by laws or informal social coercion.

Human freedom must come first for Christians. Our choice to follow Jesus must be a free choice, without force, coercion, or threat of any kind.

The yokes we assume as followers of Jesus are not only simple, but they are yokes we put upon ourselves voluntarily as contrasted with yokes put upon us by other people. We are not farm animals. We are human persons.  Our dignity as such demands freedom of choice and accept only such burdens as we choose. The burdens Jesus imposes on us are light but are by no means trivial. But most importantly, those burdens are those we freely accept.  One can only be a true Christian if one freely and voluntarily accepts Jesus.

Of course, in the secular world outside the church, very little of what Jesus taught is taken seriously. Our capitalistic economy is founded on the principle that you are responsible for your own survival. In the United States, you, unfortunately, do not have an absolute right to the basics of human life, like housing, food, healthcare, and education. All of that is strictly your own problem, and as such, is a yoke around your neck and a burden on your back.

The capitalist system lets people yoke and burden other people with laws that authorize force to make it happen, whether you like it or not.   The church’s duty is to question that way of thinking, not accept it. Jesus did not preach capitalism and individual self-sufficiency.  Jesus preached self-giving love.

So what are the details of the alternative yoke Jesus offers us? What is the burden that Jesus would have us carry? We look first to the Two Great Commandments, to love God with all your heart, mind, and soul, and to love your neighbor as yourself. Jesus gives us a considerable amount of information as to what that means on a practical level. Here are some examples.

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus calls us not to retaliate against those who wronged us.

In one of his many encounters with the Apostle Peter, Jesus implores us to forgive those who sin against us.

In the Parable of the Prodigal Son, Jesus calls us to reconcile with those who reject us.

In multiple places in the Gospels, Jesus implores us to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, welcome the stranger, take care of the sick, visit prisoners, and clothe the naked.

Jesus also calls us to lift one another’s burdens. In the Parable of the Dishonest Manager and the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant, Jesus praises those who forgive debts. Jesus wants us to find rest in him by relieving others of yokes and burdens instead of imposing those things on others.

But we can only assume the easy yoke and light burden Jesus offers us, and relieve the burdens and yokes imposed on others if we are humble rather than proud.

Humility is the opposite of pride. Yes, Jesus came to us as a king, but not in the manner of a person we associate with kingship. As prophesized by the prophet Zechariah in today’s first reading, Jesus came to us in great humility, riding not in a chariot, but on a donkey as recounted in all four gospels in the story of Palm Sunday. Jesus, the human manifestation of the divine, is, in the words of today’s Gospel, “meek and humble of heart.”  Humility is who Jesus is.

To be like Jesus is to be humble.  As you will recall, Jesus was conceived out of wedlock in a fourteen-year-old girl, was born in the manger of a stable among animals, grew up in a working-class family where the father did the manual labor of carpentry, had no home of his own in his adult life, and died on a cross, an instrument of shame in the Roman society into which he was born.

The earthly Jesus was as human as all of humanity is, but most people in the Western World, particularly in the United States, do not share the humility of Jesus. People in the United States are more prideful than humble in countless ways.  They take pride in their country, their family, their religion, and many other ways of identifying themselves. Many look down on others who are not like themselves. I catch myself doing it, too. I’ve been caught looking down on people who prefer rock music and low church liturgy

Humility is not easy. Getting off your high horse is difficult, and we are reluctant to do it. Why? It is because we are proud of who and what we are. We live in a culture that promotes self-esteem and pride in oneself. That kind of thinking is promoted by pop psychologists as the key to a successful life.  But carried to extremes, self-esteem tramples on the rights of others and distances us from others.  There is nothing wrong with being certain of your own value, meaning you are happy that you are who you are, provided your certainty about yourself is realistic.

Humility and realism go together. The true disciple of Jesus is a humble disciple. Realism and effective discipleship go together.  One of the most difficult life lessons for me has been realizing that I am not always right and that I make mistakes.  I am a priest, but I am imperfect like any other human person. I do stupid things and bad things just like all of you do.

God humbled Himself by taking our human flesh in Jesus. That very act was for the purpose and effect of showing that God empathizes with our humanness. That is important because with humility comes empathy. Being a disciple of Jesus requires interacting with others in an empathetic way.

Spiritual leadership that lacks empathy falls on deaf ears. Thus, I have found that realistically and readily admitting my own imperfections enables me to better empathize with and understand other people. It’s made me a more effective representative of Jesus.

Humility allows the Spirit of God to dwell in you. Humility enables life in the Spirit to replace what is identified in today’s Second Reading as living according to the flesh. Now, the phrase, “according to the flesh,” has nothing to do with sexuality, but rather, the overall human limitations that distract us from God, like destructive pride, as contrasted with life in the Spirit, which means a life attuned to God. The human Spirit is, in fact, that dimension of the human being that can be joined to the Spirit of God. Humility facilitates that connection, while pride obstructs that connection.

To be a true disciple of Jesus requires that we rid ourselves of the pride that blinds us from loving God and our neighbors. It requires that we step aside and listen to what God is saying to us rather than listen only to ourselves or to others who say only what we want to hear.

Jesus in today’s Gospel offers a prayer to his Father that tells us that God has hidden wisdom from the so-called wise and learned people but revealed it to those to whom Jesus referred as ‘little ones.” The phrase “little ones” does not necessarily refer to children, but to all those who are unselfconsciously free of the hubris we often experience in our political, social and economic leaders. When you stop being full of yourself, you become able to love God and others and experience their love for you.

One of the worst traits of prideful persons is to say, or act as if, “I know everything.” Prideful persons bear the burden of ignorance and are yoked to toil in their stupidity. Humility, however, opens us to wisdom. The humble person thinks, “I don’t know everything. I have much to learn, whereas the prideful, ego-driven person thinks, “I know everything. I don’t want to learn.” No matter how much formal education and experience we have, there is still much we don’t know. As my seventh-grade English teacher, Mr. Frick constantly would say, “The more we learn, the less we know.”

Our learning experiences must not stop on our last day of school but must continue throughout our lives.  Humbly accepting the easy yoke and light burden Jesus offers us makes possible the learning that frees you from the burden of ignorance, and thus makes you a better version of yourself in God’s eyes.

Humility brings freedom from pride and arrogance. Only when we have humility can we live freely. Be humble. Be free.