There is an infamous young man on trial this week in federal court in Brooklyn, NY. He is charged with conspiracy and securities fraud related to his management of two investment funds. You might be familiar with him because of his decision (in a business venture unrelated to the charges against him), to raise the price of a drug used to treat parasitic infections. His only motivation for raising the drug’s price was to increase his wealth.
He claims to be innocent of all charges brought against him, but he’s going to have a difficult time at the trial. He is often described as brash, arrogant and unethical. He public appearances and social media posts tend to support these assessments of his personality. His lawyer has raised the question as to whether it’s possible for him to get a fair trial because of the public disapproval of the young man’s behavior.
Although this young man’s behavior is the subject of widespread disapproval, it is not substantially different from the behavior of the majority of people. Who among us hasn’t bragged about getting away with actions that merited the disapproval of others? Who among us hasn’t taunted and discredited those who have accused us of wrongdoing? Is there anyone who hasn’t wished to gain an advantage over their peers?
The young man’s alleged actions are much more serious than the self-serving and anti-social things most people do, but the difference is really one of magnitude rather than genus. It is a universal characteristic of human nature that we desire power, wealth and notoriety.
In the Gospel, Jesus said, “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart; and you will find rest for yourselves.” (Matthew 11:29) This is not a description of the typical human response to burdens, suffering or injustice. The most common response to burdens in life is the exercise of power. When offended or burdened, we fight back, we struggle against what we perceive to be the oppressor, we try to coerce sympathy from others, we seek revenge or retribution.
Being “meek and humble of heart” is no one’s default response to the experience of being burdened. Quixotically, we condemn in others the behavior we freely allow ourselves. No one would keep silent when charged with a crime, but the young man on trial this week receives public and private condemnation for defending himself.
There is a Divine wisdom that underlies Jesus’ words in today’s Gospel. Its divine nature makes it difficult for us to grasp and appreciate, at least until we’ve tried it on a serious and consistent basis. It is, however, easy enough for anyone to see the value of at least trying to put into practice what Jesus said.
If one finds odious the self-serving behavior of others, one should avoid self-serving behavior. If one finds anti-social behavior to be worthy of harsh judgment, then one should avoid it in one’s own life. If revenge and retribution seem petty or destructive, they are to be avoided.
The next time someone insults, harms or judges you, meekness might not be the first thing that comes to your mind as a response. The next time you encounter someone’s destructive or self-serving behavior, your first thought might not be humility of heart. Despite the strange nature of Jesus’ teaching, it is worth following assiduously.
The traits we dislike in others have no place in our own lives, and yet we are unlikely to grasp this truth without Divine help. Jesus said, “Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart; and you will find rest for yourselves. For my yoke is easy, and my burden light.” (Matthew 11:28-30)
He knew what he was saying, and precisely how difficult it would be to put those words into practice. He also knew that the only possibility we have for not becoming what we dislike is to seek to become something greater than we can be through our own merits.
If you actually dislike injustice, you should at least avoid adding to its accumulated presence in the world. The only way to accomplish that is to imitate Divine justice rather than human justice.
The only way to carry a burden without making it a burden on others is to carry it meekly. The only way to confront injustice without committing further injustice is to do so in humility of heart. Give Jesus’ words seriously consideration the next time you feel burdened or oppressed; you might notice that it changes your attitude toward the world. The burden of meekness and humility are much lighter to bear than the consequences of becoming what you dislike.