In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus says, “Come to me all who labor and are burdened. I will give you rest. Take up my yoke and learn from me. . . my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” (Mt. 11:28-30) His words are a reference to a common metaphor used at the time. During Jesus’ lifetime, farmers used teams of oxen to plow fields and thresh grain. Particularly when plowing, the oxen were fitted with a yoke (similar to a harness) that helped transmit the oxen’s movement into force to accomplish work. The yoke did no harm to the animal and it produced a tremendous benefit for the farmer.
The Law of Moses was often referred to as a “yoke” on the shoulders of the faithful. The metaphor meant that keeping the Law of Moses was a burden that required some effort, but that the effort produced results that were otherwise unattainable. The results produced by being “yoked” to the Law were the obvious ones: individuals were joined together as a society and joined to God. Catholicism intends to provide the same benefits to us.
The Catholic Faith which we profess, the Catholic moral code we follow, and the Catholic spirituality that we embrace intend to unite us as a single faith community and to unite us to God. These effects don’t happen automatically. A field on a farm doesn’t plow itself; nor does a crop harvest itself. Effort is required to plant and harvest crops. It is for this reason that Jesus promised rest and consolation, but only to those who take up his “easy yoke” and “light burden”.
It would be too facile to say that our society has a conflicted valuation of work because there has never been a time in human history when there were not people who avoided assiduously even the lightest burden of responsibility. While not unique to us, it is still something prominent in the world today: there are those who wish to receive the benefits of work without having made any real effort to perform work. This is true (and has always been true) in the secular realm and it is also true in the religious realm of life.
Many years ago, I was assigned to a parish whose campus was located along a busy street. The round-the-clock traffic brought people to the rectory at all hours of the day and night. One of the enduring memories I have of that parish is the creativity of the people who came to the rectory to ask for money. The complicated and compelling stories that people invented in order to scam a few dollars were rarely tedious because they were so imaginative. At the end of those very one-sided conversations, I always wondered why the effort put into getting an illicit five dollars hadn’t been put into earning a legitimate twenty dollars; the story tellers, of course, preferred the five precisely because it was illicitly obtained.
I see the same story-telling skill at work in the moral and religious lives of some Catholics. There seems to be no sin so egregious that it can’t be excused by an elaborate fiction or the judicious application of self-deception.
Catholicism, when lived faithfully, is a yoke and a burden. It requires daily, hourly effort. It requires the self-sacrifice of showing genuine concern for others. It requires the strength of will to reject the self-serving behavior that separates one from God and neighbor. Catholicism, however, is an easy yoke and a light burden because the effort required to live the Catholic Faith produces results in one’s life and in the world that cannot be achieved otherwise.
Jesus’ offer of rest from the wearisome burdens of life is an attractive one. I’ve never met a person who didn’t want to enjoy some degree of rest and relaxation. There are, however, some preconditions to rest, regardless of one’s situation in life. The first precondition is a logical one; the second is a theological one.
Firstly, in order to find rest, one must have done some work. Resting after having made no perceptible effort isn’t rest; it is merely the continuation of inertia. Secondly, the rest that Jesus offers requires a specific type of effort: the effort to be meek and humble, to live in gratitude to God and in service to one’s neighbor.
In difficult times like the present, there is great consolation to be found in the thought that there is the possibility of rest for our souls, that there is light at the end of the tunnel. There is, in fact, the possibility of such rest. Jesus provides rest and comfort to those who imitate him by carrying the easy yoke and light burden of being meek and humble, grateful to God and gracious to neighbor.
My son died 40 years ago at the age of 17. A beautiful gift from God who gave me much love and joy. He was struggling, growing and full of potential when his life ended in an accident. I was angry, shattered and broken-hearted. I still remember vividly the conversation I had with God that day. “How can I keep believing in you? I’ve tried so hard and this is how it ends? ” I had to make a choice. Would it be despair? Or could I choose life? I turned my burden over to God. In the spirit of today’s Gospel I took on his yoke and accepted the burden of faith. Forty years have passed and that faith has sustained and Informed me all through life.
It is often difficult to maintain faith when suffering; it is even more challenging to remain faithful in the face of a tragedy like losing a child. As you say, however, the alternatives to faithfulness are less appealing than suffering. Despair, resentment, and the like are common responses to loss and grief; unfortunately, these responses make one’s loss worse. When the Scripture says that we are “redeemed” by Jesus’ death, it means that we are redeemed from the possibility of faithlessness. Faith doesn’t insulate us from suffering but it does prevent us from being separated from God and our fellow human beings.