14th Sunday in Ordinary Time July 5, 2020
The First Reading
Zechariah was written over a long period of time following the Israelites return from the Babylonian Exile. This pericope should sound very familiar to us, as we hear it on Palm Sunday each year. The Jews, during the time Zechariah was written, were experiencing a loss of hope. They were held in exile by the Babylonians, and then freed by the Persians only to remain under Persian rule. They return home to Israel only to find the city of Jerusalem in rubble and the Temple destroyed. Those poor who were left behind were in a sorry state. They were faced with seemingly overwhelming odds to overcome and one could understand why many were succumbing to a sense of hopelessness.
Compounding everything was the fact that at the time this work was written, Alexander the Great was taking the world by storm and had supplanted the Persians as the authority in the region. The Israelites longed for their kingdom to be restored and to be independent instead they were being passed around as a vassal from one ruling power to the next. First the Babylonians, then the Persians, then the Greeks, and eventually Rome. It seemed hopeless that Israel would ever be restored as a sovereign nation again as it passed from one hand to the next. This is the context for this week's reading.
Enter Zechariah. God provided Zechariah with oracles such as the one we hear this week in order to inspire and rekindle the hope of the Jewish people who had all but forgotten about the Messiah and God's promises. Through the words of the prophet, God reminds the people that He would deliver on His promises and that they should revel in this knowledge, rejoicing and praising God. However, when the Messiah comes, he would not come brandishing swords and riding chariots as he vanquished enemies. He would come in humility riding on an ass symbolizing his role in proclaiming and establishing God's peace in the world. Zechariah also notes that the Messiah would be meek. Meekness is not a favorable trait in today's culture. It is almost synonymous with weak willed. That's the exact opposite of how it was viewed in the ancienThe world. In fact, the Greek word for meek was praous. This word was often used to describe domesticated animals that were under the willful control of their master. The implication here is huge. It implies that the Messiah would be under the willful control of God, i.e., he would submit his will to do the will of his Heavenly Father. Sound familiar? This is the life of Jesus, who came to do the will of his Father and even in the Garden of Gethsemane submits his will to his Father's will even though it means certain death.
The Messiah would model for the Israelites how they were to live in covenant relationship with God. Every time the Israelites failed to submit their will to the will of God, they ended up breaking their covenant, and their lives would fall into ruin. We shouldn't be surprised. God desires nothing but our happiness. He knows that in order to be happy, to experience the fullness of life, that we need to listen to him. God is the source of all life, all goodness, all holiness. He is the source of happiness. If we seek life, happiness, and goodness in anything other than God, we can be assured of only one thing. It will lead to death because we are seeking these things from things other than God who is the source.
Early Christians were quick to recognize how Jesus fulfilled this oracle of Zechariah's and this pericope stood as proof positive for them that Jesus was the long awaited Messiah. One should also note that even during the time of Zechariah, who was writing around 520 BC, there was a belief that the Messiah would extend his dominion over all the earth, implying that the Messiah's reign would include not just the Jews, but all Gentiles. Again, we see how the early Church looked to such passages to give weight and authority to their apostolic ministry to the Gentiles.
What is your source of hope when you are experiencing difficulty in your life? Where do you seek life, happiness, and fulfillment? Is it from God, or do you seek these things from worldly offerings? Are you will to take on the yoke of God and allow him to lead and direct you by submitting your will to him or do you find yourself more inclined to do what you want and seeking to fulfill your own desires? These are the challenging questions we must ask ourselves in light of this week's reading, and it's a theme that continues through our readings for this week.
Readings such as this can cause a great deal of confusion when we try to interpret it in light of today's modern understanding of terms like flesh, body, and spirit. We approach such readings with very preconceived ideas of what these words mean. Make no mistake, Paul used these words with preconceived notions as well. It is just that his notions vary significantly from ours, especially as we view these terms in today's modern world. Only by reading this passage in the context of the first century Jewish, Greek, and Roman culture does the true intent of Paul's words come to bear.
First, there is Paul's reference to the flesh. We he speaks of the flesh, he is not referencing our physical bodies or anything licentious. He is merely referring to our human predisposition to be self-centered as opposed to God-centered. That's what we refer to in the Church as concupiscence. For Paul, one's flesh encompasses a person's inherent weakness towards sin. Next, there is Paul's reference to the body. He uses the word body to imply the whole person. It is a reference to the complete entire person, which includes, mind, body, and soul, and not just the physical body. Lastly, there's his reference to the spirit. He uses the word spirit as an antonym for flesh, so that being in the spirit implies that we are living God-centered lives and are doing the will of God. Now we can see the connection to our first reading and the theme of living according to the will of God.
In this pericope, Paul states that we are not in the flesh, but rather in the spirit, but only if the Spirit of God dwells in you. Take a look again at how Paul breaks that concept open to us. He begins by refering to the Spirit of God (i.e., the Holy Spirit). Then he speaks of the Spirit of Christ (i.e., the Son). Then he concludes by speaking of the Spirit of the one who raised Christ from the dead (i.e., the Father). Paul is speaking of the Spirit, he is speaking of God in his totality as Father, Son. and Holy Spirit. Where do we lay claim this Spirit, and how can we make ourselves into a dwelling place for the Spirit? The answer of course is through Baptism. Baptism transforms us by making us a dwelling place for God himself, as Father, Son, and Spirit. We not only receive the fullness of God in baptism, but also the fullness of his grace (i.e., God's divine life), and it is through that sharing in God's divine life and friendship that we are strengthen to live our lives in harmony with God's will as opposed to our own.
Paul goes on to say that "Whoever does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him." The implication being that Christ has dominion over us and that we are under his willful control. At least that is the ideal we strive for in living our lives, to place ourselves under the willful control of Jesus Christ, as Jesus placed himself under the willful control of his Heavenly Father. As we will see in our Gospel reading, Christ's yoke is easy. Allowing God to lead us will not only lead us to eternal life, but to experience the fullness of life here and now. Paul makes it clear that all life comes from God. Therefore, seeking life from anything but God will ultimately lead to the death of our souls, and if carried to the extreme without remorse, then eternal separation from God too.
We may have a proclivity to sin, but we have been empowered by the Spirit received at Baptism to extend Christ's love, peace, and service to the world. The source of all life, all holiness, and all goodness dwells within the body of the Baptized person, permeating their body, mind, and spirit. Yet, sadly how often do we find ourselves resisting God's presence and God's will? When we embrace this source and allow God to direct and lead us, we experience life at its fullest and rise above the flesh so that we may live in the spirit, and that does the body good!
Our gospel begins with Jesus praising and giving thanksgiving to God the Father in prayer. In his prayer Jesus references the "little ones." Again, we need to be mindful of the context in which Matthew is writing. When we hear this term today, we think of children. In Jesus' time, "little ones" was used as a reference to those in society who were simple and uneducated in matters of Hebrew Law and religious matters. The "wise and the learned" was a reference to the scribes and Pharisees. Why do the "little ones" who know nothing recognize Jesus for who he is, yet the learned fail to do so? The answer is simple. The "little ones" approach Jesus like an open book without any preconceptions. They are open, eager, and willing to listen and learn from him. The exact opposite holds true for the Pharisees. They interpret Scripture and its application to daily life. Such interpretation would often times lead to inflexibility. We see how this inflexibility put Jesus at odds with them through his ministry. However, we must exercise some restraint when painting our portrait of the Pharisees, for while the Gospel's paint them as ignorant and self-righteous, there were many who accepted and believed in Jesus' message.
Matthew uses Jesus' prayer to also make it clear that the Father and the Son are one and the same. They are both God. Jesus came to reveal the Father and to do the Father's will. This is the role every disciple must take and its the obligation put upon every disciple when he or she is baptized. Our life as a disciple is to be dedicated to revealing the Father. We should mirror God's mercy, love, and forgivenss. Created in his image and likeness we should be leading others to the Father so that when they see us, they see the Father, just as Jesus' disciples were able to see the Father because they've seen Jesus. Achieving this end for which each of us was created requires us to submit out will to the Father. We need to be meek, and this is where Jesus' final words in this passage offer us hope and consolation. Surrendering our will to the will of God is not to give up our freedom, but rather to live in true freedom. Living in the flesh makes us slaves to the world. Living in Christ frees us from slavery to sin. The yoke was the symbol of the domesticated animal working the fields. Jesus assures us that as we strive to build God's kingdom that his yoke will be ease and his burden light. We may need to experience a paradigm shift in perspective from the flesh to the spirit in order to recognize that Truth and believe it, but when we do, oh, how we will experience the fullness of life!
Those who accept Jesus will find his "yoke" less burdensome than the "yoke" of the Law, which has been rendered overly burdensome in its interpretation and reinterpretation by the Pharisees and Scribes. Embracing the yoke of Christ will result in one coming to experience true peace that comes from knowing that God journeys with you, and yearns to direct the journey if we open our hearts to him and allow him to lead us. We must become meek ourselves and surrender control to God. The yoke was a powerful image for an agricultural society. The yoke allows the handler to lead, guide and direct the beast of burden. Only when the beast resists does the yoke become burdensome as it presses against the next and shoulder as the beast struggles to resist. It chafes and irritates the neck, maybe even bruising it. Sound familiar? When we resist the will of God and refuse to submit our will to his in an attempt to exert our will to achieve what we desire, life becomes burdensome. We experience "chafing, bruising, and irritation" as a result of the sin we fall into. If only we had listened to God. Jesus assures us that what God desires of us will not be burdensome. God knows what each of us is capable of and the crosses we bear in life are bearable when we allow God to lead and direct us. This is what gives us hope! The sure knowledge that God is in charge, leading and directing us. May makes our submission to God's will even easier is the sure knowledge that God desires nothing but our good and happiness. How can we go wrong? That doesn't mean that life will not be without its troubles or advesity, or even horror, but it does mean that all of it will be bearable when we endure it in tandem with God at the helm.
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