We begin with the Old Testament prophet Zechariah. Here he looks forward to the Messiah and foreshadows Jesus’ entry on Palm Sunday. “See, your king shall come to you; a just savior is he, meek, and riding on an ass.” In Matthew’s Gospel we see Jesus praising God for hiding wisdom from the learned and revealing them to “little ones.” In language familiar to all of us: “All things have been handed over to me by my Father.” And further: “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.
People who know me know that I complain regularly over homilists who do nothing more than retell the readings. Perhaps today’s readings lead in that category. And on first reading, it’s easy to do this: in the Old Testament we read that we have reason to rejoice because someone (who we know as Jesus) will ride a beast of burden to victory. In the Gospel Jesus tells his followers that he is the only path to the Father who promises the weary that his yoke is easy and his burden is light.
But if we drill down in these readings we find a great deal of complexity. We know little about the Messiah that Zechariah predicts except that he will make his entrance on a beast of burden. Like many of you I know very little about equines. But I do know that important people rode stallions, large and imposing horses. When someone entered on a purebred horse, everyone knew he was important.
Lesser equines, like donkeys or mules (an infertile product of a horse and a donkey), were used to haul junk. Anyone riding a mule or donkey was not worthy of attention. And yet the prophet Zechariah calls his people to rejoice that their king will not only ride on this donkey, he will banish chariots from Ephraim and horses from Jerusalem. Clearly this Messiah finds his value not in how he looks or what he’s riding on, but who he is. The Messiah comes not to rule or impress, but to save.
And not only that, he will not come to win a war, but to proclaim peace. He will not overcome but will instead reconcile. The Messiah is not about crowning the strong, but rewarding the weak.
When Jesus invites those who labor or who are overburdened, he is doing something radical. He is telling his disciples, and us, that even (and especially) the lowliest are blessed. In much of our history we are told that the rich and powerful enjoy their place because God picked them to rule over the rest of us and we should accept our lot. Our history brims with stories of kings and queens who lack for nothing and yet speak of the “burden” of having to care about their subjects.
But when Jesus speaks to those who labor and overburdened, he is telling us that this isn’t true. He invites us to “shoulder his yoke” and we, frankly, don’t understand what that means.
OK, I’m a history nerd, and I know too much about the Middle Ages, but please deal with me. In the first centuries after the fall of the Roman Empire most people in Europe farmed land and lived on the edge of starvation. Within a few hundred years some of them learned they could till the soil in a way to grow more produce. Most of their progress centered on their ability to till the land and improve crop yields: they recognized that beasts of burden could plow more soil and allow them to grow more food.
And the next few generations invented better yokes that made life easier for the animals who pulled the plows. These yokes did not press on their throats and hamper their ability to breathe. Instead these yokes allowed them to do their job with more efficiency and less stress. Their burden was easy because their owners better understood how best they worked.
We are in the same place. God understands best how we can be our best selves. When Jesus tells us to come to him “all you who labor and are burdened and I will give you rest” he isn’t telling us to stop laboring. Labor isn’t bad or evil but our labor finds its best place in our lives when our yoke is easy.
In my adult life I’ve had several jobs. Some I’ve hated, some have not made much of a difference in my life, and a few have enriched my life. My best work came from jobs when my God given gifts have connected well with what needed to be done. I’ve never been one who saw labor as a burden and have demanded rest from that labor. I grew up in a family who valued work and recognized that we have the ability to make the world a better place. Frankly (and I think this happens more than we think) we find more value in good, hard work than not working.
And through these experiences I’ve learned that doing God’s work brings us not only great joy but also an easy yoke. We are not called to be powerful but more humble. We find strength not from the number of people who worship us but from the people who will have our back. And additionally our labor serves others and we find meaning in labor that benefits others.
These readings tell us that we should not follow the handsome man (or beautiful woman) who rides in on a beautiful stallion but instead on a good man (or woman) who comes to us on a humble beast of burden. If we are called to burden we are better off choosing a yoke that God has chosen for us.