Homily for the 14th Sunday in Ordinary Time

July 6, 2008

St. Agnes, Cincinnati

(Based on Zechariah 9:9-10; Romans 8:9,9-13; Matthew 11:25-30)


“Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke and learn from me. For my yoke is easy, and my burden light.”

These words are among the most quoted verses in the New Testament. They have appeared on thousands of holy cards and plaques, and have been the source of immense comfort to countless numbers of people in their hour of sorrow and pain. What a great consolation to hear Jesus reaching out to them!

Still, when we read them in their actual context in Matthew’s Gospel we discover that the situation is more complex. There is more going on here than just a message of a gentle Jesus. It offers much richer fruit for our reflection.

This passage is part of the Gospel which is focused on controversy. In some outlines of the book it is entitled “the unrepentance and hostility of the Jews.” Immediately before today’s passage we hear Jesus castigating some of the cities where he had worked his great deeds:


“Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the mighty deeds done in your midst had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would long ago have repented in sackcloth and ashes. But I tell you, it will be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon on the day of judgment than for you. And as for you, Capernaum [remember, this was Jesus’ base of operation]:

            ‘Will you be exalted to heaven?’ 

You will go down to the netherworld.’

For if the mighty deeds done in your midst had been done in Sodom, it would have remained until this day. But I tell you, it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom on the day of judgment than for you.” (11:20-24)

And right before that, when John’s followers were questioning Jesus, he reproaches them for their refusal to make a serious commitment. He says in exasperation, almost sarcasm:


“To what shall I compare this generation? It is like children who sit in the marketplaces and call to one another, ‘We played the flute for you, but you didn’t dance, we sang a dirge for you, but you didn’t mourn.’ For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they said, ‘Look, he is possessed by a demon.’ The son of Man came eating and drinking and they said, ‘Look, he is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.’”

Then in today’s passage he goes on to challenge those who think they’re so wise and learned (because they know the Law): You haven’t a clue. God’s word will never reach those who think they have the answers. The gift of revelation can only be received by ‘the little ones.’ Those who are like Jesus himself, meek and humble of heart.

The message of the Gospel always challenges the false wisdom of this world. Pope John Paul II, who could hardly be called a flaming liberal, always reminded us that although each culture has its strengths and gifts, every culture must be critiqued because it is infected by sin. We are called to challenge the messages of our culture. Even the great cultural tradition we celebrate on this Independence Day weekend. Elsewhere Jesus reminds his disciples that they must be simple as doves – but also wise as serpents.

We live in a world which bombards us daily with endless messages about what’s important and what we should pay attention to. The message we hear over and over is Take care of Number One! Our society is all about “me, me, me” and “more, more, more.” Five-year-old girls tell their mothers that they just have to have a pair of designer jeans to go to school – because all the other girls have them. Boys in Junior High have to buy a certain kind of gym shoe or they’ll never make it to the NBA. We have parents in our country who absolutely obsess over their son or daughter getting into the university that somebody has told them is the only place they can get the education that will enable them to be successful in our world. It’s absolutely crazy!

Why would anyone choose to put themselves where they might be Number Two? Why tie yourself down? Life is all about being free, isn’t it? Keeping all your options open so you can grab the main chance. What does commitment mean in much of our society? “I’m with you, baby – until a better option comes along, and then I’m outta here.”

The message of Jesus runs totally counter to the values of this world. He goes so far as to use a word that would be just as unpopular in his day as it surely is today. Put on a “yoke.” A yoke? That’s what we put on oxen or mules. We use it to restrain their freedom, to make them do what we want them to do. To do our will, not theirs.

Oh, to be sure, Jesus promises us that if we take on his yoke it will be ‘easy’ and the burden will be ‘light.’ When our world hears that, the response is “yeah, tell that to the oxen.”

You and I are the ‘little ones’ he’s talking about. We are being let in on the greatest secret of all, the secret to life and happiness: if you are willing to die to yourself, to commit yourself to live for someone else, you will find the secret to real joy. It’s a message the wise and learned of this world will never ‘get.’

As I was listening to the readings this morning I was reminded of that lovely incident that came out at the time of Tim Russert’s death. Remember, he had gone to a small Catholic college and he found himself in the big time, surrounded by the Harvards and the Yales and the Princetons. He wondered whether he could make it in that world. And after some months his boss called him in and gave him this wonderful affirmation: “What you have, they will never get; and what they know, you can pick up easily.” What you have, they will never get. It’s the story of the wise and learned of this world from the beginning. We can have all the wealth of this world, all its toys and trinkets, all its fame and celebrity – but if we lack love, if we make ourselves Number One and are not prepared to die to ourselves to commit to serving our neighbor, it’s all a sham. Just take a look at the brittle, empty faces celebrating their dysfunctional lives on the cover of magazines in the checkout line at the supermarket sometime.

I’d like to suggest that the message of Jesus in today’s liturgy might bring important meaning to the Independence weekend we are celebrating.

Almost by accident the presidential campaign has pushed our country into a debate we didn’t expect to have. It began when his opponents attacked Senator Obama for not wearing a flag pin in his lapel. And all of a sudden we found ourselves asking “What does it mean to be patriotic? What makes someone a patriot?”

It’s a worthwhile question to ponder because it makes us ask who we really are and what’s important to us as a people. Time magazine, in its current July 4 issue, has a wonderful essay on the subject. I hope you can find and reflect on it. The essay makes the point that we have different ideas about what constitutes patriotism. Those of conservative leaning tend to focus on the past, on the great ideals we set forth in our founding vision, what we have taught the rest of the world. Liberals tend to focus, not on those great values but rather on our failure to live up to them; to our condoning of slavery, the way we stole the land from the Native Americans who had been here for ages, the way the system is set up to exclude those who don’t fit in. The writers bring out the fact that we need both, the ideals and the values as well as the need to challenge and critique ourselves for our complicity in not living up to them. We need to celebrate our past and yet not settle down and grow complacent as we confront continually new choices.

Most importantly, they end by calling us to respect one another no matter how strongly we may disagree. One element of being patriotic involves not calling into question the patriotism of those who differ from us.

That’s all valuable and good stuff. But maybe the message of Jesus could take us to yet a more profound idea, to a deeper level of genuine patriotism. Patriotism is really about working with our fellow-citizens as neighbors. It’s not about the lofty speeches and ideology of either the left or the right, it’s about weaving the fabric of a society by being a neighbor, building a climate of peace and solidarity one small act at a time. It’s about looking after those who are left out of the celebration, those who are rejected as ‘losers.’

Maybe the most patriotic thing we can do is to break out of our individualism and comfortable isolation. Volunteering to go down with people we don’t know who talk differently and dress differently, and join in cleaning up the banks of our rivers. Joining in cleaning up the litter from the streets of Bond Hill. Volunteering to be part of a Neighborhood Crime Watch to stem the violence on our streets. Closer to home here in our parish community, it could be about taking personal time to help with our St. Vincent de Paul pantry as the numbers of our neighbors in need of food grows each week. It might sound odd to use the ‘patriotism’ – but that is what it really represents – when the leaders of our parish reach out and join the community leaders of Bond Hill to integrate our Jazz on the Lawn event with the celebration of Bond Hill days. With those of our community that just happen not to be Catholic.

Jesus tells us that looking out for Number One is not the answer. Having more and buying more and consuming more is not the answer. He calls us to find our joy in taking on the yoke of love and commitment and dying to ourselves.

You know, there’s an interesting paradox in this yoke business. When we hear Jesus speak of taking on “my yoke” we might be inclined to imagine only him placing a yoke on us. In reality, when he tells us to take on ‘his yoke’ he means it in a far deeper sense: it’s ‘his’ yoke because he has already taken it on himself. And it’s where he found beatitude. He said, “My joy is to do the will of him who sent me.” And he went further: “I pray that my joy may be in you – and your joy may be complete.”

That is the secret the ‘wise and learned’ will never get. The secret of genuine joy.