Summer, for many people, is a time for a vacation. Men and women who work throughout the year look forward to the time-off from their jobs. Students of all levels look forward to the end of classes and the break that ensues. Some families will go to the shore or mountains, some will take a trip, others will just stay home for the week or two of vacation. Regardless of the time or place, people enjoy the time to rest and relax with their families.
Besides the benefits of having the time to catch up with family and friends or on some projects that need to be done at home one of the great benefits of some “time off” is rejuvenation that the rest brings. Returning to work they are refreshed and ready to face anew the day-to-day responsibilities of their labor.
Jesus recognizes the need for rest as he speaks with the disciples in Sunday’s Gospel. Jesus’ answer to the need for rest does not come in the form of a vacation with which many of us are familiar. Rather Jesus invites the disciples to find their rest in him. “Come to me all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest.” The invitation is a powerful reminder that Jesus provides for all our needs including rest.
The invitation is offered to all “who labor and are heavy burdened.” Many of Jesus’ original disciples would have been familiar with hard labor because their livelihoods depended on it. Some of the advances in the last century with regard to machinery and technology might lesson the load for some of us with regard to work or even regular household chores but in Jesus’ day this was not the case.
Yet Jesus is not speaking only of work associated with a livelihood when he refers to “labor.” He speaks of “heavy burdens” that people have to carry. Regardless of the type of work at which we labor, life itself has certain burdens and responsibilities that might seem heavy and hard to carry.
We might think of the anxieties of youth struggling to decide what road they want to take in life. We might think of the unemployed. Although they do not work they are weighed down with the stress of finding a job and providing for themselves until employed. We might think of those who live in a depressed area where crime is rampant. Safety for themselves and their families lays heavily on their thoughts.
We might think of those entangled in drug use longing to be freed from the addiction. We might think of war torn lands and the fear for life that is ever present. We might think of the young children in Nigeria who have been kidnapped, burdened with fear, oppression and the threat of harm. We might think of their parents and the worry they carry. We might think of those who are suffering with illness or disease. We might think of those burdened with grief at the loss of a loved one.
Whoever we are, there are “burdens” that we carry so it is to everyone that Jesus says: “Come to me all you who labor and are heavy burdened and I will give you rest.”
Going even deeper into the context of this passage we realize that Jesus is not just speaking of the burdens of life. When he speaks of the “yoke” he is using an image of the Mosaic law with which his disciples would have been familiar. The heavy demands of the law especially the demands that many of the scribes and Pharisees were focused on would seem unbearable. How could one remain in a right relationship with God with all these demands and the inability to keep all the stipulations of the law? Jesus is the answer.
In the beginning of this passage Jesus speaks of his relationship with his heavenly Father. They are one for “no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son wishes to reveal him.” Jesus is the one who makes the Father known. He is not known by the “wise and learned” (which is a reference to the scribes and Pharisees) but the “little ones” (who are the tax collectors and sinners) who put their faith in Jesus.
So when Jesus promises “rest” he is assuring us that this rest is found in himself. The “rest” that Jesus offers is closely associated with the peace he brings and offers. The relationship that he establishes with us is a powerful one by which he unites us to himself. His victory over sin and death in his resurrection from the dead makes him the Lord of Life. United with him in life and love gives us the strength to face any difficulties or challenges in life. He is the source of strength and comfort.
Prayer with Jesus affords us the “rest” we need. In union with Christ through prayer our burdens become “light” because joined with him we can carry those burdens. He is the strength and it is his arm that helps us lift the load. When our challenges in life are joined with his, we “take up” his yoke. So that when our yoke becomes his and his yoke becomes ours it can be lifted because we do not lift it ourselves. Thus, Jesus says: “Take up my yoke and learn from me for I am meek and humble of heart.”
St. Paul in the passage from the Letter to the Romans, which is used for today’s second reading, speaks of the same reality in terms of the spirit dwelling within us. Paul makes a contrast between the flesh and the spirit. Living in the “flesh” would be akin to living life according to the ways of the world or even a pharisaic approach to the law.
Paul notes that since we have the Spirit dwelling in us we can truly live a godly life. Living life by the way of the world (earthly, temporal, self-centered, self-serving, pleasure seeking, etc.) will ultimately lead to death for it cannot give life. Living in the Spirit gives life and carries us on this earthly journey to the fullness of life for the Spirit comes from God.
Finally, Jesus tells us to learn from him for he is “meek and humble of heart.” Jesus is the revelation of the Father. His obedience to the father in humility and meekness is an expression of his trust and faith in the Father. We are meek and humble when we put our faith in Jesus who both reveals the Father to us and represents us before the Father. Jesus comes to us not to impose burdens but to lift us up and to deliver us from them.
The first reading from the prophet Zechariah provides a good image of this. The king comes not with horse and chariot, not with bow and sword but with peace for “a just savior is he, meek, and riding on an ass, on a colt, the foal of an ass.” Jesus is this king, a humble king who invites all to his kingdom to share in his life and love.
In him is our peace, in him is our rest. He invites us all: “Come to me all who labor and are heavy 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 is light.”
Msgr. Joseph Prior is pastor of St. John the Evangelist Parish, Morrisville.