|It's always important
when we reflect upon the sacred scriptures to listen to the various passages
out of the context of the people to whom they were first proclaimed or
written. And if we’re going to understand today’s first lesson and
the gospel lesson, especially, we have to try to put ourselves into the
historical setting where these words were first proclaimed.
As I mentioned in the
introduction to the first reading, the chosen people had been carried off
into exile. They had experienced extreme violence. Many, many
were killed and tortured, and finally they had returned to Judah, their
home, and were trying to re-establish themselves as a people. They
were still experiencing great suffering, depravation, and all the results
of war. Yet, the prophet Zechariah proclaimed to them the message
of extraordinary joy, “Rejoice, rejoice greatly daughter of Zion; shout
for joy daughter of Jerusalem.” He called for them to rejoice at
this terrible time. Why? Because he promised to them a new ruler:
“One is coming who is just and victorious.”
But what is also important
about this is that this ideal ruler would be one who is humble – he would
be one who rides into his city on a donkey.
Immediately, you get
the picture of Jesus, so many centuries later, carefully preparing to enter
into the city of Jerusalem riding on a donkey. Jesus was proclaiming
the same message about himself on that occasion that Zechariah was proclaiming
to the chosen people so many centuries before; that this new ruler, this
ideal ruler would be one who would reject war. No more chariots in
Ephraim, no more horses in Jerusalem. It is important to understand
that the chariots and the horses were used for battle. A humble,
non-violent king would be one who rejected horses and chariots. He
would ride on a donkey, the same conveyance that any poor person might
Because this new king
is going to do away with war -- the warriors bow shall be broken; when
he dictates peace to the nations, he will reign from sea to sea, from the
river to the ends of the earth -- the people of Judah, at the time they
heard the message, could only long for the moment when that new ruler would
come. They had this idealized picture of one who had come to save
them and help them never to have to experience the horrible, terrible violence
of war again.
But those who lived at
the time when Matthew’s gospel was put together had experienced this new
ruler. They, too, were living in a time when there was a lot of violence.
They were under the rule of the Roman Empire. At the time the gospel
was finally put together, written down, the church was under persecution
and experiencing violence. But they had the example of Jesus who
was the fulfillment of the prophecy of Zechariah; the one who had come
and shown them how to reject violence, how to reject war, how to respond
when violence is inflicted upon them.
When we hear what Jesus
says in today’s gospel, “Come to me all of you who are heavily burdened
and I will give you rest,” we might think at first that Jesus is saying,
“Well, we’ll just run away from the world, escape. That will be the
answer.” But it isn’t what he means. He says, “Take my burden
upon you; my yoke.”
It’s important to understand
that Jesus was speaking about a burden that was different from the burdens
that had been imposed upon the people: “My burden, not the burden that
you have experienced in the past.” And the people at the time when
the gospel was written would fully understand this.
In fact, in Matthew’s
gospel, Jesus points out the burden that he is rejecting. He is talking
about the Pharisees and the doctors of the law: “They prepare heavy burdens
that are very difficult to carry and lay them on the shoulders of the people.
But they do not even raise a finger to move them. They do everything in
order to be seen by people, but they forget what is most fundamental in
the law: justice, mercy and faith. These you must practice without neglecting
At the time of Jesus,
people were given this heavy burden to carry, that is, the written law
that had been developed, not what God had revealed on Mt Sinai, but rather
what had been developed down through the centuries -- hundreds of very
tiny proscriptions of the law that became a heavy burden. As Jesus
says, “The teachers of the law didn’t bother to carry themselves, but imposed
on the people.”
Jesus was saying, “My
burden is different.” What is the burden that Jesus asks us to take
upon ourselves? It’s one law, the law of love. And it’s spelled
out for us in the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus pleads with his followers.
“Always be quick to forgive and to reconcile. Don’t let anger build
up in your heart; no resentment, no vengeance, no violence. Love
one another, not just those who love you. Love your enemy.”
Jesus tells us, “This is my burden that I offer to you, but it is a burden
that is light, a burden that can bring joy, and a burden that can really
and truly bring peace, the only way that we will find peace in the world.”
Like the people in Zechariah’s
time or the people of the time when the gospel was written, we too live
in a period of terrible violence. But it’s different for us.
We have the example of Jesus. We have the example of that early Christian
community who understood what Jesus said and who were following it and
transforming the Roman empire, causing people to want to follow Jesus because
these Christians love one another and love even their enemies. They
return evil for good.
“My burden is easy and
light,” Jesus says. And it is the way to peace promised by Zechariah
so long ago.
But somehow we still
haven’t learned or haven’t accepted what Jesus said. We haven’t accepted
his invitation. “Accept my burden. Take it upon you the way
I show you to live.” Instead, we still follow the ways of war and
And as I tried to point
out in the bulletin today, we are waging a war of extreme violence that
brings terrible suffering to the people of Afghanistan. I can’t help,
as I reflect on today’s scriptures, thinking about my experience over there
just two weeks ago. I tried to spell out some of it in today’s bulletin
-- thousands of people have been killed by our bombs. This is a country
that is primitive. They have barely entered into the modern era.
There’s a story of a
woman that will give you an idea of how extraordinary the poverty is and
how primitive the situation of the people is. There’s only one doctor
for 50,000 people and these doctors are not spread evenly throughout the
country. This woman needed medical care and she was in a refugee
camp. The head of the Islamic Relief Services was telling us about
this. He showed us on a map how far she had to travel from that camp to
another place to get medical care. He said it would take him 14 hours
in his four-wheel drive vehicle, but that the only transportation this
woman had was to ride on a donkey. It would take her days and nights
of travel to try to get medical care. That’s how poor this country
Imagine a city, the capital
city of Kabul, where we were told by government officials that 35 thousand
to 40 thousand children were on the streets begging. I’ve never seen
so many kids so desperately begging. And they are the main breadwinners
for their families. The only income these families have is what the
children can beg on the streets. It’s a country that is extremely
primitive and poor and yet we have bombed it so often.
I saw so many youngsters
and adults, too, who have their limbs blown off. And that’s a continuing
danger. 300 people a month are casualties because of the landmines
that have been left behind. Because of the bomblets that come out
of huge cluster bombs that we explode, like the bombing that happened last
week. It probably was a cluster bomb that hit those two villages
and 200 tiny bomblets fly out of that bomb in every direction and as they
explode and spew forth shrapnel that cut a person in half or tear off a
limb. But what’s even worse is that some of those bomblets are designed
to not explode when the bomb hits. Out of the 200 bomblets in every bomb,
10 to 15 percent do not explode. They are left on the ground.
And what’s even more cruel is that these bomblets are painted a bright
yellow, the same color as the food packets that had been dropped.
I met a youngster who,
with his cousin, was out playing. He picked up one of these bomblets,
thinking that it was a packet of biscuits. But then it started to
smoke, so he threw it and it exploded. His cousin had both legs and
one arm torn very badly. The doctors there couldn’t do much to save
him. They were going to amputate both legs and his arm, but his father
protested vehemently. And finally there was a German NGO in the hospital
who heard about it. And this is a very beautiful thing. The
German nation is providing health care for some of these people.
So this little child, 8 years old, was flown to Germany and he was given
treatment that enabled them to save his limbs although his one leg is still
badly wounded. But at least he’s alive and able to walk about.
But there are 300 people
a month who are becoming victims of the bomblets and landmines that have
been left behind. And what does it do? Is it bringing peace?
No, it’s just going to bring more violence.
I’ve put it in the bulletin
today because I think it’s so important for us to realize this. Our
own government has said: Classified investigations of the Al Queda
threat now underway at the FBI and CIA have concluded that the war in Afghanistan
failed to diminish the threat to the USA. Instead, the war might
have complicated counter-terrorism efforts by dispersing potential attackers
across a wider geographic area. Moreover, as Al Queda followers have
fled Afghanistan, the old bin Laden hierarchy has been succeeded by tactical
operatives with makeshift alliances with military groups in countries like
Pakistan, Egypt and Algeria. What we are seeing now is a radical,
international jihad that will be a potent force for many years to come.
So far, it seems our
nation can only say: Well, we now have to do violence where they
appear and we will be killing more and more innocent people.
Isn’t it time that we
really heeded what Jesus says? He is that ideal ruler that Zechariah
promised. He shows us how to abolish war, how root violence out of
our world, and how to bring his peace. But we have to listen.
We have to hear his invitation today: Come to me all of you who are
burdened and heavily laden. And we can think of ourselves as being
burdened with a spirit of hatred, a spirit of vengeance, a spirit of violence.
Come to Jesus, come to
me. He says, “Take my yoke. Take my burden. It’s really
light and it really can bring you peace.”
Will we accept the invitation
of Jesus, each of us individually? That’s a question that only you
and I can answer for ourselves. But if we do accept what Jesus offers
to us, our own hearts can be transformed and we will experience a deep
peace within ourselves. And, perhaps, out of that inner peace, we know
we will work with ever greater energy to try to transform our world, lead
our nation away from the ways of war and violence into the ways of peace,
the ways of Jesus.
Hear deeply in your heart:
Come to me, all of you who are heavily burdened, and I will give you rest
In the name of the Father
and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.