14th Sunday in Ordinary Time - Finding “rest” in an achievement society
“Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest.” When Jesus said these words, he was not speaking to people who simply worked hard and never got a break. That was the norm for everyone. Everyone worked hard. Life was physically demanding. That is not the situation Jesus is addressing. In the context, he is speaking to the people burdened by the law as interpreted by the scribes and the Pharisees. In the eyes of the scribes and the Pharisees, entrance into the Kingdom of God was determined by one’s performance - one’s ability to live in coherence with the law. If one could not conform to the law or one’s occupation made one “unclean”, e.g., if one was a tax collector or any of the conditions that put one in the category of “sinner”, there was no hope for that person. In addition, many of the poor and marginalized could not afford to pay for the sacrifices required by the law to return to a right relationship to God, so as hard as they tried, as hard as they worked, they could not change their situation. This was an incredible burden that filled them with great anxiety. The scribes and the Pharisees, too, whether they would admit it or not, since they saw conformity with the law as the measure of judgment, would have suffered also from a form of “performance anxiety” in which one’s value or rank would be determined by one’s efforts and ability to fulfill the law. At the root of this restlessness is the burdensome thought that my worth is tied to my performance and that ultimately I have to save myself. I’ve become a slave to the law and a slave to achievement. Jesus came to reveal the love of God and the face of the Father - that God is Father. He is not a distant and merciless judge but a merciful, loving father.
It is interesting that at this time, Jesus is giving praise to the Father. When we look at the scripture passage in the larger context, this praise seems surprising to us. What is Jesus praising the Father for? When we look at Jesus’ ministry up to this point, it doesn’t seem very successful - that he hasn’t achieved much. In many regards it could be looked at as a failure. Earlier in this chapter, we see John the Baptist, the one preparing the way for Jesus, in prison. John sends two of his disciples to Jesus with the question, “Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another?” The vast majority of people in the crowds were not moved by Jesus’ preaching and many took offense at him. We hear Jesus reproach the towns of Chorazin and Bethsaida for their lack of repentance even though they witnessed his miracles. But it is precisely at this time that Jesus gives praise to the Father. How does he face this “failure” with praise and thanksgiving to God? Why does he praise God? Because he is teaching and witnessing to the fact that our worth and value is not based on performance, and in fact, in the economy of God, our entrance into the Kingdom does not depend on our efforts but on the Father’s love for us. Those who hold to the measure of their own achievement or performance or power or control are blinded to the presence of God, but it is to the little ones - those without power or pretense of their own ability to achieve - who receive the Kingdom.
What Jesus came to address was not simply a problem with 1st century Jewish legalism, but the same issue in different form that still plagues us today. We’ve become slaves to an “achievement” society in which we feel a duty to promote ourselves and raise ourselves up because our value rests on gaining prestige and making money and “making a difference” in the eyes of the world. We define “freedom” as being “independent” - not dependent on others or not having to do what someone else tells us to do - not “working for the man”. But striving to reach the ideal of the “self-made man” - paradoxically creates a different form of slavery in which we become slaves of our own idea of success and beat ourselves up when we fail. If you are what you make of yourself, if you fail, there is no to blame but yourself. If it is all about self-realization, if I fail, I just have myself to blame. If I don’t make it, I’m nothing. So you can see how this pursuit of “freedom” leads one to be a work-a-holic who is afraid of failure. Work becomes riddled with anxiety and becomes a source of burnout and depression. I saw this and suffered from this myself when I was working in law and public relations prior to entering the seminary. With this mindset that you are defined by your performance, work and life become laborious and burdensome and can easily devolve, when things do not go well, into the person feeling self-hatred and acting out in self-destructive behavior.
The way to find “rest” in this society is to take Christ’s “yoke” upon us and to learn from him who is meek and humble of heart. A “yoke” is a device that a farmer uses to bind two horses or steer together so that they can together carry the load or the burden - something they couldn’t do on their own. The “yoke” of Christ is what binds him to the Father. The “yoke” of Christ is his sonship - his identity as beloved son. What binds him to the Father is the Father’s love for him. My worth or value is not determined by what I do or how much money I make, but by God’s love for me - that my life has been given to me by God. My life has value before I do or produce or achieve anything. My work becomes a source of joy and not a burden when I see it not as my own achievement but as a way to collaborate with God who has given me not only the “stuff” I’m working with but my own talents, skills, and gifts. This is what gives glory to our work and an infinite weight to our actions. What I do is always finite, but I’m seeking eternal glory. If I forget God and that this work has been given to me by him and that I’m collaborating with Him to bring the world to its destiny, then all of my activism will never give me gratification. Rather, it will wear me out. What gives my work meaning and infinite value is the one who calls me to this work. Jesus found joy in all things whether it was building a chair in the carpenter shop or feeding the 5,000 because his life was a response to the Father’s will - what was asked of him by his Father. Nothing was seen as apart from his Father who loved him. “All things have been handed over to me by my Father.” It is very easy to be a practicing Catholic - go to church every Sunday and receive the sacraments, but at the same time live as if God didn’t exist - as if there was on one hand my work and the other hand my faith. I would never deny that God exists, but practically speaking, there was a time when I lived no differently than the atheist, with my measure being the measure of the world - not thinking about God or looking for him in the day to day. But if God is not “all in all” and my worth is not rooted in my identity as a beloved son or daughter of God - the gift of my baptism, then I will continue to look for glory in my achievement and the praise of others. Meekness does not mean weakness or being passive. Rather, the meek person seeks the good in all things - “God’s gracious will” - and doesn’t fight reality, trying to conform or bend reality to one’s self-made measure of fulfillment. Being a humble, little one, aware of one’s lowliness and dependence, means not presuming to know better than God what will bring about my happiness. I seek to follow and “let it be done to me according to your word” instead of playing God and taking matters into my own hands. The original sin is not the desire to be like God but trying to get there without God - not being a collaborator with God’s plan as it is revealed.
A friend of mine recently shared with me how he came to a deeper awareness of God’s grace and presence, and how the Lord makes himself known and in fact saves us in our weakness. One of his neighbors, Patrick, is the head of surgery at a major hospital and has a daughter in high school. The surgeon, not surprisingly is a “type A” guy, very much a “self-made man” who puts a lot of weight and value on performance and achievement. He was feeling very powerless because his daughter was not doing well in school. He was very worried that her poor performance would have a serious impact on her future success. My friend, a man of faith, asked the surgeon who was not practicing his faith, “Where are you with your faith? Because I can tell you that the Lord’s promise for your daughter is no less than it was six months ago (when things were going well). While it is not clear now, the Lord’s promise is still there.” The surgeon was grateful for the reminder that God was still at work in his daughter’s life. He was challenged to be reminded of God’s presence and not to view things in terms of achievement. My friend who has a high-stress job in international finance where everything is measured on performance, had been praying to St. Joseph that he could get more rest and pay attention to God’s presence in his life. A few weeks after talking to his neighbor, my friend, who is younger than me, had a stroke. He was working out and half his body went numb and he was dazed for about a minute. He wanted to shake it off because his daughter was graduating from college the next day and he didn’t want to miss it, but his wife encouraged him to go to the Emergency Room. He resisted, but then his wife called Patrick the neighbor, who as the doctor, told him he had to go. When they arrived at the ER, they took him right in. A team of doctors and nurses started taking his blood and running all sorts of tests. One of the nurses asked him, “who are you? Who do you know?” Then he realized that his friend, the head of surgery, called the hospital and told them to take care his friend. The doctors can tell from the MRI that my friend has brain damage because of the stroke, but they cannot tell why the stroke occurred. The scan shows the damage, but my friend is suffering no cognitive or physical effects of the stroke. But the stroke got his attention and made him more attentive to the Lord’s presence in his life. What a tender way the Lord got his attention and answered his prayer for rest. My friend recalled, “It is when faced with my limits that I pay greater attention to his presence. When I am uncertain and lack control and power, I pray in a very different way and become more aware of Lord’s presence. In our weakness is where the Lord’s power is revealed. It is in our powerlessness that we can find rest.” St. Paul reminds us that we are “not in the flesh”; on the contrary, you are in the spirit, if only the Spirit of God dwells in you.” We’ve been given the Spirit - the Spirit dwells in us through our baptism, and we belong to God. That is our identity that cannot be taken away and is not something based on our performance. May we live by the Spirit, the love of God given to us, which is the promise of the Father. For in that awareness, we will find rest.