The verses that we have just read are, to my mind, both some of the most consoling and some of the most perplexing in the whole of scripture. They speak to the mystery of who can receive Christ’s message.
Let’s remind ourselves where we are in the story. We’ve skipped ahead a little from last Sunday. We’re now in the eleventh chapter of Matthew, which begins with John the Baptist missing a step and wondering if Jesus was the real thing. After that, Jesus reproaches various groups, which immediately proceeds this passage. He chides the wayward people of Chorazin, Berthsaida and his own adopted city, Capernaum. In different ways, they fail to grasp the central message of who Jesus is and in what following Him consists. The backdrop then is the various ways in which people miss the point.
We move then to this Sunday’s Gospel, which in a few brief lines contains a great deal. Now it’s said that the rudiments of a good education are said to consist in the three Rs of Reading, wRiting and aRithmetic. I’d like to suggest that the themes in view in today’s Gospel passage can also be thought of in three Rs: Revelation, Relationship, and Rest.
First: revelation. Jesus begins with a prayer of thanksgiving. He gives thanks to the Father for revealing “these things” to nepioi — variously translated as babes, children, or little ones. Indeed, the meaning need not be literal but can be understood more figuratively so that the New American Bible — which Catholics use in the US — translates the word as “child-like”. This conveys the sense not so much of age but of disposition. And St. Thomas Aquinas endorses this broader understanding. This sense is echoed later in Matthew’s Gospel, when Jesus recapitulates his message even more starkly. Shortly after the Transfiguration, Jesus again says to the disciples that unless you become like children, you will never enter the Kingdom of Heaven.
Children are contrasted with the wise, the professionals, if you like; the scribes and pharisees who throughout the Gospel, snipe, seek to undermine Jesus and eventually plot to kill Him. For all their learning, they cannot perceive who Jesus is because they are proud, seeking the glory that is God’s for themselves. You can know everything that it’s possible to know about Jesus and yet not know Jesus Himself as Lord. Witness many Theology professors who no longer believe. They reduce Jesus to common era prophet, the Gospel to mere artefact, our faith to elaborate edifice. The expression: “too clever for your own good” certainly finds application among the worldly wise. When wisdom becomes boastful or arrogant, it ceases to be wisdom but becomes a hollowed body of information, and ultimately ersatz. These phrases may have become familiar to us but we ought not to overlook just how perplexing they are. Jesus turns conventional reasoning upside down. The rule of faith is not so much elusive as inverted.
Yet, the message of who-Jesus-is, is disclosed to the child-like, or in the context of the disciples whom he is addressing to mere fishermen! What’s child-like in them? There are various aspects which converge. Commenting on this passage, St. Augustine writes that the key distinguishing mark of the child is “humility”. Just as well, St. Augustine hadn’t met my precocious little brother when he was growing up! And St. Hilary identifies the child-like quality with “simplicity”. Is there also something akin, I wonder, in the letter of St. Paul’s to the Corinthians, where he writes of his weakness or what we might call ‘vulnerability’, which he not only refused to conceal but boasted about. These are all features of being child-like.
More recently, St. Therese of Lisieux wrote of the child’s way or what she termed, “the little way”, which was, she explained:
“to recognise our nothingness, to expect everything from God as a little child expects everything from its father …”
Being little means, according to St. Therese, “believing oneself capable of anything,” while never becoming discouraged over failures, “for children fall often, but they are too little to hurt themselves very much.”
In their humility, simplicity and vulnerability, children receive the gift of revelation by a courageous faith, a total trust in God, a belief not just in Jesus and his message but the sufficiency of it. God is enough; anything else is superfluous at best and a distraction at worst.
The second “R” is relationship. This refers to what is revealed: the relationship of the the Son to Father. In other words, Jesus’ divinity. And this carries an eschatological significance, alluding both to the Servant and the Son of Man, and the mutual knowledge of the Father and Son. Then there is a reference to Jesus revealing to those whom he chooses, having been authorised by the handing over of all things. The relationship aspect if even deeper in Luke’s version of this same passage. It is identical save and that Luke adds a further detail. Luke begins by saying “Jesus rejoiced in the Holy Spirit”. Thus the whole of the Trinity are in view. The whole of the Trinity act in concert. God’s work on earth as in heaven emerges from a communion of love between Father, Son and Spirit. In our own relationship with God, we enter into this communion and get caught up, if you like, in this dynamic, this relationship of love.
Finally, rest: the thing which Jesus promises to those who take on his light yoke. Do you feel weary? What about burdened? And how many of us yearn to rest? Rest is something we all desire Some 142 years ago, following the industrial revolution, Friedrich Nietzsche lamented: “from lack of rest, our civilisation is ending in a new barbarism”. Others thought that technology would mean that we could work less and rest more. John Maynard Keynes, for example, predicted that technology would free us from the toil of long working hours. And according to his reasoning, we should only be working 11 hour weeks by now. Yet others, like Tim Ferris — something of a productivity guru — extol the virtues of the 4 hour work week.
In recent months, whether due to quarantine, furlough or even crushing redundancy, much of the workforce have not been at work. I think the experience of the lockdown has shown that the absence of work is not the same as rest. Speaking to many of you, there’s certainly been a restlessness in the air. Others, happily, have been able to find rest; they have found contemplation and prayer, interiority and peace. That’s what rest is all about. The point is that rest is not simply a matter of time but a state of mind, an attitude, and — in the deepest sense — relationship. It’s a relationship, a burden that Jesus describes as “light” precisely because it brings us into loving friendship with the gentle and lowly one: Jesus Himself. The result is that the promised rest — the eternal rest which we long for in the next life — becomes ephemerally present in this life when we abide in Him.
In closing, let me try to put these “three Rs” together as a recap of today’s Gospel: only through child-like humility does Jesus reveal to us that true rest is found in relationship with Him. Of course, my rendering is just simulacrum to Jesus’ own beautiful words, which are addressed to us even now. Weary as we are, conflicted as we might feel, we can always turn to him in faith, we can always accept his invitation:
“Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”
The Catholic Chaplaincy serves the students and staff of the University of Edinburgh, Edinburgh Napier University and Queen Margaret University.
The Catholic Chaplaincy is also a parish of the Archdiocese of St Andrews and Edinburgh (the Parish of St Albert the Great) and all Catholic students and staff are automatically members of this parish.