BEARING BURDENS (Mt 11:25-30): 06 July 2008 (Fourteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time)
In his bestselling book, The Road Less Traveled, M. Scott Peck drops a line that makes you feel like dropping his book. In the very first sentence, he declares quite simply and bluntly: “Life is hard.”
Now, tell me: Who wants to be reminded about that? I don’t know about you, but that’s one truth I’d rather not deal with. Of course that doesn’t change the fact that life is, in fact, hard–and we know it. That’s probably why Peck’s book became a No. 1 bestseller over twenty five years ago and continues to be read today–its dire and ominous opening notwithstanding!
The Lord knows that life is hard. We know from his life and death that he’s no stranger to a difficult life. He’s “been there, done that.” His words in today’s gospel ring so true, and they are among his loveliest and most consoling. He tells us: “Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest.”
Like many who have lived long enough, I’ve gone through a number of crises in my own life–some of them quite earthshaking. In the darkest, most painful moments of my life, I have found myself again and again turning to these words of our Lord, and each time I have drawn strength and comfort from them just when I need them most.
But the next line is just as consoling. He says: “Take my yoke upon your shoulder, and learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart.” It intrigues me that this time our Lord does not compare us to the more customary and, to me, more acceptable sheep. Instead this time by using the metaphor of the yoke, the Lord compares us to oxen, which, as we know, are “beasts of burden.”
Biblical scholars are guessing that it’s probably because Jesus is referring to the specific type of yoke used on oxen, usually, a U-shaped wooden crosspiece bound to the necks of not one, but always a pair of oxen. Come to think of it, that’s probably why a yoke of oxen means a pair of oxen!
So in promising to help us in our burden, the Lord places himself not behind us, where the master of the ox is found, but right there beside us as a fellow “beast of burden.” As we bear our burden, Jesus bears it with us and shares in carrying its weight! It is a most radical, but also most consoling, portrait of who the Lord is and how he joins us and walks with us when we are at our most burdened moments.
I’ve been thinking about the burdens we bear. We bear different kinds of burdens. First of all, there are burdens that “just happen” to us: They simply befall us, and we have not much choice or control over them. Examples of this include the effects of accidents and natural disasters such as damage to property and especially the loss of someone we love. Just the other day I saw a Probe documentary on the MV Princess of the Stars tragedy, and couldn’t help but shed tears over the pain of the relatives, many of whom still had no idea about the fate of their loved ones. Days after the tragedy, the relatives continue to bear a burden they did not choose, over which they have no control.
We also bear burdens caused by other people, over whom we also have no control, but who affect us and who, in spite of themselves, hurt us and wound us: A self-destructive son, a colleague who creates problems for us, or a person we love who is undergoing a long and painful depression. We also exercise no control over these burdens, but they are caused not by natural disasters or accidents but by other people’s mistakes or sins.
Then there are the burdens that we cause ourselves, those that we, wittingly or unwittingly, inflict on ourselves: These burdens are the result of our own doing, like getting lung cancer as a result of years of heavy smoking, having sleepless nights due to a guilt-stricken conscience, or suffering in an unhealthy relationship because we can’t bring ourselves to walk away from it. In these cases, we suffer because of ourselves, and at least to some extent, we can do something about these burdens.
Finally, there is another type of burden that we cause ourselves, but unlike the previous ones, we choose them for a good reason. I’m referring to unpleasant tasks that we choose to take up or painful sacrifices that we freely make out of love. There is the mother who leaves the country to support her husband and children, the child who foregoes his own needs in order to care for his aging and infirm parents, and the volunteer doctor who chooses a difficult assignment in a far-flung barrio over a lucrative practice because he wants to serve the poor.
We understandably tend to complain about the burdens we bear, but it might do us some good to examine them carefully since some burdens we can actually do something about, while others we have no control over. As the well-known “Prayer for Serenity” tells us, it is important to distinguish between the things we can change and the things we cannot.
Moreover, some burdens leave us bewildered because they don’t seem to mean anything, but others can be offered with love and can, for those they are offered, make a world of a difference. These burdens are worth bearing–sufferings that we choose to take up out of love for others. Lest we forget, we Christians have a word for this type of burden: Cross.
Whatever type of burden we bear, there is one thing we can be absolutely sure of: As we carry our loads, the Lord walks with us. Just as Simon of Cyrene bore his cross with him on the road to Calvary, he bears our burdens with us.
Ours is a God who shares our yoke and bears our burdens.
Here is a Quick Question for you: “Think of a heavy burden that you might be bearing here and now. Has it been ‘inflicted’ upon you–or have you chosen or caused it yourself? If it has been self-imposed, have you chosen it for the sake of love?” Think about it, and if you feel up to it, share a thought, a feeling, or a question. Who knows? It might actually help another reader.
Here is a recording of India Arie’s “Loving (Intro), her version of the well-known “Prayer for Serenity,” set to an animated Vista Windows wallpaper–very suitable for meditation. Below are the lyrics too.
Oh God grant me the serenity to accept the things that I cannot change
The courage to change the things that I can
The wisdom to know the difference
Oh ooh and God give me the courage to love with an open heart,
An open heart, an open heart I wanna love with an open heart
Oh ooh oh with an open heart