July 5, 2020: 14th Sunday in Ordinary Time (A)

1st Reading – Zechariah 9:9-10

Thus says the LORD:
Rejoice heartily, O daughter Zion,
shout for joy, O daughter Jerusalem!
See, your king shall come to you;
a just savior is he,
meek, and riding on an ass,
on a colt, the foal of an ass.
He shall banish the chariot from Ephraim,
and the horse from Jerusalem;
the warrior’s bow shall be banished,
and he shall proclaim peace to the nations.
His dominion shall be from sea to sea,
and from the River to the ends of the earth.

Zechariah (whose name means “Yahweh remembers”) was a prophet to the Israelites after their return from the Babylonian exile. He was called by God in 520 BC, the second year of the reign of Darius. He probably lived until very near the time the new Temple was finished.

At the time of this writing, the people were back in the Holy Land but were living under Persian rule. The prophet is offering hope to the people at a time when they had no king of their own at all.

It is practically impossible for Christians to read this passage and not think of these words as a direct reference to Jesus Christ. Although Matthew and John both integrate this passage into their accounts of Jesus entering Jerusalem before his passion (Matthew 21:5, John 12:15), neither is claiming that Zechariah foresaw “Palm Sunday.” Rather, in light of the events surrounding Jesus, Zechariah’s words were seen to have a level of meaning not previously understood.

Rejoice heartily, O daughter Zion, shout for joy, O daughter Jerusalem!

There is no distinction to be made between Zion and Jerusalem; both names refer to the city itself.

In the ancient world, walled cities were often characterized as female, encompassing the inhabitants as if in an embrace or within her womb. The designation “daughter” connotes an intimate relationship.

See, your king shall come to you; a just savior is he,

The oracle itself is the idealized picture of an Israelite king and the peaceful kingdom over which he will rule. This king is righteous or just (saddíq), and he himself is saved (nôšā). The Hebrew nôšā has a passive form, suggesting the king is able to save others only because God has first saved him.

meek, and riding on an ass, on a colt, the foal of an ass.

He is meek (ānî) because he has little reason to be proud. Any victory he has enjoyed has been given to him by God.

The introductory exclamation and the description of the approach of the king suggest some kind of procession. While this may be a depiction of a victory march, it is devoid of military ostentation. In contrast to the horse, which was the mount in time of war, the ass was put to use for friendly and solemn entry into a city.

He shall banish the chariot from Ephraim,

Ephraim is a poetic reference to the northern kingdom of Israel (the geographical area was originally settled by the tribe of Ephraim, which at one time was the largest tribe of Israel).

and the horse from Jerusalem;

Jerusalem, the capital of Judah, represents the southern kingdom. Referencing both kingdoms indicates totality.

The warrior’s bow shall be banished,

Note the three-part description of the banishment of armaments of war: chariot, horse, bow. It is balanced with a three-part description of the future kingdom, which follows.

and he shall proclaim peace to the nations.

The king proclaims peace not only to a united Israelite people but to all nations.

Though this is a vision of the future, the verbs used throughout are prophetic perfect, a literary technique used in the Bible that describes future events that are so certain to happen that they are referred to in the past tense as if they already happened. In other words, in God’s time the future is already present.

His dominion shall be from sea to sea,

From the Mediterranean Sea to the Persian Gulf. “From sea to sea” indicates total range.

and from the River to the ends of the earth.

“The River” is probably the Euphrates. The peaceful rule of this king will extend far beyond Judah into the rest of the inhabited world. The description of the extent of his reign reflects the scope of the ideal realm of the messianic king (Psalm 72:8).

2nd Reading – Romans 8:9, 11-13

Brothers and sisters:
You are not in the flesh;
on the contrary, you are in the spirit,
if only the Spirit of God dwells in you.
Whoever does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him.
If the Spirit of the one who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you,
the one who raised Christ from the dead
will give life to your mortal bodies also,
through his Spirit that dwells in you.
Consequently, brothers and sisters,
we are not debtors to the flesh,
to live according to the flesh.
For if you live according to the flesh, you will die,
but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body,
you will live.

This week, we continue our lengthy study of Romans. Just before today’s passage, Saint Paul states that “those who are in the flesh cannot please God” (Romans 8:8). Today’s reading begins with a contrast to this statement.

Brothers and sisters: You are not in the flesh; on the contrary, you are in the spirit,

Although “flesh” and “spirit” can refer to two distinct aspects of human nature, they can each also connote the whole human being, but from a distinct perspective.

When Paul refers to the flesh, he is not thinking of any specific behavior; he is speaking of human nature in all the limitations that sometimes incline one away from God.

By “life in the spirit,” he means a life attuned to God.  The spirit is, in fact, the dimension of the human being that can be joined to the very Spirit of God.

if only the Spirit of God dwells in you.

The word translated as “if only” can also be translated “if, in reality.”

The baptized Christian is not only “in the Spirit,” but the Spirit is now said to dwell in him/her.

Whoever does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him.

Attachment to Christ is only possible by the indwelling of the Spirit.

The mention of “Spirit of God” and “Spirit of Christ” in reference to the same Holy Spirit shows that the Spirit comes from both the Father and the Son.

If the Spirit of the one who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you,

The miracle of the resurrection is attributed to the Spirit of the Father.

the one who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also, through his Spirit that dwells in you.

It is through the same Spirit that raised Jesus from the dead that the Christians’ own resurrection is promised. Their eschatological fulfillment is contingent on the indwelling of the Spirit.

“But he who raised Christ up from the dead will raise us up also if we do His will and walk in His commandments and love what He loved, keeping ourselves from all unrighteousness, covetousness, love of money, evil speaking, false witness, not rendering blow for blow, or cursing for cursing, but being mindful of what the Lord said in His teaching.” [Saint Polycarp of Smyrna (ca. A.D. 135), The Epistle of Polycarp to the Philippians 2]

Consequently, brothers, we are not debtors to the flesh, to live according to the flesh.

At the center of living according to the flesh are such things as pride, arrogance, and ambition. Those who live this way give themselves to human logic and power alone — ultimately resulting in the destruction of the soul, spiritual suicide.

For if you live according to the flesh, you will die, but if by the spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.

Paul does not deny that Christians are under the same sentence of death as are all other people. However, he contends that sin and death are not the ultimate victors.

“It is right and clear that we are not obliged to follow Adam, who lived according to the flesh, and who by being the first to sin left us an inheritance of sin (see Genesis 3:13-19). On the contrary, we ought rather to obey the law of Christ who, as was demonstrated above, has redeemed us spiritually from death. We are debtors to Him who has washed our spirits, which had been sullied by carnal sins, in baptism, who has justified us and who has made us children of God (see Galatians 3:24-26).” [The Ambrosiaster (between A.D. 366-384), Commentaries on Thirteen Pauline Epistles Romans 8:12]

Gospel – Matthew 11:25-30

At that time Jesus exclaimed:
“I give praise to you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth,
for although you have hidden these things
from the wise and the learned
you have revealed them to little ones.
Yes, Father, such has been your gracious will.
All things have been handed over to me by my Father.
No one knows the Son except the Father,
and no one knows the Father except the Son
and anyone to whom the Son wishes to reveal him.”

“Come to me, all you who labor and are 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 light.”

Today’s gospel reading can be divided into three parts: a hymn of thanksgiving for revelation, a christological statement, and an invitation to a personal relationship. Throughout, there is an overriding theme of wisdom.

At that time Jesus said in reply,

The following is a typical Jewish blessing formula, with the very unusual feature of Jesus referring to God as “Father.”

“I give praise to you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, 

The passage begins with Jesus giving praise to his Father for having chosen to reveal himself to humanity.

The title of “Lord of heaven and earth” denotes universal sovereignty.

for although you have hidden these things from the wise and the learned you have revealed them to little ones.

Just before today’s reading, Jesus reproached “the towns where most of his mighty deeds had been done, since they had not repented” (Matthew 11:20). That context is essential to our understanding of this reading because it lets us know that Jesus’ tone is ironic. Those who have rejected Jesus are not “wise and learned” at all — they just think they are.

Jesus is not saying that God chooses to reveal himself to some and not to others. God’s self-revelation and invitation are offered to all, but it is only accepted by some. The “wise and learned,” then, are those with a disordered sense of intellectual pride — and because of their sinful pride, they reject the gift they are being offered.

In contrast, “the little ones” (nēpios, which means “immature”) are open to receive Jesus’ teachings. Unlike the worldly-wise, who consider themselves quite self-sufficient, the nēpios are unself-conscious, dependent on others, and consequently receptive.

Jesus is not connecting faith and ignorance, but faith and lowliness — which consists of simplicity, openness, and trust. These happen to be the kinds of virtues we often observe in children, “the little ones.”

Yes, Father, such has been your gracious will.

Once again, God has reversed the expectations of the world. His beloved Son, for whom the educated Jewish leadership have been awaiting for generations, has been recognized only by a few disciples from the peasant class.

God’s gracious will and the designs of the world are clearly quite different.

All things have been handed over to me by my Father.

Note how much Jesus emphasizes calling God his “Father” — the word Father appears five times in just four sentences.

Scripture scholars suggest that the word translated here as “Father” would have been Abba in Aramaic, the language in which Jesus prayed. Abba implies much more intimacy than Father; the equivalent in English would be Daddy .

No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son wishes to reveal him.”

Jesus describes the intimate relationship he shares with God in terms that can only be considered a high christology, an emphasizing of his divine rather than his human nature. Jesus is the absolute Son of the absolute Father. As such, Jesus is the exclusive revelation of the Father.

This is a direct contradiction of the Jewish claim to have a complete revelation of God in the Law and the Prophets.

“Come to me,

The heart of Jesus’ message; a call to a personal relationship.

The shift from “keep the law” to “come to me” is a significant one. A religion which is experienced only as adherence to legalistic impersonal norms and not as a joyful life-giving relationship with the Author of Life is false.

In coming to the person of Jesus, we discover that, far from being burdened, we’re liberated.

all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you

A yoke was a wooden collar placed on the back of an ox pulling a plow. It was custom-fitted so that it wouldn’t chafe or bruise the neck of the much-needed and precious ox. In practicing his carpentry trade, Jesus would have undoubtedly made some yokes.

The background for Jesus’ invitation to take his yoke is a passage from Sirach. In Sirach, Wisdom resides in the law of Moses (Sirach 24:22). As the book ends, Sirach extends an invitation to submit oneself to Wisdom:

Come aside to me, you untutored,
and take up lodging in the house of instruction;
How long will you be deprived of wisdom’s food,
how long will you endure such bitter thirst…?
Submit your neck to her yoke, 
that your mind may accept her teaching (Sirach 51: 23-24,26).

and learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart;

His hearers are to learn from him, the one who is meek and humble of heart, the one who, in the eyes of the world, is lowly and insignificant.

This echoes our first reading, which calls forth a meek leader for the people who will bring justice. Jesus, once again, has fulfilled the words of the prophets. All of God’s promises to his people have been fulfilled in Jesus.

and you will find rest for yourselves. For my yoke is easy, and my burden light.”

The Pharisees and scribes, as they are presented in Matthew’s gospel, have taken the law of Moses and made it burdensome with their legalisms. Here, Jesus invites all to embrace his interpretation of the law and accept the responsibilities he will put upon them.

Compared to the burden the Law had become, Jesus’ yoke is easy. Like the yokes for the oxen, this divine yoke is custom-made to fit well the needs and abilities of each of us whom he invites to wear it.

Love makes every burden light. If Jesus’ hearers will conform themselves to this model and take on his yoke, their souls will find rest and they will be blessed with the revelation of God.

Connections and Themes

The triune God.  There is absolutely no way we can comprehend the concept of a triune God.  All we have are pieces, individual pieces into aspects of God, and we try to fit these pieces together into a coherent whole.

The first reality the gospel acknowledges is the sovereignty of God.  This is followed immediately by mention of the handing over of all things to Jesus, making him a kind of vice-regent of God.  Finally, Jesus and God have intimate and exclusive knowledge of each other.  All this indicates they are not the same but enjoy a singular relationship and share on a level that is divine.  Paul speaks of the Spirit, clearly a divine reality, but different from Jesus and the one called God.  According to Paul this Spirit is the Spirit of Jesus and the Spirit of God, implying that somehow both Jesus and God claim the Spirit.  It is this Spirit who raised Jesus from the dead, and it is this same Spirit who dwells in Christians.  It is clear the Spirit does nothing independent of God, whose Spirit it is.

What does all this tell us?  All we can be sure of is that we are dealing with something totally beyond our ability to comprehend.

The grace of God in our lives.  We are not completely lost in oblivion, however.  The grace of this triune God touches our lives in some ways that are tangible and in other ways that demand faith.  The most tangible manifestation of God is Jesus himself.  We know he was a man of flesh and blood, one who walked on our earth, breathed its air, and ate its fruits.  We know he touched the lives of others through his words and deeds.  It is these very words and deeds that reveal something about God that we can understand.  They reveal unselfish love and unfailing compassion; they reveal universal acceptance and concern for human needs; they reveal a passion for life and all things human. It was in Jesus that the divine characteristics extolled in the psalm of today’s liturgy (Psalm 145) are made manifest.  He was gracious and merciful, he was slow to anger and of great kindness; he was compassionate and faithful and committed to all who are bowed down.

God has been revealed to us through Jesus.  While Jesus was a tangible person, our acceptance of him as the manifestation of God requires faith, and this faith is no easier today than it was at the time of Jesus.  But if we have this faith, we will believe that the Spirit of Jesus dwells in us, directing our lives after the pattern of the life of Jesus. This Spirit will enable us to open our arms to all and forgive those who have caused us pain.  If we have this faith, we will be able to live fully in the Spirit.

Learn from Me.  The overriding disposition of these readings is humility.  Jesus, the human manifestation of the divine, is meek and humble.  This tells us something else about God.  It tells us that high station does not result in pride.  On the contrary, Jesus is humble; the king depicted in the reading from Zechariah is humble; the true disciple is called to be humble.

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