Fourteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time • Year A

Edward V. Hattrick, O.S.A.
1929-2007

Readings
Zec 9:9-10
Ps 145:1-2, 8-9, 10-11, 13-14
Rom 8:9, 11-13
Mt 11:25-30

Charlie Brown’s creator died a few years ago, but his many fans live on. Unlike most cartoon characters, Charlie was not loved only, or even mostly, for laughs. He was read more for personifying the insecurity and low self-esteem that many of us habitually feel, but try to hide because we’re adults. Charlie begot more wry smiles of recognition than outright laughs, because we saw ourselves in him.

In one strip, Charlie Brown is talking with Peppermint Patty. She asks, “What do you think security is, Charlie Brown?” Charlie answers, “Security is sleeping in the back seat of a car when you’re a little kid, and you’ve been somewhere with your Mom and Dad, and it’s night. You don’t have to worry about anything. Your Mom and Dad are in the front seat and they’re doing the worrying… They take care of everything.” Peppermint Patty smiles and says, “That’s real neat.” Charlie, however, is a born worrier. He immediately adds, “But it doesn’t last!

Suddenly you’re grown up and it can never be that way again! Suddenly it’s all over, and you’ll never get to sleep in the back seat again! Never!” She gets a frightened look on her face and asks, “Never?” And Charlie Brown replies, “Never!” As they stand there sensing the terrible responsibility of adulthood, Patty reaches over and says, “Hold my hand, Chuck!!”

Why this story? And why today? I learned a new word the other day. It’s spelled P-U-R-D-A-H, I guess it’s pronounced PUR-DAH. It’s the clothing that Muslim and Hindu women wear, designed to conceal themselves completely when they go out.

Here in the West, I think a lot of us, men as well as women, wear a purdah when we go out. Ours is a psychological purdah, designed to conceal from others our worries, frustrations, and insecurity. Doctors talk of psychosomatic diseases, physical illnesses – some as serious as heart problems and cancer – that come from psychological causes. Non-physical illnesses, too, abound. A recent medical paper said that depression has become a more widespread epidemic than AIDS. Charlie Brown apparently was right: once we get in the driver’s seat, once we take charge of our lives, we never get back to serenity again. This is why I told his story: it’s also ours. The story is gently elbowing us in the ribs and saying, ‘They’re talking about you.’

But the reason I tell the story today is because of the gospel we have just listened to. Peppermint Patty is in desperate need of someone to hold her hand, and in the gospel Jesus says: “Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest.” He’s holding out a reassuring hand.

We have here, or so it seems to me, one of the hidden gems of the gospel, Jesus offering to take over control of our lives, if we permit him. Do you often feel angry, tense, impatient, that things are out of control? If you do, today’s message is really worth pondering.

The question arises, however, of why so few accept the hand offered in this passage. If the doctors are correct, if so many of us have physical ailments that are psychological in their origin, why do we hesitate to turn our lives over to the one who said, “I come that you may have life, and have it fully,” and “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick”?

One reason, I think, is because we wear purdahs not only when we go out, like the Muslim women, but all the time, even in doors. We hide our weaknesses even from ourselves; it’s not easy for adults to admit, or even recognize, their need for God.

In today’s reading, Jesus begins by saying, “I bless you, Father, Lord of heaven and of earth, for hiding these things from the learned and the clever and revealing them to mere children.” We may not consider ourselves as particularly learned or clever, but neither do we see ourselves as mere children. And we certainly do not see God as a Father to whom we can entrust our lives, and let him do the driving. We’re adults and we need to be in control, to steer our lives in the direction we want them to go. We want to be in the driver’s seat, and when we get frustrated, we feel road rage.

Just why should we entrust our lives, so labored and overburdened, to Jesus? He himself gives the reason, and it’s not the one we might expect. He doesn’t say, “Come to me because I am all-powerful and all-knowing,” but because “I am gentle and humble of heart.” How can God possibly be humble, and why should Almighty God be gentle? Yet this he is; and not only that, he says to learn from him, to become gentle and humble ourselves.

There was a time when the word “gentle” was considered a compliment. Men who had this quality were called gentlemen. In our dog-eat-dog world, who can be gentle? Is Jesus trying to turn us into a swarm of wimps? Is everything that happens to us God’s will?

Not everything. It is not God’s will that I sin, or cause others to sin. God does not will our ingratitude, sloth, lust, and ambition. But there are situations where God’s will is undeniably involved, and undeniably demands sacrifice and suffering, giving without counting the cost, showing kindness when wounded and praying for our persecutors. Just so did the Father command the Son to proclaim the Kingdom, to suffer at the hands of sinners, and to die. And Christ did all this, and did it gently.

It’s like the story in Aesop’s Fables where the wind and the sun are arguing over which is stronger. They see a man wearing an overcoat, and decide on a contest: who can force the man to part with the coat? The wind tries first, attempting to blow the overcoat off with fierce gusts, but the man only pulls the coat more tightly around him. Then the sun shines down on the man gently but strongly, causing him to take the coat off. Gentleness is strength.

Jesus makes the same point by riding into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday on a donkey. The donkey was a sign of peace in our Lord’s time. It was like an ordinary Volkswagen. The horse was a symbol of war. It was like seeing an army tank today. If a king entered Jerusalem on a horse, it meant war. If he entered on a donkey, he was bringing peace. Gentleness and humility mean peace. Anger and words of criticism mean war – and the battleground is our own heart, which is why we have psychosomatic sicknesses.

Mother Theresa, who was always so gentle and humble of heart towards the destitute and the down-and-outers, has some great advice in this regards, She was the first to admit that the people she served could be rude, insulting and ungrateful. “Always be kind,” she said, “It is better to commit faults with gentleness than to work miracles with unkindness.”

“Gentleness” and “humility” are not the only words Jesus underlines today. Another one is “yoke.” “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me,” he says. What is this yoke? The word usually refers to a pair. A yoke of oxen is two working together, plowing a field in unison. When we shoulder Our Lord’s yoke, it means joining our human hearts with his in pulling together. Shouldering his yoke is allowing him to enter our everyday lives, rather than going it alone. Charlie Brown was firm in his belief that the security of sleeping in the back seat vanishes when we’re grown up, but Charlie hadn’t read today’s gospel of spiritual childhood, the art of entrusting everything to God. It can be done. As St. Paul says in today’s second reading, “You are not in the flesh; on the contrary, you are in the spirit…”

My advice to Charlie Brown is never say never. Put your hand in the hand of the Lord, and find anew the security and serenity you had as a child.