The world, the flesh, and the freedom of the easy yoke of Christ

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14th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A: July 2-3, 2011
Zech 9:9-10; Ps 145; Rom 8:9, 11-13; Matt 11:25-30

The desires we feel in our bodies are not always good for our bodies. The desires that we feel in our flesh are not always good for our flesh.

We know that this is true from our own experience, if we think of our hunger for food. Our bodies need food to grow and to survive. But the problem is that sometimes we want to eat things that are not good for us. Or maybe we want food that is good for us, but we want too much of it; or too little of it; or we want it at the wrong times.

We know this. There is an entire weight-loss, dieting industry that is built upon the fact that the desires of our flesh will sometimes lead us in ways that are not good, not healthy, for the flesh itself.

And we need to realize, when we hear St. Paul speak about the flesh and the spirit, that it is not a matter of hating our bodies or of believing that they are bad. Not at all! The Lord created us as bodily creatures, and everything he made is good, and our Lord Jesus took on a true human body when he was made man. Our bodies are good and we love them; the problem is that sometimes they desire things that are not good for them.

It was not this way in the beginning. For when the Lord created our first human parents, and he found it very good [Gen 1:31], the desires of our flesh were perfectly attuned to our true good. They did not lead us astray, but led us toward true health. But then, when Adam and Eve rebelled against God and broke the harmony with him, in which they were created, they also broke the harmony within themselves. As result of original sin and its consequences, the desires of our flesh have been leading us sometimes right, sometimes wrong, ever since.

And so we know that, when it comes to eating, we need to apply our intellect, to learn the truth about what is good for us to eat. And to apply our will, so that we are not dragged around by our desires, but rather we govern and direct our desires into line with what is truly good.

This is not what advertisers want you to hear. For they know that, if you are enslaved by a desire of the flesh, that drags you to buy their product—well, then, you are enslaved to them, happily handing over to them your money! And so they whisper that this is “freedom”—”do what you feel”—”come, and give us your money!” What a burden, what slavery, this creates!

Jesus said, “Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest.”

These desires of the flesh were created good but warped in the Fall of Man, so that they are now a mixture of good and bad, of what leads us right and what leads us wrong.

  • For we need to take in food and drink. But how often are we led astray, not only into unhealthy weight gain or eating disorders, but also into all forms of substance abuse, becoming addicted to alcohol, or nicotine, or a variety of illegal drugs?
  • We need clothing and shelter. But how often does this become extravagant; a motivation for vanity; an end in itself that burdens us and others?
  • We need to defend ourselves against physical threats. But what about when we become afraid of what is good for us; or are paralyzed by fear; or close ourselves off in isolation; or become overly aggressive, attacking others beyond necessary defense?
  • We need human love. But what happens when we debase ourselves in seeking it; or use and manipulate others; or misuse our bodies and our technologies; so that we shatter our lives and others’ lives into fragments, in the very opposite of love?

And when these warped desires of the flesh are built into social systems, cultural systems, legal and governmental systems—then we have what Scripture often calls “the world”: what we call “the rat race” or “dog eat dog”; where only the strong, the smart, the rich, the beautiful can win; where groups band together to threaten, coerce, or seduce; constantly afraid that they will fall from this height; constantly striving; constantly pretending; lest they become one of the weak, the small, the unattractive, who are rejected, excluded, and exploited.

Pride, lust, anger, gluttony, turned into a world system! This is what shapes our lives—where we live; what we have; who works in our families and where and how long—and how we raise our children, to be ready to take on this unending labor, this backbreaking burden.

And Jesus said, “Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest.”

And St. Paul wrote to us: For the concern of the flesh—that beloved and valuable flesh, with its often misguided and twisted desires, that aren’t even good for itself—

For the concern of the flesh is hostility toward God; it does not submit to the law of God, nor can it; and those who are in the flesh cannot please God. But you are not in the flesh; on the contrary, you are in the spirit, if only the Spirit of God dwells in you. …

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.

And Jesus gives us an invitation. “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me.” Our Lord acknowledges that it can be hard to follow him. He is no false advertiser, promising only freedom. It is a yoke; it is a burden. But it is easy and light. He is not a proud, lustful, angry, gluttonous taskmaster. He is meek and humble of heart. He knows what is good for us, in our true nature. And he has redeemed us through our baptism, and he leads us to share fully in his resurrection. “For my yoke is easy, and my burden light. … And you will find rest for yourselves.”

Or, as St. Paul wrote:

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.

This is a blessing to ourselves, to walk in Christ’s way; and it is a blessing to others. A little later in this same letter, St. Paul writes: Do not conform yourselves to this age but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and pleasing and perfect. (Rom 12:2)

Brothers and sisters, this weekend the United States celebrates its independence; and we give thanks for the blessings we have received within this nation. But like our bodies, like the rest of the world system, so with the United States: we love it; and because we love it we need to call it away from its desires and tendencies that are truly harmful to it.

For in the midst of the world, in the midst of these United States, as the Second Vatican Council reminded us, Christ “called together a people made up of Jew and gentile, making them one, not according to the flesh but in the Spirit.” This new People of God, the Church, “does not actually include all men, and at times may look like a small flock,” yet it “is nonetheless a lasting and sure seed of unity, hope and salvation for the whole human race.” It is founded upon Christ and is “used by Him as an instrument for the redemption of all, and is sent forth into the whole world as the light of the world and the salt of the earth.” [Lumen Gentium 9]

May it be true of this parish, in this time, that in Christ we live as the light of the world and the salt of the earth, truly a city upon a hill that cannot be hidden.

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