By Father Michael Panicali
Truth be told, as a late 20th-century-born Brooklynite, whenever Jesus uses farming imagery in His teaching, my mind gravitates to a television show that was always on in the Panicali household, whether in original episodes or in reruns: Little House on the Prairie. My siblings and I, in jest, can quote memorable lines and episodes from this iconic show. Many a time, family patriarch Charles Ingalls employs his great big oxen and doggedly works his fields with the oxen yoked, or harnessed, to one another so as to distribute the workload.
In one memorable episode, Charles’ wife Caroline scolds him on an early Sunday morning when it is clear he is not going to be joining the family for church services in town. Dripping with sweat and covered with dirt, he tells Caroline that even though it is the Lord’s Day, the Lord is not going to plow his fields for him.
At one point, a monster hail storm absolutely devastates what was growing into an abundant wheat crop, leaving the family in peril. Little House on the Prairie is replete with depictions of just how difficult and labor-intensive, and calamitous, farming can be, especially in the late nineteenth century.
Thanks to those images from Charles Ingalls’ fields, I have somewhat of a sense of what Jesus means when he says so tenderly in today’s Gospel, “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.”
The difficulties and hardships in farming a field serve as a useful metaphor for the challenges and struggles life can present. Throughout the Gospels, Jesus prepares us for the harsh realities of what life, because of the entrance of sin in the world, can entail. Our Lord is forthright. Just as the Blessed Mother says to St. Bernadette at Lourdes, that she cannot promise Bernadette happiness in this life, but in the world to come, Jesus prepares us to face our own share of struggles, especially if we are to serve Him. There is no mistaking this.
Today’s Gospel drives home the point that, just as a yoke binds two oxen so that, together, they can pull a plow and ease each other’s burden, so does Jesus desire to be yoked with us, so that He can bear the lion’s share of our burden.
While Jesus already has borne the heaviest of burdens — by dying on the Cross, He atones for our sins — He continually calls out to us to unite ourselves to Him in the very manner through which He bore our sins. This is the way of humility, and of meekness. Today He commends the “little ones” of the world, for it is to them that the Wisdom of God has been revealed.
Remarkably, it sometimes takes the course of a lifetime to unite oneself to Jesus in this way. It requires undoing the harmful effects of pride and the following of the wisdom of this world. And so, ironically, it can take a lifetime to learn what we must un-learn.
To allow Jesus to carry our burden in the way He desires, we must in child-like surrender trust in Him, be hopeful for eternal life at all times, put modesty aside, and stand in awe of Him each and every moment. For as Proverbs 3: 5-6 tells us, “Trust in the Lord with all one’s heart, and lean not on one’s own understanding. With all one’s ways acknowledge Him. And He shall direct one’s path.”
Readings for the Fourteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Zechariah 9: 9-10
Psalm 145: 1-2, 8-11, 13-14
Romans 8: 9, 11-13
Matthew 11: 25-30
Father Panicali is the parochial vicar of St. Mark-St. Margaret Mary in Sheepshead Bay.