“See, now your King comes to you, he is victorious, he is triumphant, humble and riding on a donkey.” So writes the prophet Zechariah in the first reading we heard today. Very counter-intuitive! One would expect a King to come charging along on a big strong horse, looking anything but humble, wouldn’t they? But God’s ways are not our ways. Zechariah portrays the King, or more precisely the promised Messiah, as gentle and humble. We know that Jesus fulfilled this prophecy on Palm Sunday when he rode into Jerusalem on a donkey.
In the Gospel we hear some beautiful words from Jesus, ‘come to me all you who are overburdened and I will give you rest. Shoulder my yoke, for I am gentle and humble, my yoke is easy and my burden light.’ Again we see here something counterintuitive, that a yoke could be easy and a burden light. But the way of Jesus is not the way of the world.
Humility and gentleness are beautiful virtues but they don't seem to make much sense in a competitive world. What sort of financial system would we have if it was built on gentleness and humility? Perhaps a more just deal for the world’s poor? Perhaps an end to the vicious reform of the Welfare state and the end of child poverty in this country? Perhaps a financial system where a living wage comes before a company bonus?
What sort of international relations might we have if they were built on gentleness and humility? Perhaps an absence of war and an end to the immoral arms trade? On Friday the Queen named a new warship, the biggest ever built, one of two new warships at a cost of over £6bn. Yes, that’s right, two warships designed to kill and maim others. Could not £6bn have been better spent on fighting rising food poverty and homelessness? Yes, I know there are always competing priorities between defence and welfare, but what would have been the more gentle and humble choice to make?
If we were gentler and humbler in our dealings with one another we would have more peace in our hearts, homes, our churches, schools and workplaces. Is this not what we long for? Only Jesus can give this and yet the world seems so set against it with its predominant values of celebrity, money-making and militarism.
Looking at gentleness, there is a belief among many that if you want to get on in life you have to be hard and tough otherwise people will walk all over you. Therefore gentleness becomes equated with timidity, passivity, weakness. But from a Christian perspective, gentleness is not a weakness it is a strength. Jesus was gentle. He says it of himself and it was prophesied about him by Zechariah.
He was especially gentle towards the weak the wounded. Those who had heavy burdens to carry. This doesn't mean he was a pushover, we know that from his robust encounters with the religious leaders of his day. In the counter- intuitive world of God, who turns human values upside down, there is nothing as strong as gentleness. I read somewhere once that, a gentle person treads lightly, listens carefully, looks tenderly, and touches with reverence. Well for those of us who regularly read our Bible, that’s Jesus, isn't it? And we are called to imitate him.
Looking at humility, it is unfortunately, like gentleness also misunderstood. It is seen as a weakness in our brazen and conceited world. But from a Christian perspective, humility is not a weakness. It is a strength. Jesus was humble because he knew his true greatness and acknowledged it as coming from the Father and not from himself.
For us humility does not mean that we demean ourselves, but that we have a realistic appreciation of our strengths and where they come from, that is God our Father, the source of all virtue.
How can we grow in gentleness and humility? Well, we can yoke ourselves to another for a start and help them carry their loads. As someone who grew up in north London I don’t know much about farming, but I do know that a yoke is a beam put across the neck of an animal to enable it to pull a load. There are also double yokes for two animals, where the load would be too much for either animal on its own. Many of us have heavy loads behind us that we drag though life. Rejection, relationship breakdown, physical and emotional suffering. The Good News is that Jesus is there with us, yoked to us to help us pull those burdens, which would be completely unbearable were it not for his help. He gives us this help through the sacraments and especially the Eucharist and through other people. He wants to heal us of the physical and emotional damage our burdens have caused. He wants that. Believe it. But he needs our faith first. He invites us to surrender to him completely, the burdens we are pulling. Surrender it all to him now. At the Offertory, send them here to the altar with the gifts of bread and wine. As the bread and wine are miraculously transformed into the body and blood of Christ ask for your burdens to be transformed into the burden that Christ wants you to pull, that is, the burden of love of God and love of neighbour. To set aside our burdens as he is looking after us and take his burden upon us so that we can look after others.
Look around at your family, friends, co-workers. Are they pulling heavy loads, carrying heavy burdens? Reach out. Yoke yourself to them and help them to pull those loads. I know that many of you do this already, in the parish and outside of it. There’s not just the two of you yoked together, but three. You, them and Jesus. Let’s show humility and gentleness to others this week. He who pulls our burdens expects us to do the same for others and he will be right there with us, because he has promised it. We should learn from him, because he is gentle and humble of heart.