Matthew 11:25-30 (14th Sunday OT, year A)
I hate to dampen everyone’s mood, but today I want to discuss a subject that is not a favorite of many: work! Whether it is a job or simply chores around the house, work is part of each of our lives. The Gospel of today, in which Jesus speaks about burdens and yokes, points to the subject of work. It is a good opportunity for us to consider the purpose and meaning of work in our lives as Christians.
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Jesus’ promise to give us a light yoke is incredibly appealing. Often we do not view work in a positive light - we see it as a heavy yoke. When I am driving, I enjoy looking at bumper stickers. Recently I came across the following bumper stickers, all work related:
I HAD a life... but my work ate it.
I owe, I owe, its off to work I go.
I'm in no hurry... I'm on my way to work.
Work is that annoying time when I am not fishing.
Hard work never killed anyone, but why take the chance?
Beneath their humor, these bumper stickers reveal how we view the reality of work. Our job and other work can often seem like a necessary evil or something that we need to do to get on with our “real” life. At many times we feel heavily burdened by our work. In the Gospel Jesus tells us that in place of our difficult yoke He will give us yoke that is easy and a burden that is light. This is a very attractive offer.
Giving Work a Deeper Meaning
How is it that Jesus will give us a light yoke? Jesus is not saying that He will remove work from our lives so that we can spend our lives fishing or on the beach! Jesus is also not telling us that we should all quit our jobs so that we can spend all our time directly serving the poor and sick. This is the call for some, but not for all. Jesus is telling us that He will lighten our yoke and ease our burden by helping us to infuse the work that we are currently doing with greater meaning and purpose. It is not enough that we work simply to get a paycheck. If we only ever see work as a necessary evil, it will always weigh us down. One book which had a great impact on me is Man’s Search for Meaning, by Viktor Frankl who was a psychologist and holocaust survivor. This book is a reflection on his time in a Nazi concentration camp. While observing the other captives, all of whom were subjected to the same brutality, Frankl wondered why some would fight each day to survive while others would lose the will to live and soon die. He concluded that those who were able to cope best throughout their sufferings were those who had the greatest sense of meaning in their lives. Those who were living for someone they loved or for some cause, were those who survived. Those without a strong sense of meaning in their lives soon gave up. Though the hardships of our work cannot begin to compare to what Frankl and others suffered, the principle holds. If we cannot perceive a deep meaning and purpose in our work, then it will be nothing other than a heavy burden. If, on the other hand, we are able to see a deep meaning in our work, then our yoke becomes lighter. It is in this way that Jesus can transform our work, making it an easier burden.
Meaning #1: Work as Co-creation
In order to help us give deeper meaning to our work, we first need to realize that work is a good thing because it is one way in which we are made in the image of God. Let me ask you a question. Do you think that Adam and Eve were meant to work from the beginning or did they have to work because of fall? In fact, Adam and Eve were always meant to work. After the fall we learn that work becomes much more difficult, but work was always a part of the plan. It is precisely since we are made in the image of God that work is an integral part of our lives. Through work, we become co-creators with God. Regardless of how simple or routine our work is, we have all probably experienced this creative aspect of work. When we are able to make something new we are co-creating with God. When we use our ingenuity to find some new, better way of doing things we are co-creating with God. Being co-creators gives our life great meaning and satisfaction. Now, since the fall, work has also become a burdensome, repetitive and tiring exercise. It remains however a good thing. It is not a necessary evil. One way we can lighten the burden of our work is to remind ourselves that work allows us to imitate God. When we remember to use our gifts to be creative work becomes more satisfying; our yoke becomes lighter.
Meaning #2: Work Continues Jesus’ Mission of Love
In order to infuse our work with even deeper meaning, we need to remember that work in one important way in which we spread Jesus’ love, mercy and compassion to other people. I once visited a chapel that had a very unique crucifix. On this crucifix, the body of Christ had no arms. At first I thought that the crucifix was very old and that that the arms had somehow fallen off over time. When I looked closer, I saw that crucifix was made this way in order to make an important point: Jesus has no arms in this world except ours! Work is one way in which we get to be the arms of Christ. At work we are in contact with so many different people. When we stop and think about it, we realize that each of these individuals is carrying their own burdens and difficulties. If we are attentive to the needs of whoever the specific person is in front of us, we can really communicate to them the love of Jesus. Perhaps it is simply a matter of serving them well. Maybe we can greet them kindly with a smile. When we do this, we imitate Jesus who was “meek and humble of heart”. Work is not just about doing something. Work is about being something: the love of Jesus. When we are aware of this profound meaning of work, our own burden becomes less difficult. Our yoke is lighter when we realize that work in an important way in which we are the arms of Christ, bringing love, mercy and compassion to others.
Work will never be free from difficulties. At times in will be routine and very burdensome. However, the more we are able to realize and live the deeper meaning of work, the lighter our burden. Perhaps we need to make up some new bumper stickers:
Work is how I imitate God’s act of creation.
Work is where I am the arms of Christ.
Admittedly, these bumper stickers are not as funny as the other ones. However, if we remember these messages, and try to live them, we can experience in our life the promise of Jesus that He will give us a lighter yoke.