WHILE the ministry of John the Baptist contrasted sharply with that of his Saviour, this Sunday’s Gospel highlights their underlying unity of purpose. John “made lamentation” (or “wailed”) in his fasting and preaching of repentance, whereas his Saviour “played the flute”, feasting with tax-collectors and sinners. But Jesus unites his mission with that of his Forerunner into a single “we” and in the vindication of wisdom.
The stern message of the Baptist prepares each hearer of his message for the joyful dance of the Bridegroom. As Erasmo Leiva-Merikakis explains, both John’s fasting and Jesus’s feasting disturb the “soul-numbing apathy” of those who have made themselves at home in a world that is alienated from its Creator.
The “purifying sorrow” of repentance and the “transfiguring joy” of communion with God lead us away from a complacent embrace of the world as it is, and call us towards the new creation which has dawned in Jesus Christ (Fire of Mercy, Heart of the Word: Meditations on the Gospel according to St Matthew).
The Christian life requires the painful stripping away of the desires that lead to death — precisely to free us to “dance” in the “transfiguring joy” of our triune God, fulfilling our true vocation as his sons and daughters. The “wisdom” of the gospel begins with a recognition that we cannot save ourselves through our own efforts. We must receive salvation as a free gift.
It is often those who have least in this world who recognise most clearly their need of God’s aid. They are not inherently more virtuous; nor is their poverty something to be sentimentalised. But they are less liable to fantasies of self-sufficiency than are the “wise and learned” of this world. As Hans Urs von Balthasar explains, “These poor have spirits that are open rather than crammed full of thousands of theories. Though they may be scorned by the learned, these are the ones God has chosen in advance to receive his revelation” (Light of the Word).
To the “weary” and “heavy laden”, therefore, the gospel has not come as yet another burden, but instead as “rest”. To begin by resting in the Lord may sound appealing — but something deep within us resists the invitation; for it involves the abandonment of our fantasies of self-sufficiency and our desire to manipulate and to control. For that reason, the poorest Christians are often the most passionate and compelling evangelists. They know from experience that the gospel contains the only power that can rescue us from the grasp of sin and death.
Balthasar identifies a further reason why those who are poor in this world’s eyes are able to receive the riches of divine wisdom: “In an even more profound way it will become clear that the Son, both as mediator of the Father’s mind and based on his own frame of mind (humility and lowliness), can only be understood by the ‘infants’ he addresses.”
This is also the message of our Old Testament reading, and of the ministry of Christ which it foreshadows. The humility of God’s people — as they await a deliverance that can only come from God — finds an echo in the king who will come to save them.
The humility of the king’s carriage is emphasised in a threefold repetition. He “rides upon a donkey, which is treated in synonymous parallelism with a ‘male ass’, the son of ‘she-asses’”. Commentators are unsure whether the “king” refers to a human being or to God (Julia O’Brien, Abingdon Old Testament Commentary, Nahum to Malachi). The events of Palm Sunday draw together these alternatives, as the king who enters in humility is none other than the Lord of all Creation.
In our epistle, we see the same twofold movement as in our Gospel reading. Paul invites the Romans to recognise that they cannot free themselves from sin by their own striving. They are trapped in a “body of death”, and only the work of Christ can free them from those chains. A “purifying sorrow” at our sin, and an honest recognition of our inability to free ourselves from its grasp, are the essential prelude to the “transfiguring joy” of salvation. “We have a physician — let us follow his remedy! Our remedy is the grace of Christ” (St Ambrose).