When I was in high school, I remember being shown a painting of an old man rowing a boat. But the point and focus of the paining concerned a very little girl, her tiny hands on the oar, looking serious, believing she was doing the rowing. The gentle old man behind her, with a slight smile, did not disturb this illusion.
The painting stays with me because it touches upon so many emotions. The gentle old man in the back of the boat, who is in fact doing the rowing, looks so calm and confident. It is clear he is fond of this little girl, perhaps he is her father, or even her grandfather. The little girl is so serious, so intent on getting everything right, feeling the entire weight of the world upon her shoulders.
When I find things becoming challenging in my own life, I consider it grace when I am reminded of this painting. For too often, I am like this very little girl, so caught up in thinking it is all up to me that I become very anxious and full of anxiety. All along, there is the wise and gentle Father behind me in the boat, a small, loving smile on his face because he knows the truth.
I think about it because not trusting in God when things get tough is a natural human reaction. For me anyway, it does not seem to matter how often I experience God’s grace, God’s loving care, or God’s providence. When tough times come upon me, the natural reaction is always to fear and doubt. To become pessimistic about the future, to doubt whether or not God will come through yet again.
Such was the case with the Israelites. Time and again they were eyewitnesses to God’s abundant care for them. They saw, through magnificent deeds, the powerful love God had for them. They saw that they were not abandoned, but were so deeply cared for they would not be abandoned even in a desert. But, in that same desert, they doubt. They are afraid. They become timid. The become angry not at God, but at Moses for leading them into this wretched place.
I have not had an experience in my life where God has let me down. To be sure I have had experiences where I wound up where I could not imagine. But God has always, time and again, come through. And, the Israelites had seen the same. Time and again, God came to the rescue. But are we really that different from the Israelites? I ask God for some help, get it, and then curse it as wretched food. When things go well I will often take the credit but not the blame, no, that is God’s fault.
When Jesus tells us that the burden will be light, he is saying this by way of comparison. He is not suggesting that following him will lead to a life with absolutely no difficulty or suffering. No, what he is saying is that compared to the alternative, when we trust God life becomes not a burden where we carry heavy things, but a time when the burdens are light because we do not carry them alone.
Consider the words of Socrates. I read in a book, whose name I forget, that the quote attributed to Socrates, “the unexamined life is not worth living” has often been misunderstood. It is not that there is a worthless life, but rather, the cost of living the unexamined life it too high. It simply is not worth the cost. The worth of the examined life is immense; the cost of the unexamined life is too great.
I think all of the readings today are helping us to realize that a life without consideration and openness to God has a cost that is too high. The price for the examined Christian life has already been paid. Jesus has taken upon himself our sins. Just as the serpent was lifted up in the desert to remove the sins of the people, so too Jesus, the Son of God, has been lifted up to remove our sins. The cost of the Christian life has been paid by our Savior.
But so often in our lives the search for the truth is something we take on all by ourselves. We do not seek the aid of God, nor even the community God has formed, the Church. We go it alone. Look around at the people at Mass here today. Inspiring, isn’t it? People, just like you, here to come to know Jesus more clearly.
But unlike the Israelites in the desert, we have absolute confidence that Jesus is here in our midst, both because of his words, and his presence. “Where two or three are gathered, in my name” he tells us. “This is my body” he tells us. And, body and blood, soul and divinity, Jesus is present at every Mass, and we are invited to receive him every time we go to Mass and receive the Eucharist.
When we clearly recognize the presence of Christ, all around us, then it becomes easier to see the Christ is the guide in our lives that cannot fail. We can come to see that we are never alone, but always are in the presence of Jesus, both in good times and in bad, finding peace when we turn our lives over to him.