The American sociologist Charles Wright Mills once wrote that ‘many whips are inside men, who do not know how they got there or indeed that they are there.’ He is alluding to the whole array of forces, both internally and externally, that shapes our behaviour. ‘No man is an island’ as the old saying goes and none of us are untouched by the world we live in. Even our Lord Jesus was influenced by the society he lived in. He spoke a particular language and adhered to certain political, social and religious norms.
If as Mills suggests, there are many whips inside of men, the question of who is cracking them needs to be asked. Who or what is cracking the whip in our lives? What person, thing or habit are we slaves to? That we have masters is undeniable. Who those masters are can be challenged. Jesus says ‘no one can be the slave of two masters.’ By situating himself as Master among masters, He acknowledges the whole plethora of forces acting on us. Those who say ‘I am my own master’ fail to appreciate this. Many in our time reject all authority, seeing it as an imposition on their freedom. They plough ahead, enslaved by a flawed and unattainable notion of individual autonomy.
However, in a very real sense, we are like that horse St. James speaks of. We have the bit in our mouth, directing all our subsequent movements (James 3:3). The question is who do we want to be at the reins, guiding us to our end? Who can we trust with the unique and delicate gift of our lives? This is where we exercise our freedom, our agency. The stakes are high. Jesus is challenging us to let Him lead. It is the pagans of today’s Gospel we are told, who are slaves to all sorts of temporal desires but we as believers are told that life is more than this. Elsewhere in the Scriptures Jesus teaches that ‘the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath’ (Mark 2:27). In a similar way in relation to today’s Gospel passage it can be said that food and clothes are at the service of people, not the other way round. The course is for the horse, not the horse for the course.
There are so many whips working on us in our modern world, lashing tirelessly, desperate to prevent us from looking beyond creation to the Creator. So many people think of life as a given and yet strangely, not as a gift. Of course, whips are nothing new to the people of God. Did not the Israelites escape their tormentors in Egypt to enjoy the freedom of the Promised Land? Did not Christ endure the scourging of His tormentors and die on the cross before rising to new life on Easter Sunday? This is our journey today also. It is a journey through the Red Sea, by way of the cross of Calvary, from death to life. Let us cast off the yoke of our oppressors, whoever or whatever they are in our lives, and shoulder the load of Him whose ‘yoke is easy and whose burden is light’ (Matthew 11:30). It is only in this gentle mastery of Christ that we find true rest for our souls.
Gospel Reflection for 8th Sunday in Ordinary Time – Year A (Matthew 6: 24-34)