Today’s readings (Fourteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time) present some contrasting images. The First Reading from the Book of the Prophet Zechariah (Zec 9:9-10) is a familiar passage because it is read on Palm Sunday. It paints a picture of a king coming into Jerusalem riding on a donkey, as Jesus did when he entered Jerusalem that first Holy Week and fulfilled this prophecy. The language is triumphal: “Rejoice! Shout aloud!” Yet, the image is not exactly what one thinks of as victory. Why would a king ride on a donkey? Additionally, this victorious king doesn’t bring the spoils of war in his train, as one would expect. Instead, he brings disarmament — no weapons — and a command of peace to the nations.

The paradox continues with today’s second reading from Saint Paul’s Letter to the Romans (Rom 8:9, 11-13). Saint Paul writes about the Spirit of God dwelling within every baptized Christian and states that we are not “in the flesh.” He does not mean that we are somehow disembodied once we are baptized into Christ. To be “in the flesh” means to “live according to the flesh,” that is, to focus one’s mind, energy and action upon earthly pleasures and satisfaction. These can be physical satisfactions and bodily cravings, such as food or sex; they can also be emotional, psychological or social, such as a disproportionate concern about the opinions or acceptance of others. All these categories focus on the self as the prime object of devotion. All of them, when treated as the goal of human activity, are dead ends, because human beings are made for more than just self-satisfaction. The invisible realities are far more important, but, being invisible, they are overlooked or frequently ignored in favor of any present craving.  “Living according to the flesh” drowns out a person’s capacity to truly know, love and serve God. In other words, it deadens a person’s capacity to live according to the greater, more profound capacities we have as persons, like pursuing truth and seeking what is good in justice and freedom. When we forget that and serve our bodies or emotions, we become unhappy, unfulfilled and restless.

What then is the remedy or the way out of focusing on the flesh? The king, riding on the donkey, gives us the answer. Jesus says in today’s gospel, “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” A yoke is a piece of farm equipment that is placed over the shoulders of two animals, such as a donkey and an ox. The purpose is to teach an untrained animal how to wear the harness and pull things, like a plow or a cart. By being tied to the other animal that is familiar with the yoke, the new animal learns how to be useful on the farm.

In the Judaism of Jesus’ time, the yoke was also an image for the teaching of the Law, which instructs human beings about the best way to live. Like the untrained farm animal, we have to learn what this looks like. We have to walk with someone who knows how to wear the yoke, that is, how to live uprightly. In so doing, our lives are transformed by finding their true meaning and purpose.

Therefore, when Jesus invites his disciples and all the hearers of the gospel to take his yoke upon them, He is inviting them to learn how to live as He does, according to the Law of the Spirit. More importantly, it means that He is walking with us, literally tied to us through the harness of the yoke, teaching us how to be truly free. This means living with our eyes fixed on the heavenly Father, Who is the true goal of all our striving and the fulfillment of all our deepest desires.