Learn from me

St Francis de Sales, was a great saint and a gentle man. In 1602, he was made Catholic Bishop of Geneva which was then the centre for extreme Calvinist protestants, and no easy ride for a Catholic. In that time of extreme religious divisions, St Francis received protestants as well as Catholics into his home. When he was insulted he responded with silence.

St Francis famously said, 'You will catch more flies with a spoonful of honey than with a hundred barrels of vinegar. If there were anything better or more beautiful on earth than gentleness, Jesus Christ would have taught it to us; and yet He has given us only two lessons to learn of Him — meekness and humility of heart.'

When Jesus says ‘Learn from me for I am gentle and humble of heart,’ he gives us an instruction: learn from me. But it is followed by a promise: learn from me and you will find rest for your souls.

How much more welcome these words of Jesus appear to be than those we heard last week: ‘if anyone would be a follower of mine, let him deny himself, take up his cross and follow me.’ That exhortation implies hardship and sacrifice, but rest for the soul is something far more attractive. We might call that 'serenity', being untroubled by the problems of life.

Jesus' other words, ‘my yoke is easy, my burden is light’ are also attractive. The people of Israel referred to the Law of God as, ‘the yoke’, a wooden crosspiece fixed to two animals, such as oxen, that enables them to pull a cart or a plough. The Jewish law contained 613 commandments which had to be kept. The Pharisees taught the people how they should be kept, but instead of making life easier, they made the law almost impossible to keep because of the complexity of their explanations. Jesus simplified the law. He saw it all through the prism of the great commandments, love God above all things, and treat other people as you wish to be treated yourself.

Though Jesus makes God’s law easy to understand, that does not mean that it is easy to live out, but we can do it by following his instruction to learn from him. He is the teacher, we are the students, the modern disciples of the master. We must learn from the example he set, and what he taught. It is remarkable how many of us who have been Christians for a long time fail to learn from the master.

A friend once criticised St Francis de Sales for his excessive gentleness, to which he replied, 'you would have me lose in one instant all the meekness I have been able to acquire by twenty years of efforts? I would rather account to God for too great gentleness than for too great severity. God the Father is the Father of mercy; God the Son is a Lamb;  God the Holy Ghost is a Dove; are you wiser than God? '

Some of us might identify more easily with the righteous anger of Jesus when he expels the money-changers, to justify our rage. Even St Francis de Sales when provoked by a hostile visitor who asked what he would do if he were to strike him on the cheek, replied, with his customary humility, 'Ah! I know what I should do, but I cannot be sure of what I would do.'

We can be eaten away by negative thoughts. When we are over-burdened with worry, do we come to the Lord in prayer, asking for him to help us? Or do we just soldier on, relying on our own strength?

To us, gentleness and meekness might be equated with weakness, but there was nothing weak about the forgiveness of Jesus of his enemies from the cross. That forgiveness came through extreme pain and a determination not to be defeated and brought down to their base level of hatred and spite.

We see the gentleness the Lord recommends in people who do not give their opinion unless it is asked for; in those who do not show dissatisfaction and displeasure with a sharp retort, but with a sigh  of disappointment; in those who do not brood on past events, but accept what has passed, and deal with it; we see it in those who do not seek revenge for an insult, but are ready to forgive.

When we behave in such ways, and nurture our relationships, we have learned from the Lord.

St Gregory Nazianzen, the fourth century archbishop of Constantinople was another saint who lived through times of turmoil. He wrote:

'we must overcome our enemies by gentleness; win them over by forbearance. Let them be punished by their own conscience, not by our wrath. We must not destroy the fig-tree from which a more skilful gardener may yet entice fruit.'