Sunday, July 09, 2017

The Yoke Jesus Offers

Fifth Sunday after Pentecost – Proper 9 (Year A)
Romans 7.15-25a; Matthew 11.16-19, 25-30
St. Gregory’s, Long Beach

“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Mt 11.28-30).

This well-known passage is at the same time comforting and maybe a little confusing. Comforting because many of us can relate to being weary and carrying heavy burdens – work, family obligations, health issues, relationship issues. Comforting because of Jesus’ promise of rest. But at the same time, it is a little cryptic. In order to obtain this promised rest, Jesus asks that we take on his yoke. How can taking on a yoke, an additional burden, bring rest? He says the yoke is easy, the burden is light. But how?

This passage would have had a great deal of meaning to Jesus’ Jewish audience. In the Jewish tradition, the yoke represented the wisdom of the Torah. Sirach, also known as the Book of Ecclesiasticus, implores the reader to “Put your neck under her yoke, and let your souls receive instruction; it is to be found close by” (Sir 51:26). The yoke is a rabbinic metaphor for the difficult yet fulfilling, even joyous, task of obedience to the Torah. The yoke is used to describe the Law as assisting in the path through life. But in the context in which these words were originally spoken, Jesus is reaching out to all who are burdened by the oppressive demands of the scribes and Pharisees and their onerous interpretation of the Law. In contrast, a response to Jesus’ call will bring them “rest” or salvation. Jesus is essentially saying to throw off the yoke of oppression imposed by the strict adherence to the Law as advocated by the scribes and the Pharisees. And in return, take on another yoke that he offers.

Great, just what the people need – to throw off the oppression of one yoke, only to take on another. After all, a yoke is still just that. A yoke. A burden to be carried on our shoulders.

But Jesus’ choice of imagery is very significant, even poignant. When we hear this passage, we generally think of an ox with a heavy wooden yoke placed on his shoulders, pulling a plow or a cart. But that is not the image that Jesus was seeking to convey. A yoke is a device that is not generally used on a single ox, but on a pair of oxen, plural. This casts the imagery in a different light. Although people in our day and age with little or no connection to farming methods of the past normally consider a yoke a heavy burden borne by the oxen, this is actually far from the truth.

The yoke is very carefully carved and tailored to fit the two animals to be yoked together. It must be strong enough to hold them together so the less dominant animal cannot wiggle around and get injured. And it must fit precisely so that it does not chafe or damage either animal. The yoke is a blessing to the weaker, younger, or less attentive animal because the dominant one calms him and keeps him at the task at hand instead of wandering off task and potentially getting in trouble. Or worse yet, harming itself or its partner. Furthermore, by keeping the less attentive animal calm and focused on the task at hand, he is also spared punishment for the errors he would otherwise make. This in turn helps the dominant animal because his companion’s efforts are focused on the task at hand. It lightens the work to be done. With the use of the yoke, the more dominant animal guides the less dominant one, teaching it how to properly do the work that needs to be done. The work that is shared by the two.

This understanding of how the yoke works – how the yoke eases the work to be done – casts Jesus’ comments in a different light. “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

However, the easy yoke of Jesus is not an invitation to an easy life. It is a shared yoke, with Jesus helping us with our burdens – made easier and lighter precisely because we’re not alone in carrying the burden. Just like the yoke on oxen, Jesus’ yoke provides support, protection, and guidance. Jesus helps support the weight of our burdens. He guides us in right living and in the performance of our own work on behalf of God’s kingdom. Just as the yoke ties together two beasts of burden, Christians do not walk alone, but are tied to Christ and to one another. We are thus brought from a solitary effort to a common effort. Yoked to Christ, we are joined to the source of his strength and wholeness in all we do.

And more importantly, Jesus protects us from the injury or damage that could be caused by wandering off the path into wrong behavior or action – namely, sin. He protects us from the punishment of sin. And even more importantly, he takes care of the really heavy lifting. He takes on the burden of our sins, forgiving them so that is one burden we don’t have to carry, that we never have to carry. He has insured new and eternal life for all, so that we don’t have to worry about what comes next.

Of course, this does not mean we can coast. We have our part to play in the work to be done – the work of building the Kingdom of God. We are partners with Jesus in that work. And we are partners with one another, as we are all yoked together in this missionary endeavor.

We often think that Jesus’ yoke means that the only way to please God is to load ourselves down with all sorts of additional burdens – good deeds, pure thoughts, blameless lives, perfect obedience, adherence to laws and commandments. That’s not what the yoke is about. It is about teaching and guiding us so that we are slowly trained to work in harmony with Jesus and one another – all the while, with him carrying the larger share, the heavier load. The yoke of Jesus does not require us taking on any additional burden. The yoke of Jesus requires nothing more than for us to simply step into it and become part of a team – a team that lifts and lightens the burdens we already carry. And the more we are yoked together, the lighter the burden becomes.

So what is this yoke? The yoke Jesus asks that we take on is merely to love him, and to obey his commandments to love God and to love our neighbors. That’s it. Pretty simple, really. Jesus’ teachings and what is required to walk in his ways are not meant to be onerous. Rather they are meant to provide a guide for healthy, balanced living, a guide to keep us on the right path, focused on what is truly important. And when we focus on what is truly important, focus on God and mutual care of others, all the extraneous burdens in our life begin to drop by the wayside, or at the very least they don’t seem so heavy.

The invitation to rest and an easy yoke are not invitations to a life of ease, but of deliverance from the artificial burdens of human religion, which create a barrier to the true fellowship of the Kingdom of God. Rest is a synonym for salvation, associated with the Kingdom of God and eternal life.

Paul speaks to this in his letter to the Romans. He uses the metaphor of slavery to describe the powerful domination of sin. This is implied in our Epistle reading for today. And most explicitly, is stated in the sentence that, while not in today’s reading, immediately follows. “So then, with my mind I am a slave to the law of God, but with my flesh I am a slave to the law of sin” (Rom 7.25b). Paul sums up his self-reflection with the words, “Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Rom 7.24-25a). He gives thanks to God through Jesus Christ, who brings deliverance from this form of slavery, brings our salvation, setting us free from sin and death. This is the salvation that Jesus refers to when he says, “Take my yoke upon you . . . and you will find rest for your souls.”

To those who recognize their need for salvation, Jesus comes with an invitation, offering comfort, to lift life’s burdens and to provide rest for the weary soul. The same invitation is issued to us. As indicated in the middle of today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus’ invitation has particular power and weight because of his standing alongside and in solidarity with the ungodly, the gluttons and the drunkards, the outcasts and sinners, the tax collectors, and the marginalized. In his time, he bore their condemnation for merely associating with them. He knows the burdens they face. And this solidarity extends to all who are marginalized in any way – be it in small ways or great. Jesus extends the invitation to all, regardless of who we might be, regardless of what we might have done or not done. In this, he chooses to reveal God’s gracious love, offering a yoke that is not a burden like the rest of life, but one that is easy and whose burden is light.

As a parish family, we are all yoked together, helping each other with the work of building the Kingdom in this place. We help to carry each other’s burdens, we help to protect each other, and we help to guide each other. Together, with Jesus as our partner, we are living proof that his yoke is indeed easy, making our burdens light.

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