The Yoke of Jesus

Lessons for Proper 9A: Genesis 24:34-38, 42-49, 58-67; Psalm 45: 11-18; Romans 7:15-25a; Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30

When I was living in Italy, I had the chance to explore the town where my grandfather grew up, Montenerodomo, in Italy’s central highlands. While there I went to the family farm, or at least part of the family farm, where my grandfather spent his early years. The farm, as it happened, was split up long ago and I’m under no impression that the buildings were anything that my grandfather would have known. But I went anyway, just on a lark, to see if I might be allowed to walk around. I knocked on the farmhouse door. To my pleasant surprise, someone answered. It was Massimo, the current tenant, who said that he would be happy to show me around and that I could walk and wander as long as I liked.

As part of the tour, Massimo brought me to the old barn, built right after World War 2, when the Americans kicked out Mussolini and the Germans, spitting on the ground at Mussolini’s name as an effective demonstration of his disgust. Massimo brought me into the barn where, off in the corner, there were two donkeys eating at the hay. I asked him what their names were. “Consola e Gioa,” he answered. (“Comfort and joy!”) He volunteered that those two donkeys had been his helpers for 20 years, pulling the plow and helping with the harvest of the famous Italian semolina wheat that Massimo grew on his small patch of land. The donkeys did the work, Massimo explained, because the land was so rocky and undulating that using a tractor was actually more difficult. 

Anyway, there were those two donkeys, Consola e Goia, standing there in the corner, and hanging next to them was an old wooden yoke. Have you ever seen a yoke? This was my first time seeing a real yoke. I was fascinated and went over to investigate. Massimo beamed! He took the double yoke and placed it over the donkeys necks. Almost immediately, even without any other pieces in places, the donkeys came alert, and stook side-by-side ready for their work. The yoke fit amazingly well on those donkeys, conforming to the contours of their bodies. 

Massimo explained that it took time to fit that way but that eventually the yoke fit just right – the animals’ muscles and the wood of the yoke forming for each other

The Yoke of the Law
The lesson taken from Matthew’s gospel today has a bit of a different tenor from what we have been hearing from Jesus over the past few weeks. Lately, in our Sunday lectionary the lessons from Matthew’s gospel, the talk has been about the dear cost for those who choose to follow Jesus: persecution, conflict, suffering, and division. Discipleship is not, it seems, for the faint of heart. In today’s message, the tone of the language seems to change as we hear the promise of rest and comfort, light burdens and easy yokes. Now, while the gentle master is more to our liking, the words of Jesus are not perhaps what they seem on the surface. 

Now, in order to truly understand what Jesus is getting at here, we first have to understand who Jesus is directing this teaching toward. And, in order to understand that, we have to understand the metaphor of the yoke. In the Old Testament, the word “yoke” is used sixty-four times, and there is, as is usual, an evolution of meaning and number of interrelated concepts at play.  Four broad strokes can be made as the Jewish tradition of “yoke” unfolds:

  1. “Yoke” is used to refer to its original agricultural context, as an instrument used to help animals do their work (Deut. 22:10; 1 Sam 6:10; et al).
  2. “Yoke,” with its source in the agricultural context, targets either Israel’s oppression at the hands of Egypt and Babylon or their self-imposed, voluntary servitude to the gods of their neighbors or their own kings (Gen. 27:40; Lev. 25:13; Num. 25:3; 1 Kings 12:4; 2 Chron. 10:11-12; Isa. 10:27; Jer. 27:2; et al). 
  3. Again with its source in the agricultural context but now also drawing from the previous metaphor, the Wisdom Literature, especially Ecclesiasticus (Wisdom of Ben Sirah), “yoke” is used to target the desired relationship that Israel should have with Wisdom, that mysterious personified figure that sits in counsel with the Lord (Eccl. 6:30-31; 30:13; 51:26). 
  4. Flowing from the same source, “yoke” in the Midrash would come symoblize  adherence to the covenant and law, with conversion referred to as “acceptance of the yoke of the commandments.” 

By the time of Jesus, “yoke” would be the main metaphor for the law, an allegory of living the covenant life. 

So, when we hear Jesus speaking these words today, we ought not to think of just any ordinary, everyday problem or difficulty. Jesus and biblical authors have all sorts of things to say about the ordinary stuff, and Jesus wants us to get that stuff right too. But, that’s just not what Jesus is talking about here. Instead, when Jesus says, 

Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.

Matthew 11:28, NRSV

Jesus is talking quite specifically to and about those who have been beset by the heavy yoke of the law; or, better, about those who are burdened by the demands of the Pharisees who’s interpretation and minutiae were impossible to live. In other words, Jesus is speaking to the spiritually and religiously exhausted – to those who, like Paul, have tried the usual ways of following the law only to achieve frustration.

The Yoke that Jesus Rejects
This is the yoke that Jesus rejects: the yoke of the Pharisees, and their demands that you have to follow all of the strictures of the law exactly right in order to be counted significant and remain in God’s covenant love. Now, to be fair, many if not most of the Pharisees were probably good men with good intention trying to do their best. Matthew’s is, of course, a caricature; but, there seemed to have been enough truth to form a caricature. The Pharisees, it seems, had created a yoke – interpreted the law, made demands on covenant life, etc. – that were opressive, heavy, and wearisome.

Indeed, the “wise and intelligent” Pharisees missed the point. 

That yoke, the yoke of seeking God by keeping all the rules and by getting it right all the time leads those who wear it to be “weary” and “heavy laden.” People bearing this kind of yoke must live in constant fear of getting it wrong! Saint Paul was so weary of the yoke of the law that he called the body that tried to carry it the “body of death” (Romans 7:24b). Bearing that kind of yoke leads to a spiritual life bound by fearful obedience that is numb to the Spirit of life.

Think about the relationships that you have: with your children, with spouses, with friends even. If you were to say, “I love you but only if you do right, and do right all the time,” what kind of relationship would you have? For us or anyone to teach that God acts like divine love is conditional is terrible theology! And this was as true during the Exodus as it was in Jesus’ day as it is in our own time. Yet the yoke of the Law, at its worst, as it was in Jesus’ day, did just that. It taught that God’s love must be earned. Saint Paul, for one, struggled under such a yoke and discovered that it didn’t fit. 

Indeed, to engage in the notion that if we could only figure out the right way to act, the right words to say, or the right rituals to perform is to skate on the edge of magic, as if we could conjure up God’s presence. Such a way of life only leads to frenetic ritualism and dogmatic legalism that wearies the soul and burdens the spirit.  

Come to Me
In response to the yoke imposed by the Pharisees, Jesus says, “Come to me.” Jesus does not give a new interpretation or a hidden loophole, not a new book to read or a checklist to complete. Instead, Jesus says, “Come to me.” In essence, Jesus is saying that if you are seeking God and seeking after divine love, if you are seeking a life to make sense of the world, and if you want to be who you are created to be, then come to me. This is a call to relationship!

It is an invitation to a relationship with Jesus and with the community that is his body in this world, the community that continues Jesus’ life and ministry. We are reminded in today’s collect that Jesus taught that the commandments are summed by loving the Lord God with your whole heart, sould, and mind, and by loving our neighbors as ourselves (see Matthew 22:37-39). This is the yoke that Jesus offers. Notice that Jesus doesn’t say we won’t bear a yoke. Disciples of Jesus will bear a yoke but the yoke of Jesus is easy and the burden is light (see Matthew 11:30).

The English translation “easy” is perhaps unfortunate because it makes it sound like a lax life, with little expended effort or energy. Instead of “my yoke is easy,” the translators of the New English Bible have chosen “my yoke is good to bear.” This has some merit, I think, because the point is not that the invitation to a relationship with the Lord will make no difference and ask nothing of us. Rather, the point is that the yoke that Jesus offers fits! The yoke of love is the right size, and it leads to God – not to frustration and weariness. 

Ultimately, to come to Jesus is to come is to discover that life with God is not an earned reward, but a free gift. To come to Jesus is to discover, as Paul discovered, that “there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 8:1). To come to Jesus is to discover that the task of getting it all correct is replaced by the absolute gift of God’s abiding presence. All the stuff we heard over the past few weeks about the cost of discipleship is still very much there. Nevertheless, the yoke is good to bear because it leads to life. 

We are invited to this new yoke, to a person and a community built around that person. 

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.

Matthew 11:28-30

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