The Yoke’s on YOU

The Gospel this July weekend as we celebrate the country’s founding is interesting:

Matt 11:16 (NRSV) “But to what will I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to one another, 17 “We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn.’ 18 For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, “He has a demon’; 19 the Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, “Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ Yet wisdom is vindicated by her deeds.”

25 At that time Jesus said, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants; 26 yes, Father, for such was your gracious will. 27 All things have been handed over to me by my Father; and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.

28 “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. 29 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. 30 For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

In it Jesus proclaims individuals, the nation, the whole generation has come up short. Not the theme we usually have on this weekend on which we celebrate this country origins and values.

In the beginning of the Gospel passage Jesus  compare the people with children hearing songs  that are not understood by the hearer – a happy refrain does not bring about dancing and a sad refrain does not cause people to join in with the sorrow. Jesus is saying he was no better understood than was John the Baptizer or the prophets before him.

His prayer speaks to the way in which people tend to gravitate to the complex. We make things far harder than they need be. It is only those who are simple – “infants”  he calls them who get it. Jesus Gospel is not complex or especially detailed – love God and love neighbor –

As a society and nation we now make idols of ideologies and political philosophies more than we prize the values of the Gospel which undergirded the founding of the nation.  It is now more important to be liberal or conservative that it is to be compassionate, kind or caring. And the result is the political malaise and strife we see around us. Jesus saw a similar inability to understand the simple requirement of God to act in a radically loving and compassionate way.

This passage ends with an invitation to all… But to understand it we must recall that Jesus was a carpenter according to tradition. Unlike the tradesmen of today the carpenter was a peasant without land and quite poor. Carpenters did not build houses but worked in wood and other materials to make useful things for those who were land owners or who could barter food for work.

Among the things that would have been made from the precious wood were yokes for people, oxen or another beast of burden.  Have you ever tried to wear someone else’s clothing – it often doesn’t work especially with tailored or fitted clothes – as each of us is different. It is the same with oxen. It is important to have a yoke that fit. If it did not fit properly it would hurt the animal or person and then they would not be able to carry much of a load.

Yokes that were specifically designed for specific animals – made so that they would fit easily over their neck and not dig into the neck or shoulders.

A good fitting yoke helped the person with the burden being carried better and feeling lighter. Jesus the carpenter knew this. So it is one frame of reference when we hear his saying: Come to me all that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens and I will give you rest”

Then as now many carry burdens – sometimes physical, sometimes  emotional or spiritual. There isn’t one of us here who has not had some sort of burden to carry. The promise of rest is one we resonate to. But the rest is not what we might suspect. It is not sleep or taking it easy in a lounge chair. But rather a respite from the burdens.

A second meaning of yoke in Jesus context is the religious beliefs and teachings of a rabbi. That set of beliefs, practices and theological understandings was called the rabbi’s yoke. A follower of a rabbi who learned from the rabbi and carried on the tradition of teaching them was said to have taken on the rabbis yoke.

Jesus says “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me;  For my yoke is easy and my burden is light”

Jesus is talking about taking on a new yoke – one that fits us and helps us carry the burdens of life. Taking on his teachings and putting them into practice

Part of the burden that Jesus wanted to relieve his followers of was the heavy burden of religious rules and minutia of practice that was part of the religious practice of the day.  Jesus still wants to free us from all manner of religious law, customs, rules and ordinances – to set us free to love God and to act out of love towards all those with whom our lives interact.

There is quite a difference between the promise of Jesus and the promise of the institutional religion of Jesus’ day and ours…

The religious institutions then and now ask obedience to many rules;
Jesus says my burden is light.

The religious institutions often use guilt and shame to manipulate people to do what they want them to do – but said his goal was to set you free.

Representatives of the religious institutions say: “Repent your sins, and submit to our doctrines and our discipline.”
Jesus simply says: “Come to me.”

Jesus issues an invitation to all of us to come, to rest, to learn and then as we are ready to take upon ourselves a new yoke.  A yoke that asks us to use our strength to love and care –  A yoke in which Jesus himself promises to be there – sharing the burden – with us.



About don

The Rev Don Hill is an Episcopal priest, rail fan and writer. He and his wife the Rev. Dr. Nancy Woodworth-Hill are currently Co-Pastors of St Paul's Episcopal Church, Jeffersonville IN, in the Diocese of Indianapolis. They also work as parish consultants in Appreciative Inquiry, strategic planning and spirituality development for parishes and vestries.
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