(Zechariah 9.9-12, Psalm 145.8-15 , Matthew 11.16-19, 25-end)
In the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Anyone involved with farming, and traditional agricultural tools, as many of Christ’s original audience would have been, would know yokes are not particularly easy or light for the creatures that bear them.
So what is Jesus talking about?
I think that in this Gospel we see two facets of Jesus at the same time; the living Word of God, otherwise known as Wisdom, and Jesus the carpenter.
When we read the Gospels often we find ourselves focusing on one aspect of Jesus – God or man. But today we have a parable of wisdom, about the spirit of God’s law, in the form of a piece of wood, in the hands of a craftsman who made such items.
Imagine this yoke – this is not an abstract concept to Jesus. He knew how to make this important piece of equipment. His hands carved such items, smoothing raw materials into something with purpose. He spoke as one who knew its true weight. That always takes my breath away, when the Gospel speaks of Jesus in this way, and you realise that this was his life.
Before those years of preaching and teaching, this was the man, hands on pieces of wood, carving, moulding, working. And then he took all that knowledge and experience, and he used to it explain the mystery and glory of God to the ordinary people he met.
And this easy yoke? Well, the word ‘easy’ in Greek is chrestos, which can mean well-fitting. Imagine Jesus standing in the carpenter’s workshop. The ox has been brought to the yard to be measured, and the owner and animal went away whilst the yoke was roughly carved. The ox was then brought back to have the yoke carefully adjusted so that it would fit well, and not chafe the neck of the animal. The yoke was tailor-made to fit the ox.
So Jesus is was saying that God approaches us with a life and way of being that is custom made for us.
Another way of thinking about this is that the yoke often connected two animals. They would then work better as a team, keeping pace with one another, which would mean the ploughing or pulling would be even.
Sometimes when life is being particularly tough and people don’t know what to say, one the phrases that can get trotted out is that ‘God never gives us more than we can take’. A phrase often meant well, but not terribly helpful at the time.
But actually this easy yoke is what lies at the heart of that sentiment. There is nothing in the scriptures that says believing in God will make life become some fluffy utopia. There will be difficult times, not because God uses difficulties to test us but because that is the nature of being alive. God doesn’t give us life to cause us pain. But life is easier when we don’t try to carry the weight on our own, and Jesus shows us that when we learn from him, the burden is given and carried in love, and is always light.
What if we were to imagine ourselves yoked to Jesus?
What if we had to conform to and be shaped by his pace, his life?
What if we worked as a team with Jesus, and didn’t try to go it alone?
Not only might we be radically transformed, we might also realise that Jesus is there with us all the time, helping to take the weight of the yoke for us, and that is the moment when we know we have found rest for our souls.
(Artwork: ‘Yoke of Oxen’ by Joseph E Crawhall)