Today’s Gospel reading has got me thinking a lot about yokes. Being a city girl, I had to go to the dictionary to find out exactly what a yoke is. I knew a yoke was wooden and heavy and went around an animal’s neck. What I did not realize, is that a yoke is used to join two animals together, so they can work together to pull or push something heavy.
So, what does Jesus mean when he encourages us to take his yoke upon us?
The invitation Jesus issues, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens. . .” is right out of parts of the Old Testament known as Wisdom literature. In Wisdom Literature, such as the books of Proverbs and Ecclesiastes, the reader is invited to take on the yoke of wisdom as a way of living his or her life well.
In Wisdom literature, wise behavior is behavior that is obedient to Jewish law. To yoke yourself to wisdom is to yoke yourself to the law. When Jesus invites us to yoke ourselves to him, he’s describing himself as a new kind of law, a law that is gentle and gives rest.
Now, not too many of us at Emmanuel are observant followers of Jewish law, so how is Jesus’ yoke good news for us?
I believe, without our even fully realizing it, our society has asked us to buy into a kind of Wisdom that is just as oppressive as the strictest Jewish law, without any of the spiritual benefits.
We can see the tenets of our society’s Wisdom when we watch commercials on television. If they were written into proverbs, they might sound something like this:
Foolish is the man whose financial advisor is not his best friend.
Wise is the woman who injects her face with poison so she can look 25.
Happy is the couple with expensive furniture and really good lighting.
Blessed are the children who make straight As, score 1500 on their SATs, and play varsity sports.
You get the idea. My favorite new commercials are the ones for L’Oreal men’s products. For a long time it was only us women who were constantly warned about the dangers of (gasp) wrinkles. I am happy to report that you men are now supposed to exfoliate, and wear moisturizers and sunscreens. Now maybe you’ll understand why it takes us so long to get ready!
Our society wants us yoked to an ideal version of ourselves that is impossible to live up to. It is no wonder there are also so many ads for anti-depressants and anti-anxiety medication.
No amount of money will ever satisfy our deepest longings. No amount of exercising, dieting, moisturizing or make-up will ever shape us into the kind of person who is content and at peace. And no matter how programmed and brilliant our children are, there is no way we can protect them from having their hearts broken.
So Jesus says to us, “Come to me, all you who 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.”
Life is hard. Life is full of imperfection, challenge, disappointment. The wisdom our society offers us will never change that. Our society says that we have to carry the burden ourselves. Our society says, the yoke is our responsibility-and we’re not pulling hard enough. Our society says, not only do we have to accept this yoke, but we have to look young and beautiful while we do it.
Jesus offers us a radical alternative. Jesus slips into the extra hole of our yoke and starts pulling the weight for us. He says, “Hey, forget about being perfect. It is not going to happen. Why don’t you quit trying for awhile and just let me take a turn.”
That is a refreshing invitation, isn’t it?
Here’s the thing-even if Jesus were to literally walk in here and offer to carry our yokes for us, 80% of us would say, “Oh, thanks, Jesus, that’s really nice. But I’ve got it.” We are so conditioned to being independent that we don’t really know what to do when Jesus, or the church, offers to help us.
We have so bought into the perfection mythology of our culture that we are afraid to look weak or vulnerable. We would rather present the image of a perfect family than to confess there are problems at home. We would rather smile and be polite in church than weep because we feel so out of control. We’re afraid to take time to be alone to pray or journal, because we don’t really want to be in touch with our inner life.
Letting Jesus take the yoke is an act of radical courage, not weakness. Letting Jesus take the yoke is a bold statement that we believe our salvation truly belongs to God, not to our own efforts.
The beauty of this act of faith, of allowing Jesus to come alongside of us, is that it frees us to be who we truly are-in all our beautiful fragility.
I leave you with Jesus’ invitation one last time. I invite you to live with this as a prayer, let it sink into your heart: “Come to me, all you who 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”