Let us open our hearts and our minds in the spirit of prayer:
In the stillness of the morning,
in the hush and the pulse
of all that surrounds us,
we call on you, O God.
We call on you knowing
that you have already met us here.
We call on you believing
that you have already brought us here.
We call on you knowing that you will carry us,
we who carry so much.
You are present to us, O God.
Help us be present to you,
through Jesus Christ
our companion and guide.
(Sharing Our Burdens, July 3, 2011, United Church of Christ, adapted)
Matthew’s Gospel, from which today’s lesson comes, recounts the joys and challenges of Jesus’ life and ministry. From the beginning of his public ministry, Jesus invited others to follow him, learn from him, and share in spreading the good news of God’s commonwealth. This was not a passive undertaking. The requirement for being a disciple of Jesus was not only to teach others through word and story but also to live the stories in compassionate and loving action. To be a follower of Jesus was to learn to live in community and act for the common good. It required compromise, collaboration and teamwork. It was not always easy. Followers of Jesus were often criticized and persecuted but Jesus encouraged them by saying, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” (Matt. 5:44) He also encouraged them to ask for what they needed for no one can do this difficult work alone. Jesus said, “Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be open for you.” (Matt. 7:7)
We know from Matthew, and other gospel accounts, how difficult a life of discipleship was. Matthew recalls Jesus saying, “I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.” (Matt. 10:16)
It is in this context that we hear the words of comfort and invitation from today’s gospel reading:
“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.”
This passage has been, for me, both comforting and challenging. The invitation to those who are feeling burdened to find rest and comfort with Jesus is very appealing. We all need rest from the burdens of daily life. It is the words in the next verse that I have always found challenging, “Take my yoke upon you…for my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” I’ve seen a lot of evidence in my life, and in the lives of others, that suggests that fulfilling our calling as followers of Christ is not easy and requires constant diligence and commitment.
I have long struggled with the concept of the yoke as a metaphor for Christian service and ministry. My image of a yoke has been something that is heavy and binding and used as a means of forced servitude with beasts of burden or slaves. I don’t know about you but seeing myself as a beast of burden or a slave is not an appealing image. With this in mind, I set about this week to work toward a deeper understanding of what Jesus may have meant by this reference of putting his yoke upon his disciples.
With some research, I discovered that throughout the Hebrew Scriptures the term yoke was used metaphorically to refer to the Law and the Torah. The ancient Mediterranean world was largely agriculturally based and the image of a yoke was something that was familiar to everyone. Following the Jewish religious Law as outlined in the Torah was difficult – like wearing a yoke – but it had rewards. The wearing of a yoke was likened to an outward sign of an inward relationship with God. By following the laws of the covenant, each person was testifying to an inward devotion and practice of holiness within their daily lives.
(Think and let Think, by Taylor Mertins, taylormertins.wordpress.com)
We know from biblical accounts that Jesus was deeply influenced by the lessons of his Jewish faith tradition but that he did not follow the stringent and strict letter of Jewish religious law. Jesus followed the “spirit of the law” as revealed in the wisdom of the prophets and through divine revelation. Some indications of this are found in Matthew’s Gospel when Jesus says, “In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.” (Matt. 7:12) and “ ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and the first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.’ ” (Matt. 22:37-40)
When Jesus invites others to come to him and take his yoke upon them he also invites them to learn from him. He reassures them that he is gentle and humble of heart. His followers are to follow his ways and work together. When he says his yoke is easy and his burden is light it is because no one is expected to carry any burden alone. Jesus is very relational. Living in community requires “give and take” and a sharing of responsibilities.
Some scholars maintain that a better translation for the Greek word, “chrestos” is not easy but rather suitable or well-fitting. In Jesus’ day, a yoke for oxen was custom made to fit the particular animals who would wear it. Two oxen were paired together – one experienced and one a beginner. They learned to work together as a team and the yoke acted as guidance that kept them working together. As they worked as a team the load was lessened by their combined effort. Keeping this in mind, the yoke of Christ can be understood not as a burden but rather as mentoring and the sharing of his ministry with others.
I read and article this week in which author and theologian Jan Richardson says,
“How might it be to imagine this as the kind of yoke that Jesus was talking about, a yoke that we don’t have to pull alone, a yoke that he wears with us? A yoke not for servitude, not for bondage, but a tool of connection, a way of being in relationship with Christ that makes our work easier, not more difficult. It’s this kind of relationship, this connection with the Christ who labours alongside us, that makes it possible to go into the complicated realms…So closely connected with Christ, it becomes more possible to discern how to move in directions that will provide energy and wisdom. …I wonder if perhaps what Christ meant is not that walking with him is uncomplicated but rather that when we focus on our relationship with him, the road opens before us with less resistance and less striving on our part.” (paintedprayerbook.com/2008/07/02/if-the-yoke-fits, Jan L. Richardson)
Another comment that I read noted that, “Jesus may be saying that his yoke fits us well – it is suitable for our human condition and abilities. Perhaps like a couple ‘who are made for each other’ – being good and kind to each other is not a chore, but a natural and gracious response to the other.” (www.crossmarks.com/brian/matt11x16.htm)
This idea of the good that comes from gracious interdependence is an important value in Christian community. The apostle Paul, describes it not in terms of a yoke but as being members of the body of Christ. Each member being significant and contributing to the health and proper functioning of the whole body.
As I was thinking about all of this I came across an article, quite by accident, that put flesh on these ideas for me. In 1995, twin girls named Brielle and Kyrie were born 12 weeks ahead of their due date. They needed intensive care and were placed, as was the medical practice of the day, in separate incubators. Kyrie began to gain weight and her health stabalized but Brielle, who was only 2 lbs at birth had trouble breathing and had heart problems and other complications. The sad fact was that despite the best medical care available, Brielle was not expected to live.
The medical staff did everything they could think of to improve Brielle’s chances of survival but nothing seemed to work. Less than a month after their birth, Brielle suddenly went into critical condition, unable to breathe properly, and her legs and arms turned a bluish-gray. The nurse attendant, Gayle Kasparian, tried everything to stabilize Brielle but nothing was working. Finally in an act of desperation Kasparian went against hospital policy and placed Brielle in the same incubator as her twin, Kyrie.
As soon as she was beside her twin, Brielle began to calm and within a few minutes her blood-oxygen readings improved and she slept. The next check of the twins found Kyrie with her arm draped over Brielle. Kasparian discovered that Brielle’s heart rate had stabalized and her temperature was normal. After some time, and much care, Brielle and Kyrie’s parents were able to bring home their healthy baby girls. (http://www.trendguardian.com/2013/05/the-rescuing-hug-hug-that-changed.html)
When I saw a picture of the twins, with Kyrie’s arm over Brielle’s shoulder, I felt I finally understood the meaning of a yoke that meets the human need for touch, closeness, relationship, and caring. That picture – you can imagine it – has become for me symbolic of the tender yoke of Christ that I now embrace with new understanding. At the close of our worship service today, we’ll be singing “We Have This Ministry” by Jim Strathdee. Words in the last verse say, “The yoke of Christ is ours, the whole world is our parish; we daily take the cross, the burden and the joy. …We have this ministry, O God, receive our loving.” (Voices United # 510)
May God bless us,
this day and in the days to come
as we share the yoke of Christ’s ministry together.