July 9, 2017 Sermon
Genesis 24:34-38, 42-49, 58-67/ Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30
The Yoke That We Lift Together
When we live to be my age, and more so, your ages, I think we gain enough experience with different human relationships. We have met and dealt with enough people in our lives; be it friends, coworkers, family members, romantic partners, or mere acquaintances. We have enough experience with people to be able to say that some of those relationships were easy and some were more difficult than others. We have experienced that with some people, we click immediately, and with others, relationship needs hard work. When we click and become close easily with someone, we call each other kindred spirits or soul mates. When we click, we understand that our relationships were meant to be, and when we meet someone with whom the relationship is difficult and too much work, we understand that we are not compatible.
The stories we read today are about relationships. First, we read about Isaac getting a wife. Abraham’s wife Sarah dies in Genesis chapter 23, and at the beginning of chapter 24, Abraham calls his old servant to make him swear that he would get a wife for Isaac from his relatives’ land, not in Canaan where they lived. So, the old servant went to Aram-naharaim, the land of Abraham’s relatives. He says a prayer for God to guide him to the young lady who shall marry Isaac. This is how he meets Rebekah, the daughter of Bethuel, Abraham’s nephew. To our discomfort, our ancestors in faith, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and their family all married their relatives. Also to our discomfort, they married partners they had never met before, but these relationships are understood as God’s matchmaking; they were bound by God and their union was God’s will. In our traditional wedding ceremony, we proclaim that the union was made by God, and that no human shall separate them. We understand that our union was made by God… ideally, that is.
Think about the relationships and marriages that we experience and witness in our society. During wedding ceremonies, couples make vows to love and care for each other no matter what; but some marriages thrive seemingly easily while others struggle hard and/ or fall apart. I once heard that love should not have to be too much hard work. I believe that relationships that are meant to be, whether it is a romantic relationship or a friendship, do not require too much work and effort. It doesn’t mean we don’t need to put any work into our relationships; it means relationships that are meant to be don’t feel like a burden, which leads us to Jesus’ analogy of the yoke.
Being a city person, I didn’t know what a yoke was until I studied this text in the gospel. Jesus says, “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 light.” These verses have been used to bring comfort to a lot of Christians when their life problems felt overwhelming, but those of us who are like me and don’t know what a yoke is might not fully understand this saying. First thing to point out; Jesus was mostly speaking to Jews who were burdened by the many commandments and obligations of the Jewish Law. A lot of observant Jews perceive the Jewish Law as a burden. You will understand this if you have ever read the book of Leviticus, which is the “law book”. The complexity of the Jewish Law may get in your way of finding a meaningful relationship with God, if you are obsessed with every little commandment. That is why Jesus, while claiming that he didn’t come to abolish the law in Matthew 5:17, teaches us to honour the spirit of the Law rather than becoming obsessed with every word of the law. For example, when Jewish leaders challenged Jesus for not respecting the Sabbath law, Jesus responds by saying, “Sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath.” Jesus taught we should embrace the spirit of the Law, which is love, compassion, and justice, instead of obsessing over the words of the law. A lot of Jewish people during Jesus’ time not only obsessed over every word of their law, but also became judgemental toward others for their different ways, a reality on which we glimpsed when we heard Jesus criticize “this generation” for calling John the Baptist mad for not eating or drinking, and then calling Jesus gluttonous for eating and drinking. Those whose spirit is not liberated cannot hear the truth of God no matter how it comes to them. Clearly, Jesus’ audience had difficulty having a meaningful relationship with God. This saying about the yoke was originally meant to spiritually liberate Jews burdened by the Jewish Law and to invite them into a comforting and meaningful relationship with God.
Second thing to point out is the analogy of the yoke. Yoke is designed to put two oxen together so they can work as one. For this efficiency, yokes were custom-made to fit well. But no matter how well it fits the oxen, it is still a heavy thing. When Jesus says, “My yoke is easy”, the Greek word we translated as “easy” is crestos, which can mean ‘well-fitting’. He is saying to us, “The life I give you is not a burden to gall you; your task is measured to fit you.” Of course, what life throws at us in our discipleship journey sometimes feels overwhelming, so you might wonder if it’s really “well-fitting” to us. And I’m not even going to repeat the Christian cliché “God only gives us what we can handle” because sometimes we get angry hearing this, when our life’s problems are overwhelming. The yoke offered by Jesus is easy because of love.
Here’s a little story for you; A man came upon a little boy carrying a still smaller boy on his back, who was lame. “That’s a heavy burden for you to carry,” said the man. “That’s no’ a burden, sir,” said the boy. “That’s my wee brother.”. The yoke we were given as the children of God and followers of Jesus is a yoke of relationship. God’s kingdom, the community of the disciples, is the yoke we were called to bear together. We are in a way like oxen wearing the same yoke to work together. Yoke is heavy, but when we lift it together with love, it feels lighter. The burden which is given in love and carried in love is always light, as we have seen in the little story I just told you. The yoke and burden that we face in our lives may not really be easy and light; but we make it lighter by helping each other carry our yokes with love. Whatever happens in our lives together as the members of God’s kingdom, we lift the burdens together with love; we make each other’s burden lighter with the love of Jesus to whom we are connected. We love each other with the love we learned from Jesus. One of the Korean proverbs says, “Even a sheet of paper is easier if we lift it together.”
This is the yoke Jesus put upon us; that we be a community and love each other with his love. The challenges we face in life become lighter when we help each other bear them. So, let us be oxen partners, family members to each other who lift our yokes together. Now for a little teaser spoiler bit; next Sunday, we will continue this talk of lifting our yokes together, so stay tuned.
Rev. Sunny Kim