Jesus said, “Come to me, all you who are struggling hard and carrying heavy loads, and I will give you rest. Put on my yoke, and learn from me. I’m gentle and humble. And you will find rest for yourselves. My yoke is easy to bear, and my burden is light.”
Let me begin by telling you something you already know. It has been a very hot week! Hot for Northern Wisconsin anyway. So, when it comes to working in my gardens, I’ve had to adopt a new strategy. I get up early and frantically hoe and pull weeds before it gets too hot. It’s suffice to say that gardening has become more difficult because of the heat. But here’s the thing. I still love it! Even though it’s become more difficult this week, I’m not going to give up on my vegetables.
In our gospel passage from Matthew today, Jesus invites us to adopt a new strategy when the burdens of life become heavy, when the yoke we bear seems to become unbearable, when the cost of discipleship seems too costly. Rachel Held Evans put it this way. “The yoke is hard because the teachings of Jesus are radical,” she writes, “…enemy love, unconditional forgiveness, extreme generosity. [But] The yoke is easy because it is accessible to all: the studied and the ignorant, the rich and the poor, the religious and the nonreligious.”
Jesus invites all of us who are weary and bearing heavy burdens to find rest in him. Not just those who are members of a church, not just the righteous, or the self-righteous as the case may be, but all who are weary and carrying a heavy burden are welcome. There’s no price to be paid, no creed to repeat, no doctrine to memorize. Perhaps it’s this universal invitation to sabbath that makes this one of the most beloved passages from the Gospel of Matthew. But, that being said, the contrast that I see in this passage has always been interesting to me. There’s a contrast or a tension here between resting and working, between heavy and light, between wearing the burdensome yoke of the world verses the easy yoke of Jesus.
Now, this is, for obvious reasons, a common passage used in celebration of life services. Our loved one has cast off the burdens of this life and now rests in eternity. That’s a valid and reassuring way to view this passage. But if we look at this passage within its immediate context, we soon come to realize that Matthew is really teaching us about discipleship. And this is where these contrasting images of yoke enter the picture.
But before we get into all that, I think we need to take a moment to talk about yokes. I would be willing to bet that most of us have never seen, let alone felt the weight of a yoke. For the younger ones watching or if you’re not a student of historical agricultural tools, a yoke was a large, wooden, I would say “harness” for lack of a better word, that went over the backs of either one or two animals, usually mules or oxen, so a farmer could plow his fields or pull a wagon. It would have been very heavy and very cumbersome to move around and especially difficult to lift up onto the animals backs.
So, the first impression that we’re intended to get here is one of a heavy, burdensome weight dragging us down. And not coincidentally, that’s sometimes the impression we get when we think about discipleship. The connotation of the word itself drips of weighty commitment to working for the benefit of others, no matter the personal cost, no matter the sacrifice. And I would submit that if we try to “do” discipleship by ourselves, alone, it can become just that, burdensome, like a heavy yoke.
But the thing about a yoke is that it both restrains and enables. It’s simultaneously a burden and a possibility. So, the question confronting all of us is this: which yoke will we put on? The heavy, lonely one or will we share the burden with others and with God?
Well, Matthew, here in the 11th chapter of his account, invites us to choose the latter. He invites us to discover a better way of “doing” discipleship. A way that invites us to view discipleship through the lens of two Great Commandments, loving God and loving our neighbor as ourselves. And when we do that, when we view our responsibilities as people of faith through the lens of love, the yoke becomes gentle, not burdensome or wearying, but light, easy, and pleasant.
But can it really be that simple? In these days of distrust, division and disease, can we really find unity by sharing the burdens of society and by shouldering the yoke of these troubling times, together? In a word, yes. Yes we can. You see, that’s the enduring wisdom of this text and that’s the enduring wisdom of the garden. You see, a successful garden needs to be weeded, often. But if you let the weeds get away from you, in the end, your yield will be diminished. Well, the same it true as we think about reaching out to others with grace and compassion, sharing the love of God with our neighbor. The definition of discipleship. But if we don’t tend to our discipleship, if we don’t tend to the needs of our neighbor, and if we don’t tend to our personal spiritual health, our love for others will be diminished, like the yield of an untended garden.
But if we are willing to put in the work. If we are willing to cultivate justice, if we are willing to propagate peace, and if we are willing to do this work side by side and hand in hand with others in our community, the yield will be plentiful. Because I am utterly convinced, that showing grace yields more grace, that compassion when shared, expands beyond the limits of our imagination, that love comes back 100fold, and finally, that non-violent resistance leads to positive change. My friends, when we take-on of the yoke of Jesus in community, together, the burden of the world become light.
May it be so. Amen.
Katheryn Matthews. Reflection on Matthew 11 (www.ucc.org/samuel/seeds) 2020