by Br Julian McDonald cfc
“At this time, Jesus exclaimed: ‘I give praise to you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, for although you have hidden these things from the wise and the learned, you have revealed them to the childlike.’…’Come to me, all you who labour and are burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me for I am meek and humble of heart; and you will find rest for yourselves. For my yoke is easy, and my burden light.’” Matthew 11: 25-30
I used to find today’s gospel-reading particularly puzzling until I went in search of how it fitted into its surroundings in Matthew’s Gospel. I discovered that what we read today has been lifted out of its context. Jesus had been frustrated, indeed exasperated, by the inflexibility of the Scribes and Pharisees who had turned the Jewish Law into a burden which they imposed on the people they were appointed to lead in the ways of God. To describe the burden the religious leaders imposed on ordinary people, Jesus used the metaphor of the yoke fitted on the necks of teams of oxen to keep them together when they were pulling carts or ploughs. Farmers followed the practice of having yoke makers carve wooden yokes to comfortably fit their ox teams or single beasts for those who had only one..
The religious leaders of Jesus’ day had turned their resistance to him and his teaching into something of an art-form. Consequently, Matthew introduced Chapter 11 of his Gospel with a picture of Jesus expressing his frustration by criticising the religious leaders, reminding them of how they had rejected John the Baptist and his teaching by labelling him as too severe. Matthew then has Jesus throwing up his hands in exasperation, and effectively saying: “With you lot, I just can’t win, for now you are labelling me as being too lax, describing me as “a glutton, a drunkard and a friend of tax-collectors and sinners”. (Matthew 11:19) In Jesus’ opinion their conduct was tantamount to childishness (cf Matthew 11: 16).
Matthew then describes Jesus as proceeding to lament the hardness and unbelief of the residents of towns like Chorazin, Bethsaida and Capernaum among whom he had performed multiple healings and miracles, and now declaring that the people of pagan cities like Tyre and Sidon would have given him a better hearing.
Jesus then concludes by thanking God for the people whose simplicity and open-heartedness make them more receptive to his message than those who, in their arrogance, regard themselves as wise and learned (ie the Scribes and Pharisees). It is at this point that he invites all who are burdened by the legalism expounded by their teachers to embrace the bearable yoke of his teaching. The metaphor of the light yoke which Jesus uses to describe his teaching echoes a description of wisdom offered by the writer of the Book of Sirach (Ecclesiasticus) in his final chapter:
I have opened my mouth and spoken:
‘Buy her (wisdom) without money,
put your necks under her yoke,
and let your souls receive instruction.’
(Sirach 51; 26)
Appreciation of context is the key to understanding this gospel-reading.
None the less, today’s gospel-reading still challenges me. To what exactly is Jesus referring when he claims: “My yoke is easy and my burden light”? (Matthew 11:30). We know that in everyday parlance “yoke” is synonymous with injustice, and Jesus had a passion for justice. He was intent on urging anyone who would follow him to set about breaking the yokes of injustice that kept people trapped. There were times in his public ministry when he urged people to let go of the yokes they made for themselves. We know from our own experience that he would have us let go of the yokes of resentment, retribution, prejudice, tightly-held grudges and even physical clutter, all of which give us some kind of distorted satisfaction as they gradually poison us. We also know that he would not be referring to the cross, which he anticipated would be laid on him, as a less than heavy burden.
I venture to suggest that the yoke that fitted him perfectly, the yoke that he carried willingly throughout his life was the “light” yoke of love. At least it lightened the lives of those with whom he shared it, even though persistently holding out love to those who refused to accept it left him with a feeling of heaviness.
Yet, when we pause to think about who we are and the very purpose of our lives, we realise once again that we have been created by love for love. The yoke of love is made to fit us, too. Still, we know that there are times when we don’t let it sit comfortably on our shoulders. Or to mix the metaphor, there are times when we deafen ourselves to hear appeals for pity, compassion, fidelity and big-heartedness. But we know deep down that the yoke of love is ever light simply because its purpose never ceases to be clear. God is Love and we are made by Love to reflect love. That is surely why Jesus can say to each of us: “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart; and you will find rest for yourselves. For my yoke is easy, and my burden light.”