Matt. 11:16-19; 25-30
A while back, back when I had my house, I had made the decision to move a tree that was in the back yard. In moving this tree, we first started by digging around the base and getting a root ball. But finally, we had to get under the root ball and finally yank the thing out of the ground. We dug and then we tried to move the tree. But it just would not move. There were roots that just weren’t going to be cut. We had the tree 90% out of the ground, but there was a tenacious 10% that just weren’t going to budge.
We tried to use ropes to saw through the roots. We tried to pry the root ball up. We tried to tug the tree out of the whole. We tried just about everything. Finally, we rigged a harness system and managed to pull the whole thing out of the ground. What we thought was going to be impossible, became doable when we rigged the harness. The harness helped, or maybe we could call the harness a yoke.
Yokes are not things we encounter very much in our world today. Granted, a yoke is usually associated with farm work, but it is not even because most of us live in the city that we don’t see them. Pretty much, any more, yokes are not needed. Tractors usually do the farm work that was done by animals. The image of two oxen pulling a plow is highly rare; unless you live near some Amish folks. In our world today, we really don’t think much of being yoked or using yokes.
But yokes would have been very familiar to the people of Biblical times. People would have seen animals yoked together and probably would have used a your themselves; either for such jobs as carrying heavy loads such as water or even assisting animals in the field. How rare one is in our time is how common they would have been in Biblical times.
What we need to remember is that in Biblical times, the yoke had two very different meanings: One meaning would have been that of work. The yoke represented work, hard work. A yoke was not worn as a fashion statement; it was only worn when there was some serious work to be done. However, the other meaning is almost the opposite; the yoke also represented ease. By wearing a yoke, the work that HAD to be done was much more easy to do than if it were done without a yoke. The yoke didn’t get rid of the work, but it did make the work easier to do. So actually, the yoke had two meanings: Yes, it meant work, but the work that had to be done was easier with the yoke than without the yoke.
The one thing the yoke never does, though, is deny that there is work to be done. It never denies that things need to happen in life. What it does tell us is that these tasks in life, while being unavoidable, can be easier. The yoke says that the work can be made easier, but it never says that the work can be avoided.
In our age, we hear Jesus talking about yokes and we may question why we should even have to wear a yoke. We can just hire someone else to do the work for us, can’t we? We can pass the yoke off onto another person and not have to be troubled with the work at hand. We have gotten used to having the hard work done for us; and if we do the hard work ourselves, we wear it like a badge or award. “Yep, I dug that pond out myself; I didn’t even rent a backhoe!”
We like to think we can just pass the work off onto another. But if we think about it, we all have a yoke on of some sort. It may not be a yoke for carrying water, or for plowing, but we are all carrying heavy weights around. Are we dragging around our wealth? Are we dragging around our power? Are we plowing up the field of self-worth? Or are we dragging around some different kinds of weights? Are we dragging around the belief that we are unworthy? Are we toting a load of guilt and self-hatred? Are we carrying a belief that God’s gifts are not for us? What are the weights you are carrying? You may have been carrying these weights for so long that you don’t even notice them anymore. But even though you may not notice the weight, it is still there, slowing your steps and sapping your energy as you carry it.
One experience I had with yokes was in carrying canoes. When you portage a canoe, you have to move the canoe and all of your equipment from one side of an obstacle, such as a dam, to the other side. I don’t know if any of you have ever carried a canoe, but they are not the easiest things to transport. They are long, they are awkward, and they can be pretty heavy. If you are traveling by canoe, though, you cannot just leave the canoe sit on one side of the dam and walk to the other side of the dam and just find a canoe sitting there. You have to do the work; you have to get your boat and equipment to the other side of the dam. A canoe yoke helps you to balance the weight of the canoe on your shoulders and helps you to move the canoe through the portage. The simple fact is, the boat has to move; the yoke makes that move so much easier.
In offering us his yoke, Jesus is telling us two things, the same two things the people of Biblical times would have understood from the yoke itself. The first is that there IS some hard work that has to be done. The second is that this work can be made much more easy through Christ.
The work Jesus calls us to is the work of discipleship. We are called to follow Jesus. We are called to discipline ourselves to be about Christ’s work in the world. We may not recognize it, but disciple and discipline come from the same word. Discipline is not a bad thing! In our society, we tend to equate discipline with punishment. However, these are not the same thing. Punishment is inflicting an adverse stimulus contingent upon a behavior happening or removing a positive stimulus contingent upon a behavior happening. Another way to think of this is getting a speeding ticket for driving too fast or losing your license for drunk driving. In punishment, the thing that is trying to control behavior is coming from outside.
Now in discipline, the controlling factor comes from within. We control our behavior because we want a specific result or to reach a desired goal. Think about foregoing the piece of chocolate cake or getting up at
6 am to go to the gym. Punishment is imposed from the outside; discipline emerges from the inside.
So how is the yoke of Jesus a form of discipline and not a punishment? Being forced to work, isn’t that a punishment? Possibly in our time we see work as a punishment, but in Biblical times, for the people who would be reading the Bible, work wasn’t a punishment, work just was. For the people who would have first heard the Bible, carrying water and plowing the fields would have been facts of life. They would not have been seen as punishment. However, the yoke to help ease the labor would have been seen as a gift, just as a dishwasher was a gift for me when I got one.
But with the yoke come discipline. I could still pile the dishes in the sink, even with a dishwasher, if I don’t put the dishes in the thing, it can’t help me! I have to have the discipline to put the dishes into the dishwasher in order to have the dishwasher lighten my burden. Jesus gives us the gift of his yoke, but we need to have discipline in order to have this yoke lighten our load. The gift is there, freely given, but we need to train ourselves to get the most from it.
This is where discipleship really comes into play. It is through disciplines like prayer, worship, and studying scripture that we prepare ourselves to fully take on the yoke of Christ. It is through encouraging each other to prayer, worship, and study that we prepare our community to take on the yoke of Christ in the world. We learn in scripture and prayer that we are loved and special, not because of what we have or what we can do, but because we are the beloved children of God. It is through worship that we learn our place in this world and connect to our community of faith. It is through encouragement, service, and giving that we find our purpose in life. It is when we practice these forms of discipline, become disciples, that we get the most out of life.
Jesus does not give us false hope by telling us that everything is going to be easy. Jesus doesn’t sya that in following him life will be a breeze. However, Jesus does tell us that through him, the burden will be life. When we follow the discipline of discipleship, the trials in our lives are place into perspective. We remember that there is more to the world than what we see before us. We know that our story doesn’t end with our death, but lives on in our life in Christ.
So although a yoke may sound life work, it is really a gift. Christ’s gift to us is a yoke to ease our struggle. The yoke doesn’t deny that there will be work to do in the world, but it does tell us that the struggles of life will not overcome us. The struggles in life are not the final word.
So what is the best way to begin the discipline that leads to discipleship? How do we learn to wear the yoke that Jesus presents to us? Well, we just need to start. We make the choice to read the Bible. We make the choice to be present at worship. We make the choice to tell people about Jesus. It is no big event, it is just small changes. But these small changes can change your life! Whatever you choose, just make the choice and then do it!
The yoke is easy and the burden is light, but through Christ, life will never be the same!