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The Yoke is on You
July 9, 1978

St. Paul's United Methodist Church

MATTHEW 11:28-30

The invitation from Jesus as recorded in the 11th chapter of Matthew sounds good to us on most days. Certainly the first part of that invitation sounds good, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” But the next part of the invitation is not quite as comfortable. Jesus said, “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest in your soul.} Take my yoke upon you. That doesn't sound quite so enticing. You may say I have enough yolks, I have enough burdens. I don't need any more people telling me what to do. I don't need any more obligations. I don't need any more duties. I don't need any more have-tos. I don't need any more yokes upon me. 

Let's look and see what this passage means. First of all, in Jesus’ day, the yoke was a frame made of wood that tied two oxen together. Or in the case of a single ox, it was a frame around the ox’s neck to which was attached a plow or other implements. Probably Jesus and his father made such yolks in the carpenter shop, for it was a very common farm implement. It was also an implement used in human slavery. When a nation or a city was conquered by an enemy, very often many of the people were made slaves and taken into slavery, especially by the Roman Empire. And around their neck would be some kind of a symbol called a yoke. A yoke was a symbol of servitude, a symbol of subjection, and that image isn't very pleasant to us. 

But the rabbis, especially in Jesus day, took the image of servitude, bondage and subjection and applied it to the law. They urged the people to take upon them the yoke of the Jewish law, to take upon them the obligations, the duties of the law. And the rabbis said it was a matter of joy. By willingly taking the yoke of the law upon you, you will find God, you will find your salvation. But in Jesus’ day, this yoke was not seen to be as very joyful. It was really quite a heavy burden. The Pharisees of Jesus’ day were very stringent in their observance of the law, very meticulous and picky. Thereby, all that was required by the law became a heavy burden for the people. Jesus over in the 23rd chapter of Matthew that the Pharisees bind heavy burdens, and lay them on shoulders. The 12th chapter of Matthew which immediately follows the text for today, gives some examples of how heavy and how almost ridiculous the law was in Jesus’ day. 

The first was the story of the disciples going through the grain field on the Sabbath and plucking up some of the grain to eat because they were hungry, and O, how the Pharisees criticized them for picking grain on the Sabbath. And Jesus said, “What a ridiculous law for even David ate out of the temple sacrifices when he was hungry.” The second example of the law out of control was when the Pharisees criticized Jesus for healing a man on the Sabbath, criticized for working on the Sabbath. And Jesus said, “It's wrong to heal a man, but it's alright to pull sheep out of a ditch?” Such a contrast! So to the people of Jesus’ day, he invited,  “Come to me all who labor and are laden under the heavy law, all who are burdened down with trying to obey every jot and tittle in order to find their peace, to find rest, come to me all you who are struggling to find God, all you who are struggling to find the truth, come to me, all of you who are weighed down with a burdensome law, and I will give you rest.” 

But Jesus did not say, “I will cast away the yoke of the law.” Instead, he would exchange yolks. Instead of the yoke of the law, “Take my yoke on you. The yoke which I give you is easy. The burden which I lay on your shoulders is light.” It's not an abdication. It's not a loosening of the yoke or the burden. It's an exchange. So, we still must come to terms with wearing a yoke, of being subject, of being in servitude. It’s not a very pleasant image, but is it possible to live without a yoke? Is it possible to live without rules, restrictions and loyalties? I remember vaguely from my elementary school days, the story of a man without a country, the man who had no citizenship. At first sight that seemed very appealing to the man. And maybe to all of us, it sounds very appealing. No taxes. No loyalties. No demands by the country laid upon you— free without a country. But the story went on. The man soon became weary and depressed because he had no home, he had no land, he had no loyalties, he had no yoke upon him. A yoke is necessary to find a sense of identity and a sense of belonging, to know who we are, and what we are. A yoke, some kind of subjection, and some kind of loyalty is necessary for our identity. 

The rabbis taught in Jesus’ day that to accept the yoke of the law was to be free from all earthly monarchies and all worldly cares. To obey the law was to belong to God, and not to any earthly institution, and in that belonging was their identity. I wonder if that wasn't a key factor in the survival of the Jews. For centuries upon centuries, they were persecuted. They had no land, they had no nation. And wherever they lived, they were scorned, abused and persecuted, whether it was by Muslims or whether it was by Christians, one was as bad as the other in persecuting the Jewish people. I wonder if one of the reasons they survived was because they had the yoke of the law. No matter what happened to them, their loyalty and their identity was of a deeper sustaining, supporting nature that enabled them to endure. 

A yoke is also necessary for our identity. A yoke is necessary for structure, for rules, for moral values. We can see that on every hand children and youth are pushing to find structure. Children and youth who are raised without structure, who are raised in a libertine fashion of “do what you please, just don't bother me” are pushing to find their limits, to find where they belong and where they fit. Isn’t a child much happier when that child knows he or she cannot cross the street, he or she cannot play with matches, he or she must go to school, he or she must go to Sunday School. This is what our family is and this is what our family does. Here's our structure and this is who we are. Within that structure you find freedom. The yoke, that which is important to us, gives us structure. 

Jeremiah wrote in the sixth chapter in 16th verse, “The Lord said to his people, stand at the crossroads and look. Ask for the ancient paths and where the best road is. Walk in it, and you will live in peace. Walk in that road, and you will find rest for your souls.” Jesus didn't say we have no yolks, Jesus said, “Take my yoke upon you. For my yoke is easy. And my burden is light.” There's a legend about birds. The legend says that birds when they were created had no wings. And suddenly the creator got the bright idea of giving the birds wings. Can you imagine the reaction when along came the Creator with wings! The birds would say, “Why that wing is as big as I am. It's too heavy. And he's going to put two on me, one on each side! I can't carry that weight. It's too heavy, what a burden. Don't put that burden upon me!” But, by receiving wings, the heavy burdens, the birds learned to fly.  A whole new world was open to them. Whole new vistas were open! They found new freedom. 

Jesus’ yoke is like that. It's easy and light. Wearing the yoke of Jesus gives us an identity. To say I am a Christian differentiates me from all others. I have an identity. I am a Christian. I belong to God. My place is in God. I was created by God. I have a home and I know where I belong. I know who I am. I know what I'm about. A couple told me this week about their five year old girl who likes to say, “I'm a daughter of God.” She refers to her baptism. She knows what baptism is all about. She knows that in that act is her identity. When the yoke of baptism js upon us, we know we are a daughter of God. 

The yoke of Jesus gives us our structure. The yoke of Jesus is to have a structure, to have rules and morality expressed by the single word—love. Jesus’ law is love. Jesus’ restrictions upon us are the restrictions of love—love one another, do good, to help. To state that negatively, it’s to not do to anyone else that you do not want done to you. It's to not hurt anyone else as you do not want to be hurt. It's to not say anything about anyone else that you do not want said about you. Those are the restrictions upon us—to do unto others as you would have them do unto you. To live within that law of love is to find our meaning. That's our structure. 

To wear the yoke of Jesus and to say “I am a Christian” is to give us purpose and meaning, our task, what we are about. As Paul wrote to the Galatians, “Bear one another's burdens.” That's our task— bear one another's burdens. One reason Jesus’ burdens are light is because he asks all the rest of us to help you with your burden. All the rest of us are to help hold yours upp, and that makes your burden lighter. And you in turn are called to help all the rest of us carry our burdens. That is our task, that is our meaning. And when we take that seriously, there's no room for loneliness. How can anyone be lonely when there are all these burdens around to help carry, all these people who need us? Wearing the yoke of Jesus is our identity, our structure, our task. In wearing the yoke of Jesus is our peace, our rest. “You will find rest for your souls,” promised Jesus. 

There is a paradox. In the accepting of Jesus’ yoke is the casting off of our burdens. As others help us and as we cast them onto the Lord, accepting Jesus’ yoke is the releasing of our burdens. There's a paradox there, and if you've experienced it, you know what it means. I talked to a woman this week. In one year, she's lost 100 pounds. She says she's not going to put it back on because she is using the philosophy of Alcoholics Anonymous. You give the problem to God. You give the task to God. You admit your powerlessness in the face of food and you give that powerlessness to God. 

You cast your burden on God and take upon you the yoke of Jesus. His yoke is easy and his burden is light. The yoke is on you. When you accept it, you'll find that it's easy, it’s light and you find rest for your souls.

© 1978 Douglas I. Norris