Proverbs 3: 1-6; Matthew 11: 28-30
Once again today, we encounter Jesus painting a picture of what he wants to convey with his words: he says” My yoke is easy, and my burden light.” This is an unusual claim. A yoke was most often a wooden farm piece placed over an ox or other animals for pulling a plow, not over a human being. But because of Jesus’ words, some ministers like Radford and I chose to wear stoles that represent the yoke of Christ to whom we have devoted our lives. A yoke in Jesus’ day was usually made of wood, a carved harness that fit over the animal. Oxen are particularly noted for their ability to pull heavy loads at a steady pace, so yokes were often made for them to pull plows. But for an ox to do the best work, the yoke had to be comfortable; it had to fit well. “My yoke is easy,” said Jesus. The Greek word for easy also translates as “well-fitting.” For the yoke to fit, a carpenter would have the ox brought in for measurements. After they were taken they would make the yoke in rough form. Then the ox was brought back, the yoke was tried on again, and adjustments were made so that it would fit well, not hurting or chafing the ox. “My burden is light” Jesus said. With an ox, the yoke was usually hitched to a plow—crude blades that tilled dirt baked hard by the sun. The weight and drag was such that pulling the plow was back-breaking, tedious work. You’ve heard the expression “strong as an ox?” It’s clear why oxen were chosen to pull plows. The burden was heavy. The great preacher Phillips Brooks once said: “I do not pray for a lighter load, but for a stronger back.”
Jesus tells us not only that his yoke fits well, but that the load is not heavy. The burden is light because it is tailored to us and given in love. A burden given in love can feel lighter. Jesus encouraged his disciples, as he encourages us, in the midst of the pressures of a day. We read earlier in Matthew 11 that Jesus had just joined his cousin John in calling for repentance. He addressed people he deemed unfaithful in towns of Chorazin and Bethsaida, calling them to repent. It feel to me like Jesus is—to use a modern expression—worked up. And in the midst of that, he radically shifts gears say: “My yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” Does what he’s doing seem light to you? But something in Jesus—perhaps his constant prayer life; perhaps his certain trust in his Heavenly Father; perhaps the knowledge that his time living on earth is short—makes him be able to manage his issues. Those are clues for how we too can turn our burdens into a yoke that fits. Even the issues in our day—political, racial, financial, educational—can create burdens in our lives. So let’s look at Jesus’ suggested trade today: we give him our burdens while we take on his.
Have you noticed people who look burdened? Some I’ve seen physically stoop, that is, bend over as they are walking, as if the weight of the world is on their backs. They physically look burdened! Some just won’t let go of problems and give them to God. What they do, is say “Here Lord. You take this burden.” The Lord takes hold of it, but they won’t let go! They keep trying to steer the direction of the burden they say they gave to the Lord. Others have deep lines on their face that some call worry lines—here, let me point some out to you! (Points to lines between his eyes) Sometimes I carry burdens that do not give me the abundant life Jesus wants me to have. My issues may be unique—first born, pastor of a congregation, father, husband—but yours might be similar. So I have learned to delegate more, and Jesus trades my yoke for his. Boom-I feels lighter! What is the yoke over your neck that is your burden? For some it is anxiety over Covid-19. Jesus, later in the gospel of Matthew, speaks to the crowds saying: “Do not worry about your life….and do not worry about tomorrow.” Instead of worrying, we can decide to be smart: to social distance; to wear a mask; and to pray for this pandemic to pass. By doing that, you can trade your burden for Jesus’ words that I just quoted from Matthew chapter 6. Perhaps your burden is not enough money for living. There again Jesus says “consider the lilies of the field, how they grow, yet I tell you Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.” [Matthew 6]. So yes, there are specialists in debt consolidation you can consult; you can ask a financial specialist; you can think outside of your box and consider ways to spend less or ways to bring more income in. And you can listen to the words of Jesus and put on a yoke that fits better than the heavy, chaffing one you have. If something else is a burden to you—manifesting itself as back problems, heart problems, or digestive problems, or emotional problems—step back and consider ways you drop or modify some burdens: can you share that load with others, delegating parts of your burden to someone else? Or you can as the Psalmist in Psalm 55 says, “Cast your burdens upon the Lord, and He will sustain you.”
Finally, even Jesus knew the wonderful words of Proverbs chapter three. As you change your yoke with the one that Jesus wants you to have, it might have these words burned into the wood. Listen:
“My child, do not forget my teaching, but let your heart keep my commandments; for length of days and years of life and abundant welfare they will give you.
Do not let loyalty and faithfulness forsake you; bind them around your neck (sounds like a yoke doesn’t it?) and write them on the tablet of your heart. So you will find favor and good repute in the sight of God and of others. Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not reply on your own insights. In all your ways, acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths.”
Consider a daily reading of those words, and the words of Jesus, as you seek to trade your yoke for His.
Jeffrey A. Sumner July 5, 2020