How do we identify with oxen and yokes? I haven’t seen them in use for decades from when I was a kid and would drive through Amish farms in Indiana. Well, they used draft horses in harnesses--that’s as close as I can get to a yoke. I would attend horse pulls--again, draft horses, not oxen. Harnesses, not yokes.
William Barclay wrote a bit about yokes: that the wood yokes used for oxen were carefully fitted so the animals would be comfortable in them. The ox would be measured and a rough yoke made, then it would be further fitted to the individual animal so that the yoke didn’t rub the shoulders and neck of the animal and the burden would seem lighter. Barclay further noted that there is a legend that Jesus had been a maker of yokes when he lived in Nazareth. Maybe the sign above his door read, “My yokes fit well.” Jesus is quoted in the Greek as saying, “My yoke is easy.” Translating the word “easy” from “chrestos” which means well-fitting. Perhaps what Jesus is saying here is that the burdens Christ gives us aren’t meant to chafe us but are made to measure to fit us.
Now let’s look at poor Paul here who seems to be in an eternal struggle with sin. As I have mentioned before, Paul had a real penchant for listing as many sins as he could imagine but here he laments a lack of self-control. My Oxford Bible commentary suggests Paul is speaking of a hypothetical “I” because earlier in this same letter, he notes that Christians have been freed from the need to sin--that their sinful nature was crucified with Christ. I’m not suggesting that Paul didn’t struggle like everyone else. I do believe he is saying that without Jesus it is impossible to do the good we all really want to do.
From The Message: “So if I can’t be trusted to figure out what is best for myself and then do it, it becomes obvious that God’s command is necessary. But I need something more! …if the power of sin within me keeps sabotaging my best intentions, I obviously need help! … I can will it, but I can’t do it. … My decisions, such as they are, don’t result in actions. Something has gone wrong deep within me and gets the better of me every time. It happens so regularly that it’s predictable. …I truly delight in all God’s commands, but it’s pretty obvious that not all of me joins in that delight. Parts of me covertly rebel, and just when I least expect it, they take charge… I’m at the end of my rope. Is there no one who can do anything to help me? Isn’t that the real question? The answer, thank God, is that Jesus Christ can and does.” Paul is truly making a point here, placing himself in the shoes of some lost and confused soul who does not know about Jesus.
And, in the reading from Matthew, Jesus is saying something similar to Paul. He laments the folks who will always find fault with whomever they see and hear-that whatever is offered they will find it flawed in some way so they don’t have to act on what they have seen and heard. Similar to rejecting scientific evidence and peer-reviewed studies of global climate change so there is no need to act on the information. Paul wrote of the lack of action on the part of this hypothetical person who is unable to do the good he would love to do or avoid the bad that does harm to himself and others.
Jesus is chiding the crowd of people for inaction when they hear a message from God. They didn’t like John because he was antisocial and dressed weird and perhaps made them feel bad because his fasting made them feel inadequate. They didn’t like Jesus because he hung out with outcasts and ate and drank and enjoyed life--shared his life with those who needed someone to recognize their value. They heard and turned away because they didn’t want to act on what they had heard. In The Message, Jesus says, “Opinion polls don’t count for much, do they? The proof of the pudding is in the eating.” Or, in some cases, the voting. In other words, people can think and say all kinds of things but how they act tells us what we need to know about them.
From The Message, “Abruptly Jesus broke into prayer. ‘Thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth. You’ve concealed your ways from sophisticates and know-it-alls, but spelled them out clearly to ordinary people. Yes, Father, that’s the way you like to work.’ Jesus resumed talking to the people, but now tenderly. ‘The Father has given me all these things to do and say. … No one knows the Son the way the Father does, nor the Father the way the Son does. But I’m not keeping it to myself. I’m ready to go over it line by line with anyone willing to listen. Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me--watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.’”
Oh, my, is he saying we should ask “What would Jesus do?” Maybe. Jesus was considerate of the people who were oppressed by the practices and laws of his time. The poor and outcasts did not have access to much of what the elite and wealthy had. Water, food, and religious ritual to feed the soul. We speak of how the Jewish people lived in the first century but the practices of the Sanhedrin, of the priests, and of the wealthy elite were not the practices of the outcasts and the poor. The poor had to compromise their religious beliefs and practices because they didn’t have this privileged access. In modern-day Israel, our Palestinian brothers and sisters in Christ live with a similar lack of access to food, water, medical care and work--they are the outcasts and I believe Jesus would hang out with them if he visited today’s holy land.
Jesus was uplifted by the response of the poor to his message of good news. God loves us all and wants to be in relationship with us all. Taking on the responsibilities of our call from Christ can be a light yoke--a well-fitting yoke, because our individual calls are tailor-made for us.