This morning’s Gospel gives us one of the most familiar consolation promises in Biblical scripture. "Come to me all who are weary and carry heavy burdens, Jesus tells us, "and I will give you rest. It's a promise of hope and of help when you're feeling overwhelmed by a heavy burden of worries, cares and concerns that seems impossible to bear. It's a comforting promise that Jesus knows our needs and will lift those loads off our backs. We don't need to struggle with our burdens alone. We are offered a yoke with one much greater than us, one that offers help and hope.
That is how we hear this passage today, but it meant something quite different when Jesus said it to the people of his time. When he first said it he had been teaching and preaching in neighboring towns. Many of the people were smart and sophisticated with enough schooling to understand the finer points of theology, as well as being able to give impressive offerings at the synagogues. They took seriously the obligation of obeying the Law of the Old Testament but they had turned that Law into a list of religious rules that separated them from one another. They came to see themselves as being closer to God, more righteous than others not able to devote great amounts of time and money obeying the rules. The law had become a heavy yoke but they could not accept Jesus' message, for he often criticized their righteous ways and showed no respect for their exalted status. Who was this Jesus who came into town challenging the way they had been doing things for hundreds of years?
When Jesus went out into the rural countryside people listened to what he said. They welcomed an invitation to a lighter load. Jesus spoke to them about their lives, he met them on common ground. He touched their hearts with his simple message of living not by the law with its 613 rules but living in a loving relationship with God and one another.
Do we sometimes allow the responsibilities of following Jesus' path to weigh us down? It's true that as Christians we are called to higher standards but these standards are primarily about how we relate to our Lord and our neighbor. It isn't that we must do more and more or be better and better, we need not try to prove ourselves more worthy than others, we don't earn our way into God's favor. It's a free gift!
When we listen to Paul's words in the second reading, he speaks honestly of the quandary in which he is caught. He's troubled by his own actions. "I do not do what I want, I do the very thing I hate. My stubborn will takes over and gets the better of me every time." Have you been there, done that? I surely have more often than I'd like to admit. We might hang on to that burden of good intentions gone wrong, berate ourselves for not doing all we should. Then Paul suddenly proclaims the good news, "Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord."
You've all likely seen those magnificent Clydesdale draft horses pulling the Anheuser Busch beer wagon? Many times they have been featured in the Super Bowl ads. This team of eight horses is carefully fitted with ornate leather harnesses and each wears a padded yoke around its shoulders. This yoke guides them in place as they move and cushions their bodies when they pull heavy loads. Even one horse could pull an impressive weight--imagine how powerful are the eight working together!
There is a wonderful legend concerning the quiet years of Jesus, the years prior to his visible ministry. The legend claims that Jesus the carpenter was one of the master yoke-makers in the Nazareth area. People came from miles around for a yoke, hand carved and crafted by Jesus, son of Joseph. When customers arrived with their team of oxen Jesus would spend considerable time measuring the team, their height, the width, the space between them, and the size of their shoulders. Within a week, the team would be brought back and he would carefully place the newly made yoke over the shoulders, watching for rough places, smoothing out the edges and fitting them perfectly to this particular team of oxen.
That's the yoke Jesus invites us to take. Do not be misled by the word "easy", for its root word in Greek speaks directly of the tailor-made yokes--they were "well fitting." The yoke Jesus invites us to take, the yoke that brings rest to weary souls, is one that is made exactly to our lives and hearts. The yoke he invites us to wear fits us well, does not rub us nor cause us to develop sore spirits and is designed for two. His yokes were always designed for two. And our yoke-partner is none other than Christ himself.
Our yokes are not single ones, we don't have to go it alone. We don't please God by loading ourselves down with heavy requirements, good deeds, pure thoughts, and perfect obedience. All the time Jesus is there, right beside us waiting for us to step into the shared yoke, half resting on his shoulders, waiting for us to become part of a team. " My yoke is easy and my burden, light."
"Tattoos on the Heart" is the title of the novel our Spiritual Book Club enjoyed last month. It's the story of a remarkable Roman Catholic Priest who for more than 20 years ministered in one of the worst Los Angeles gang neighborhoods. He lived in this poor neighborhood, he knew many of those young men gunned down on the streets and he loved them, unconditionally. He looked for and expected goodness in each and every one of them. The subtitle of the book, "The Power of Boundless Compassion", perfectly defined his ministry.
As a pastor working in a neighborhood with the highest concentration of murderous gang activity, he created an organization to provide jobs, job training and encouragement so that young people could work together and learn mutual respect that comes from collaboration. These stories about universal kinship and redemption are moving examples of the power of unconditional love in difficult times and the importance of fighting despair. Father Gregory Boyle offered help and hope to struggling men and women.
Fr. Boyle was affectionately known as "G-dog", G as in God. He has served members of more than half the 1,100 gangs in Los Angeles. He didn't preach to them or at them; he stood with them, beside them rejoicing in their successes and always welcoming them back when they messed up. "I am gentle and humble hearted and you will find rest for your souls."
The word yoke may give an image of subservience as in the Old Testament but it may also be translated as something like kindness or pleasantness. Jesus yoke is a kind and pleasant apparatus. It is not a despised thing but is gentle and kind as when someone you love lays their hand on you to encourage you to lead you gently and lovingly where you should go and to that place where you will flourish.
There are actually two kinds of yokes, shared ones and single ones. The single ones are very simple and efficient. By placing a yoke across the shoulders and attaching buckets to long poles on each side, human beings can carry nearly as much as a donkey. They of course, will tire easily, their backs may give out but it's still possible to move sizeable loads from one place to another using a single creature and a single yoke. A shared yoke is a different matter. Two persons or creatures can work all day because under a well fitted shared yoke each can take turns as one can rest a little, the other pulls. They have company all day long and they're a little less tired because they worked as a team.
Knowing we're not alone, knowing Jesus partners with us we can accomplish so much more than trying to go it alone. Jesus lifts up our souls with hope and help.
Earlier this week an irresistible video popped up on the internet. It pictures a crowd of people waiting on an ocean beach as two animal cages each carrying a seal inside are unloaded and gently set down on the sand. These seals had been cared for at an animal rescue facility and now it was time to return them to the ocean, the place of their birth. The cages were opened.
Tentatively, the seals ventured out, one moved forward a bit then hesitated, waiting for the other to catch up. They moved forward a bit more, then stayed there a few minutes watching the waves roll up the beach coming closer and closer to them. They turned toward each other, touching noses in what appeared to be a seal "kiss" then together plunged into the ocean. And the crowd watching clapped and cheered.