I was going through my closet and wardrobe earlier this week, keeping some things
for the summer, packing other stuff away for use in winter, folding and bagging
other items to donate. Although I do this twice a year, I must have a “hoarder” gene somewhere, because I always keep things that are way too small for me. I just like them or I think maybe when I’m back down to a size 30 waist I’ll wear these jeans again, etc.., etc…
As a result, there is a small collection of clothing that does not fit me now, hasn’t fit me for several years, and may never fit again. Although I didn’t mind wearing tight clothes
when I was young—because that was what was in style—now I find that there is a
difference between “tight” and “oh-my-god-I-can’t-move-or-breathe” tight.
This idea of things that don’t fit properly relate to Matthew’s Gospel story about being
yoked to Jesus, about having a life that really fits us, about joining ourselves with people and things that bring us peace and fulfillment. Each of us has to ask ourselves: does our current life “fit” us? Do we feel free and alive in the Spirit? Or do we feel weighed down and drained? Do the things we believe, the choices we make, the goals we have for ourselves bring us an inner conviction of purpose and satisfaction? Or is our life beginning to feel like we’re trapped in tight clothes—not stylishly snug, but oh-my-god-I-can’t-move-or-breathe tight?
This is what Jesus is talking about when he invites us to take his yoke upon
us. That’s what Jesus promises when he says, “…my yoke is easy, and my burden
This is Independence Day weekend, of course, and we like to think of ourselves as
“free” and not dependent on anyone or anything because we’re Americans, dammit,
and we’re going to go our own way. But that is fiction. The global financial crisis occurred and is still harming the world economy in part because of American investors being irresponsible and not realizing how linked we are to all the other economies of the world.
Just yesterday I learned that President Obama is losing sleep over the crisis in Greece—because he realizes that if they default on their loans this will devastate other countries and possibly the world. He understands how our stability is yoked to others’ stability.
We are always yoked to someone or something. We take upon ourselves the yoke of some just cause, or of some ministry or purpose, or of some passion that drives and motivates us. Yokes are funny, in a way, because they may serve as the mechanism that helps us find energy, life and a reason for living. Or, they can trap us, enslave us and sap our energy. Jesus is hoping we will choose the former option, which is why he invites us to take his yoke to ourselves, to hitch our wagon to him, to move forward through whatever life may throw at us with Jesus at our side. “Come to me…for my yoke is easy, and my burden
That 1st century audience, as they listened to Jesus, certainly was familiar with yokes. Their commitment to God’s teaching contained in the Torah, combined with trying to live out those commandments were often referred to as wearing a yoke. The Pharisees, as we know, came up with over 600 additional commandments beyond the 10 given to Moses on Mt. Sinai, so people living then certainly knew another sense of living under a yoke. Add to that the reality that the Roman Empire controlled the region and was quick to punish, enslave, and extract tribute from the people placing them on the margins of destitution, and we have a third understanding of the term “yoke”.
Jesus uses this term in a different way and he describes his yoke as easy and light. As a child I never understood this saying of Jesus because, it seemed to me, that Catholics had a harder row to hoe than the lucky Protestants who didn’t have to fast, abstain or go to
confession. Then again, I know from personal experience that following Jesus is NOT always easy for any of us, in fact, it can be demanding and exhausting! So, perhaps,
it would be better to talk about the yoke of Jesus as a yoke that “fits”. That is, after all, one of the meanings of the Greek word translated “easy”. It fits. The yoke of Jesus “fits”, and that is the kind of yoke Jesus offers us. One that fits. One that gives us energy and life and
creativity. One that doesn’t feel like a burden.
In contrast to the yoke of the Pharisees, and every form of pharisaical institutional religion since, the yoke of Jesus is light. The Pharisees were preoccupied with rules and regulations. If people complained or felt overwhelmed, the Pharisees would judge
them, expel them, shun them, or otherwise make these people feel like second-class citizens in their own religion. If you look around, you see institutional religion behaving this same way even today. That’s because there’s a difference between yoking yourself to an institution and yoking yourself to Jesus.
Jesus’ yoke is not the only option when it comes to choosing a yoke. There are many others, and we’re told every day in a variety of ways that it’s up to us to decide, we are on our own, our life will be whatever we make of it. We’re invited to buy into the cultural myth that having lots of money and owning lots of stuff will make life full and meaningful. And when that path leaves us empty, we’re out of luck because, we’re on our own. And
the same goes for other yoke options: political power, sex, drugs and alcohol, people-pleasing, obsession with our careers to the detriment of our relationships, etc… All of them invite us to take them on and when we do, we may derive some satisfaction, but invariably they fail us. And there isn’t someone there to pick us up and dust us off because, we’ve decided to go this on our own.
Well, maybe I should qualify that: nobody but Jesus, that is. Nobody, except the one
who offers us a forgiving yoke, a yoke that promises unconditional love, a yoke that leads away from self-destruction to life. This yoke of Jesus comes with responsibilities, to be sure, but it also comes with strength and peace.
I don’t know what it is about us as a species, but it seems that when life is
threatening to overwhelm us with worries and stress and we do all we can to
change the situation but it’s still not changing, it doesn’t even occur to us
to ask God to step in for us. I am no different than anyone else in this regard and maybe this is weird, but I’ve gotten to the point where I think of myself in the third person, like I am someone else. Then as I review “his” problems, I think about what I would advise him to do as his priest. Many of my own quandaries have found resolution when I have stopped and considered, “What would Fr. Michel tell me to do?” It’s my way of yoking my
present, worry-ridden self with my higher self, my Christ consciousness. In the first century many yokes were fashioned specifically to fit a team of oxen, so when we feel like we’re dragging the weight of the world behind us, it might be good to remember that
we’re yoked to Jesus. We’re not alone, despite how it may feel sometimes.
In the early days of the civil rights movement in the South, African-Americans
were boycotting the buses in Montgomery, Alabama. Leaders of the boycott
discovered that an old black woman, known affectionately as “Mother” Pollard,
was supporting the boycott. Each day, she walked many miles rather than ride
the bus. Because she was old, leaders encouraged her to ride the bus—that she
of all people didn’t need to participate in the boycott, that she needed to
conserve her strength. She refused and uttered her now famous reply, “My feets is tired, but my soul is rested.”
She was yoked to a higher calling that was in line with what God wanted for her, so she felt happy to walk that path to justice with Jesus. That’s the kind of yoke Jesus offers to each of us—one that fits, one that promises strength and rest. Jesus already knows the ifficulty of the path we sometimes walk, and he promises to be with us every step of the way.