The church I grew up in was a mission congregation planted during the post-World War Two economic boom. The building was nestled in the very back of the Mission Hills neighborhood. Many who have driven on St. Thomas Road probably have no idea there is a church at the end of it. Despite enormous population growth and housing developments taking over farm land on a daily basis, to this day, St. Thomas still backs up to a vast Amish farm. On more than one occasion, I can remember leaving the church, smelling the natural fertilizer wafting heavily through the air, and seeing a man in a blue shirt and straw hat standing on a plow behind a team of two mules preparing the soil.
I didn’t realize it at the time, as I choked for fresh air amid the stench of manure, but without that Amish farmer in the church’s backyard, I wouldn’t have an image for what Jesus is talking about when he says that his yoke is easy and his burden is light. Nothing about what that farmer and his two mules were doing was easy. The ground was hard and rocky. The blades on his plow had to be hand sharpened. The wooden yoke that tied the mules together surely weighed heavy upon their withers. Yet, without the yoke, there could be no teamwork between the two animals. Without the yoke, the farmer had no control, or with mules, the semblance of control.
For me, then, whenever I hear this well-worn turn of phrase from Jesus, I imagine that farmer and his heavy yoke, working hard to keep a way of life alive and his family fed. For Jesus’ audience, the farming metaphor would not have been lost, but two other images would also have been close to mind – one Biblical, the other Rabbinical. After the image of a famer’s field, the next thought would have probably been of the Prophet Isaiah. In the ninth chapter of Isaiah, after stern warning of the judgment that was coming against a nation that had forgotten their God, had made their worship idolatry, and had ignored the needs of the poor, the marginalized, and the oppressed in their midst, the prophet looks ahead to a day in which God will appoint a new king who will overthrow all those who have oppressed the Israelites and break the yoke of their burden. The crowd who heard Jesus speak of his easy yoke would immediately have had this promise of a new King, in the lineage of image of David brought to mind. Their hopes would have again been stoked that Jesus would be that king who would overthrow their Roman oppressors and bring a kingdom of peace to their land. Oh, how they longed for the heavy yoke of their oppressors to be broken, and easy yoke of God’s kingdom to be revealed.
Close behind that image would have been the Rabbinical image of a yoke. The teaching of a Rabbi was said to be his yoke. For many, that yoke took a lifetime to learn. The Torah, with its 613 individual laws, with all their various interpretations, could, at times, feel burdensome, as Paul the Pharisee tries to articulate in our passage from Romans. In the wrong hands, the Law was used to weigh people down, to force them into a system that kept them poor and reliant upon the Temple to mediate God’s forgiveness. For many in the time of Jesus, the Pharisaical interpretation of the Torah felt like a yoke too heavy to bear. Not only was their political life a heavy yoke, but religious life didn’t seem to offer much in the way of lifting the people’s burdens. The people were weighed down, tired, and broken.
So broken, that even the most righteous among them, John the Baptist, had begun to doubt. The impetus for what we have just heard is a scene just before our Gospel lesson this morning. Imprisoned and frustrated, John sends his disciples to ask Jesus if he really was the one he had hoped for. Could it be true, in a world that sat so heavy upon his shoulders, that Jesus really was the one to lift the burden and break the yoke? Emphatically, Jesus says yes. Not because he was gathering an army to overthrow Rome. Not because he had a plan to break John out of prison. Not due of any show of force, or power, or might, but Jesus is resolute that his Messiahship is based in freedom. The blind receive their sight. The lame walk. The lepers are cleansed. The deaf hear. The dead are raised. The poor have the good news brought to them. “My yoke is easy,” Jesus says, “and my burden is light.”
Almost immediately after Jesus ascended into Heaven, the Church began to add weight onto the yoke of Christ. Two thousand years later, and after sixteen hundred years of being tied to empire, the Gospel of Jesus can feel pretty heavy for many. Over the centuries, the easy yoke of Jesus has been weighed down by sexism, colonialism, white supremacy, xenophobia, homophobia, racism, and nationalism, among other things. It has been bent under the weight of powerful men who have tried to muscle the easy yoke of Christ off the path of freedom. Add to that the sheer weight of the Coronavirus pandemic, economic instability, and a long overdue reckoning for America’s original sin of racism, and it should come as no surprise to any of us that many people are feeling weighed down by the burdens of sin, fear, and hopelessness. Despite it all, the promise of Jesus remains true. His yoke is easy. His burden is light. If only we human beings would let God lift off all the garbage we’ve laid upon the yoke of Christ, we could be unburdened. If only we would let God break the yoke of oppression, those who have been oppressed and those who have been the oppressors would be able to stand taller in the freedom of God’s mercy.
It’ll take eleven more chapters in Matthew’s Gospel before we get a clear understanding of just how easy the yoke of Jesus really is. In Matthew 22, the Pharisees and the Sadducees were embroiled in a philosophical war of words with Jesus. Jesus had just silenced the Sadducees one final time, when the Pharisees got together and sent a lawyer to test him. “Teacher, which commandments in the law is the greatest?” he asked. Out of all 613 laws in the Torah, which one is most important? Jesus answered him, “’You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” Jesus could have stopped there. Having shared with the lawyer the foundation of his teaching, he would have answered the man’s question, but he went on. “On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”
It isn’t just that loving God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength and loving your neighbor as yourself is the beginning of Jesus’ yoke, but it is the fullness of it. Everything else Jesus taught was simply an interpretation on love God and love neighbor. As Deacon Kellie said in her mid-week meditation on Wednesday, “even when Jesus is talking about finances, or fear, or feeding, or following, or faithfulness, he’s always also talking about love.” Or as the Presiding Bishop said in his installation sermon back in 2015, “If it’s not about love, then it’s not about God.”
The yoke of Jesus is love. It is simultaneously feather light and impossible to carry on our own. The yoke of love unites us together. The yoke of love necessarily puts us in community. The yoke of love puts to mind first the needs of others, it moves us toward compassion, and calls us to reconciliation. Without the yoke of Christ there is no ability to work together. Without the yoke of love, our work in the field of God’s kingdom goes undone. I invite you, my dear friends, no matter how heavy the weight of today might feel, to let Christ replace your burdensome yoke, for his yoke is truly easy, and his burden is, in fact, light. Amen.