(published in the Abingdon 2014 Creative Preaching Annual)
Few of us use yokes anymore—we often have to explain that a yoke is equipment used to hitch animals together and to something else, such as a plow. Machines do so much of our farming, and so few people work the land, that a yoke is an antique, a museum piece, not an everyday item.
However, for Jesus and the people in his community, the yoke was both everyday and held double meaning. The most obvious is the agricultural, but there was also the example of Isaiah 58: “Is not this the fast that I choose, to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, to break every yoke?” (v. 6, NRSV) A yoke is a system, often a system of bondage—whether that system is economic, political, or intellectual. Sometimes people are put under the yoke by an oppressive power, as the Israelites had been by the Babylonians, or as they were under the Romans. Sometimes the yoke is a choice—by choosing to follow a particular teacher, one took his yoke upon oneself. The yoke was the system of teachings, the teacher’s philosophy. And sometimes a system that should be life-giving—like the Torah—is turned into an oppression, as we see with the wise and intelligent—the Pharisees and the scribes—who have made the good law of God into a religious and political system that oppresses people and needs to be broken.
So Jesus calls all of us who are caught in those systems, especially those weary of following all 613 laws to the letter and still wondering about the grace of God, especially those who believe God’s love has to be earned, to come to him and trade that yoke for another.
I always thought the point of breaking the oppressive yoke was to be free. But we all know that isn’t exactly true—as Bob Dylan said, “You Gotta Serve Somebody.” The question is: will we be yoked to the letter of the law? To the economic and political system? Yoked to our possessions? Social status? Desires? Yoked to our limited understanding of God, or to what we think the good life looks like? Or will we slip into the empty side of Jesus’ yoke and partner with him in the work God has in mind for the world?
When a farmer has a new animal to train, the new animal is yoked together with an experienced one. That way the new animal learns the way while the experienced one carries most of the burden. Eventually the new animal becomes so experienced that it follows the way willingly, and finds the work easy, the burden light.
Are we willing to take Jesus’ yoke upon us? Are we willing to submit, knowing it means we cannot continue to pull our other burdens (however much they may look like blessings), to walk with Jesus until we are so trained that our lives won’t go any other way?