Happy New Yoke
I remember taking a school trip to a farm museum and being shown a genuine old-fashioned milkmaid’s yoke. It was beautifully carved, smooth and polished. We all tried putting it across our shoulders, but it only fitted some people; others found it incredibly uncomfortable. Working yokes were designed for carrying buckets over long distances daily, and so were crafted to fit their bearers perfectly.
I use these words daily when saying Compline (Night Prayer): Jesus said: ‘Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.’ Matthew 11.28-30
Jesus broke with the religious pattern of his day. He ate and drank while others fasted. He cured the sick, picked grain and fed his disciples on the Sabbath. He dared call God his ‘Father’.
Jesus came to us to lift the heavy burdens of life and religion from our backs. He taught that faith sets us truly free to worship God, and to serve him and one another. Jesus promises rest from the burdens of legalism and judgement; from the weight of anxiety and worry; from the yoke of fruitless, unsatisfying labour. That’s the first part of Jesus’ promise. The second is: Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me.
Isn’t this a contradiction: promising rest from one load and then demanding we take up another? Surely what we need is a break, not more labour. Jesus’ point, however, is that there’s no such thing as a burden-free life – life always has burdens, but it’s what kind of burden we carry that matters.
You can imagine that, when I was a school chaplain, I had to counsel pupils and staff through stressful periods of their lives. Something I’ve come to appreciate is that it’s not usually the obvious large burden or unprecedented challenge that brings people to a crisis, but rather the combined effect of many small uncontrollable and undermining events. These give the sensation of the whole world conspiring to crush our spirits.
So the question isn’t whether we’ll be burdened or not, but what our burdens will be. It’s not whether we’ll be yoked or not, but to what or to whom. Jesus isn’t unburdening us so that we can be completely carefree or self-empowered, or all those other modern infatuations which are themselves debilitating encumbrances. Jesus lifts off our backs the burdens which drag us down, to replace them with something better suited to us. He’s concerned with removing the chafing harness that we or the world, with its incessant demands and pressures, forges for us, so he can place on our shoulders his own yoke, perfectly fashioned to fit us, bringing new life, new freedom, and new joy. In this new year, be prepared to take on a new yoke.
The Revd Dr Simon Thorn
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