5th Sunday after Pentecost
July 9 2017
Genesis 24.34-38, 42-49, 58-67; Psalm 45.10-17; Romans 7.15-25a; Matthew 11.16-19, 25-30
Rev Anita Venter, Bethlehem Bible College
“Come to me, all you who are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest…. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”
These words sound nice and for a while they are even comforting. However, when the burdens of our life push us too far, we realize that we have no idea what they are supposed to mean and they do not even seem to be true.
What is this yoke of Jesus anyway? If we say it is living in obedience to God as Jesus did, then we are even further out in the ocean without a life jacket – not waving, but drowning. We see Paul lamenting this plight in his letter to the Romans when he says: “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.”
Anyone who commits themselves to following God’s instructions will figure out pretty soon that God is forever asking us to do things which are hard, if not impossible. Let us look at some evidence from scripture:
God said to Moses, Why do you cry out to me? Tell the Israelites to go forward. Just lift up your staff, and stretch out your hand over the sea and divide it…
He said to Abraham, leave your home and your family. I will tell you later where you are going. For now, just pack up your whole life and go.
David, pick up that small stone over there and go kill the giant.
Hosea, I want you to marry this woman who is going to betray you over and over again. Redeem her with your love. Ensure everyone knows about your humiliation in order for them to see a model of my love for them too.
Jesus, my son, give up your glory to live among sinners. Let yourself be mocked, tortured and killed.
And Paul, you just keep on preaching until they kill you. And when you are whipped and imprisoned, be sure to count it all glory.
So it is clear, God’s ways may be many things, but “easy and light” do not seem to fit the bill.
A theologian of this age, Paul Tillich, wrote:
“It is the general human situation to be heavy laden and to labor under a yoke too hard to be endured. But what kind of burden is this? We may think first of the burdens and labors that daily life imposes on us. But that is not indicated in our text. Jesus does not tell us that he will ease the labors and burdens of life and work. Whether or not we come to Him, the threats of illness or unemployment are not lessened, the weight of our work does no become easier; and the sorrow over the passing of friends or parents or children is not overcome. Jesus cannot and does not promise more pleasure and less paint to those whom He asks to come to Him. On the contrary, sometimes He promises them more pain, more persecution, more threat of death – the ‘cross’, as He calls it. All this is not the burden to which He points.” 
So, what is Jesus talking about?
First, it may be helpful to know that Jesus is speaking as a skilled tradesman. He is flashing back to his boyhood days when he was a carpenter for twenty-odd years before he became a rabbi. His father Joseph taught him the carpenter’s trade. Legend has it that Joseph and Jesus made the best yokes to be found. Jesus knew exactly what it was for … to share the load of work that had to be done. When you look at a yoke it looks like it might be painful, but it is actually made from lightweight wood and is well designed to prevent injury to the animals that have to wear it.
Jesus fully understood that the yoke was to be made to secure the oxen wearing it side by side so that both sides would work together. This would provide relief to both animals with no room to go off on their own way. They had to stay together; they had to depend on each other to get the job done. Ploughing the rough, unforgiving earth would be a very difficult job for just one ox. Yoking two oxen together would make the burden much lighter.
Jesus also knew that if the farmers had a young inexperienced ox they would put it with an older stronger and more experienced ox so that the young one could learn. The stronger and older one would bear most of the weight of the work until the younger one learned what it was supposed to do and understood the importance of working together to get the land ploughed.
Once they started working together the burden became lighter on each one of them. Oxen are really, really slow but they are steady once they get moving. They do not give up. They keep plodding along, and they are strong enough to take on almost anything the farmer needs them to do. Occasionally the younger one would forget and try to start off on its own and the more experienced one would have to bring it back, take over again, bear the weight of the load and bring them back together as a team so they could finish their work.
It is also helpful to know that years later Jesus became a rabbi. The role of the rabbis around the time of Jesus was to study, meditate, discuss, pray, and then make decisions on how God meant us to understand the scriptures.
Just like the theologians of our time, different rabbis had different interpretations. They had different sets of rules, which in essence were really different lists of what they permitted and forbade in their understanding on how to live the Torah.
These set of rules and lists were called the rabbi’s yoke. When you followed a certain rabbi, you were following him because you believed that his interpretations were closest to what God intended in the scriptures. And when you followed that rabbi, you were taking his yoke upon you. The intent was not just to interpret the words correctly but also to live them out. In the Jewish context, action was always the goal. These rabbi-yokes included eventually a set of 613 laws that were a heavy burden on their followers.
According to Paul Tillich, this is exactly our burden still today. Religion, says Tillich, is the burden from which Jesus has come to save us. Yes, millions may have responded to the gospel by practising the Christian religion; but Tillich does not think that this was why Jesus came, and died, and rose again. Jesus came to establish, once and for all, a restored relationship with God, not a religion that lays heavy burdens on people’s backs, weighing them down without lifting a finger to help. He did not come to establish a religion that divides, that points a finger, judges and turns its back on those who do not conform to our interpretation of God’s word.
When Jesus invites us to take his yoke upon us and learn from him he wants us to learn that
“… religion says do, Jesus says done
religion says slave, Jesus says son
religion puts you in bondage, Jesus sets you free
religion makes you blind, Jesus makes you see
And that is why religion and Jesus are two different clans.” 
Understanding God’s grace above law, Jesus said his yoke was easy because he humbly yokes himself to us, bears most of the weight and gives us his Spirit within (Romans 8:9-10) to give us the inner strength to bear our share of the burden, which is, by far, the lesser share.
When Jesus says, “Learn from me,” he is calling us not just to read further in the Gospel and meditate on it but also to incarnate for ourselves the virtues demanded by his speech and portrayed in his actions. One learns of Jesus by doing, by adopting his spirit and living his imperatives. To mention just a few: Reading about feeding the hungry is one thing; to feed them is quite another. Knowing that we should love our neighbor as ourselves is one thing; to actually go and love them is a different story.
As his disciples, we are yoked to Jesus. Although the yoke is still the sign of burden, oppression, and hardship we must never forget who is pulling the burden with us.
The good news is that when the world rejects you, when the world picks on you, hates you, reviles you, when religion weighs you down, Jesus says, “Come to me … I will lift you up … I will carry your burden.”
Jesus could not put it any plainer: “Take my yoke upon you, learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and [when you do this] you will find rest for your souls.”