Sunday the Fourteenth

Antiphon: “Within Your Temple, we ponder Your loving kindness, O God. As Your Name, so also Your praise reaches to the ends of the earth; Your right hand is filled with justice (Psalm 47:10-11).”

Gospel excerpt: “Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke (ζυγόν μου) upon you and learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart; and you will find rest for your selves. For my yoke (ζυγός μου) is easy, and my burden light (Matthew 11:29-30).”

In an undergraduate Gospel course, a student posed a question after reading these verses: “What do eggs have to do with Jesus?” The question initially caught me off guard until I realized the student’s reading of and connection with yolk as opposed to yoke (ζυγός, zugos).
I certainly could not fault the student. After all, how many times had she seen a yoked ox grazing in a Northeast Philadelphia backyard? For a good number of people, such a sight is confined to a zoo or a farm many miles from home. Yet in many parts of Africa, Central and South America as well as Asia, a yoked animal is the way to till the earth in preparation for sowing seed. (After telling this story to a colleague and her knowing my fondness for airplanes, she said I’m surprised you didn’t think of yoke in terms of a control lever for an aircraft.)

This does raise some interesting questions about the use of Sacred Scripture in our time. Some of the images used by Jesus, Saint Paul, and the Prophets – to name only a few – are images that reflect the historical context of their time. While some might want to quickly re-write the Sacred Text in the name of the cultural god of relevancy, we in our day accept the Text as both sacred (in Hebrew qadosh or qedesh meaning “different” or “set apart”) and inspired (from the Greek meaning God-breathed). Our task is to receive the Sacred Word with humility and gratitude. Then in the light and grace of the Holy Spirit, the work of sacred study leads us to the intention of the original author. With insights gleaned from this work, we are better able to appreciate the original image, make proper connections with the present and rejoice in the gift of God’s Word.

So what can we make of yoke in this Sunday’s proclamation? Jesus’ audience would certainly have had questions for him because a yoke is anything but easy. Particularly in poor areas of the world and no doubt in the world of Jesus, a yoke is a bulky, clumsy looking device that appears to be quite uncomfortable if not a somewhat torturous device. Then there is the task of putting this on an animal that weighs anywhere between 1 and 2 tons! Remarkably, the animal ‘accepts’ this device with little fuss for the most part and then permits some human to use the device to guide the its movement, particularly when it comes to plowing the field.

Jesus commands His followers to take His yoke (yes, He does command. The verb take is imperative). The difficulty is that since we are, for the most part, smarter than oxen, we tend to weigh the pro’s and con’s of other putting anything on us that will direct our lives. We enjoy our independence, even if it gets us in trouble because we follow our own selfish drives. The irony of Jesus’ teaching is that even on a weekend that celebrates American independence, He is asking that we freely choose to surrender our independence to Him (the highest exercise of freedom). He promises that dependence upon Him for the direction of our lives will always yield a burden that is manageable throughout life’s journey.

Opening Prayer:
through the obedience of Jesus,
Your Servant and Your Son,
You raised a fallen world.
Free us from sin
and bring us the joy that lasts for ever.
We ask this through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

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