Wearing the Surprising Yoke of Christ

This invitation is among Jesus’ most famous words (Mt 11:28-30):

“Come to me, all who labor and are heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

YokeTillers International put out a document on how to build a yoke (in case you were looking for a wood shop project).  They noted that a typical wooden yoke might weigh 50-60 pounds, certainly more than I’d care to carry in a backpack each day but hardly problematic to a team of animals who might weigh a couple tons collectively.

That got me to thinking about the yoke Jesus offers.

He says that it will not feel burdensome. He also says that wearing it will be a form of learning.

Here is where the image surprises.

Yoke-talk was common-place among first-century rabbis. It spoke of whose rule one was living out, whose Torah-interpretation one was holding, whose “way” one was walking.  Typically, potential students might approach a teacher under whom they desired to learn.  Some sort of “application” would take place, with testing and gauging of whether this student was suitable for this master.  Jesus splits from the standard operating procedures immediately by putting out a call of invitation, particularly to those whose current yokes are crushing them. To the wearied and the worn, a restful yoke awaits.

How can it be so?

I mean, Jesus is the same one who called his followers to “be holy, as God is holy”. He told them that they would need to pursue a higher form of righteousness than the minutia-minded Sinai-sticklers of their day, so we can safely conclude that he was not speaking of slack standards or halfway holiness.

Perhaps the clue lies in the imagery of the yoke.

Yoke-Jesus-Matthew-11-28-30-300x225Picture it.

See the metaphor: View the farm, hear the livestock, assess the fields to work.

Imagine it.

Place yourself there: Smell the dirt, breathe the air, feel the weight of a yoke.

At this moment, where is Jesus?

If there is a yoke and we are wearing it, then it seems easy enough to assess our spot in the sketch. We are the beast of burden, ready to plow under the watch of a master. Simple enough.

But where is Jesus?

That seems easy too.

I mean, if he’s the owner of the yoke, then he is the farmer, intent on training us to be obedient and useful to himself.  Every facet of that metaphor works for standard Christian teaching.

However, I cannot help but wonder if we’re missing a key–a very key–detail.

Farmer with working elephant. IndiaYears ago, my wife and I spent time in southeast Asia. At a number of spots, we encountered elephants: We rode some, we fed some, we visited reserves and protection programs.  We also witnessed elephants being used as work-animals. Be assured, you can get some stuff done with an elephant! Who needs horsepower when you’ve got elephant power and a trunk?!

One of the trainers said that when they’re working with a new elephant, they match him up with their best elephant. The rookie gets yoked alongside the expert. He gets mastered; he gets discipled.

And that is what I think we’re missing when we read Matthew 11.

It makes all kinds of sense to see Jesus as the yoke-owning, beast-breaking farmer.

Perhaps it makes all kinds of more sense to see Jesus as the yoke-sharing, way-walking beast beside us.

He straps us to himself and shows us how to walk.  Like stubborn elephants, we pull against and jostle with the yoke and the partner. And like the steady guide, he holds the line, graciously allowing us to learn and adjust. When pride breaks and rebellion subsides, we discover that we can sync our strides to this steady companion.

And in that moment of coordination and partnership, we discover that we don’t even notice the yoke upon us.  The load is shared, and truth be told, he is bearing the weight so completely that our portion merits no mention.  Beyond that, we begin to realize that a life of satisfying fruitfulness has begun.

Welcome to the life of the disciple!

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