(Here is my sermon from yesterday’s worship. You can find the video on our church website – www.ststephenlc.org).
W. Fowler wrote an article in 1913 about how in ancient Rome, when an army surrendered, there were three options of what to do with the defeated army. First, they might put them to death. There was nothing to prevent this except the tradition among Romans against unnecessary bloodshed.
Second, they might take them as prisoners of war and sell them as slaves. But there are practical complications with this option. You have to feed and guard your new slaves before they are sold and you have to figure out how you will transport them and to where. And if you are on the edges of the empire, that would take a lot of resources and many of your own men to handle – leaving fewer for the front lines.
Third, they might let their captives go free, with or without imposing conditions on them. This was the simplest and easiest plan. But before the defeated were dismissed, they were made to go through a ceremony – a kind of dramatized form of degradation. Two spears were fixed upright in the ground, and third was fastened horizontally by each end to the tops of them. Under this arch the conquered army had to pass, stooping down to go through the makeshift arch, disarmed, and apparently wearing nothing but an under-garment, or the dress of slaves rather than soldiers or citizens. The point of this was clear to the defeated army – you have been defeated, we own you, and we are letting you live. You owe us your loyalty. You have the value of a slave.
The ceremony had a name – it was called “passing under the yoke.”
Whether we are talking about such a ceremony or we are talking about the yoke of oxen, the idea of a yoke is pretty simple – it means surrender and subjection. If you are under a yoke, you aren’t in control. Someone else is. When you are under a yoke, it means you do what the owner of the yoke wants you to do, or else you die. You have no freedom.
Which why I found today’s Gospel reading so interesting – just given the timing. Yesterday we celebrated the Fourth of July – Independence Day – here in the US. A day we remember and celebrate our throwing off the yoke of the English King. We threw off the yoke of oppression and exploitation.
In embracing political freedom, I wonder though, did we think we would be free any yoke ever again?
That’s not something we like to think about. We Americans like to believe we are free from all yokes, don’t we?
In 1892, I. K. Funk and the Rev. Newell Woolsey Wells wrote the following which I ask you to contemplate. They said, “Consider, first, a fact, that life is simply a choice of yokes. Everyone must bear some yoke, either this or that. Life is simply a choice of them. Everyone must come under a yoke of some sort.” Did you hear that – everyone must come under a yoke of some sort.
When we think about the context of what we heard in the Gospel this morning, it is important to remember that the scribes and the Pharisees would have spoken of the yoke of the law or of the commandments, but always in terms of praise. According to The Interpreters Bible, which offers commentary on Scripture passages, “To accept this yoke, they said, is to put off the yoke of earthly monarchies and worldly care.” The scribes and Pharisees would have been true to this – they were no friend of Rome, unlike the Sadducees, who were the party of the high priests in charge of the Temple and had good relations with their Roman rulers.
But Jesus, in today’s Gospel, was certainly addressing the scribes and Pharisees – even going so far as to poke at them. We hear this at the beginning of the passage when he says – “To what will I compare this generation? It is like children in the marketplaces and calling to one another, ‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn.’” This is Jesus pointing out that the Pharisees were acting like children trying to get people’s attention. They were acting as though nothing pleased them – they complained about John the Baptist and they complained how Jesus lived too. They could never be satisfied. It was never good enough for the Pharisees. What a burdensome yoke!
The people to whom Jesus spoke were already wearing a yoke, the yoke of the law. They also wore the yoke of Roman rule. The Pharisees put that yoke of the law on people – they were the religious party that valued piety after all. And when you have 613 religious laws to abide by, that turns out to be a pretty heavy yoke. Good luck even keeping track of which laws you are breaking just by living. Jesus takes the language the people would have been familiar with – the Yoke of the law – and he proposes an exchange of yokes.
Jesus was a carpenter. He probably had made yokes for oxen. He would have been very familiar with them. He would have known how they functioned. He would have known how they worked. He would have known how heavy they were. He was also a rabbi – he knew of the yoke of the law as well. He knew how it functioned and how it worked and how heavy it was. Regardless, a yoke represents surrender and subjection.
Jesus offers a voluntary yoke in its place. He does this by invitation – not by throwing the yoke over the people like the scribes and Pharisees did with all their rules. By invitation – not by degradation and humiliation like the Romans did with their passing under the yoke ritual. By invitation – not the yokes that people have been under for all of human history – yokes of sin, sorrow, pain, misery, oppression, exploitation, and more.
Jesus’s yoke is not an allegiance to religion or laws. It’s not an allegiance to a nation or set of ideals. It’s not even an allegiance to church or creed or sacrament. No, it’s an allegiance to him. And what comes with that allegiance? Jesus’ yoke is a simple following of the OT law, as interpreted by him with an emphasis on justice, mercy, and love of God and others.
The invitation wasn’t just for those who heard his words some 2000 years ago – it applies to us today.
Jesus said, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens.” Know anyone like that? Is that you? Are you weary and carrying heavy burden? Are you weary of the divisiveness and fighting over politics, over the worry about sickness and making sure you have enough money to survive? Are you carrying a heavy burden of caring for someone due to health issues or caring for a loved one? Are you burdened by the expectations that come from our society – that you are supposed to do or say this or that? Are you weary by the stubbornness that you encounter? I am.
Jesus has an invitation to you and me: “Take up my yoke upon you, and learn from me.” Take. Here’s the invitation. Jesus initiates the action. Jesus has made the yoke – he crafted it as only a caring carpenter can. He offers it. Not in addition to the other yokes that we are bearing. No, he lovingly comes with his yoke, ready to remove all the heavy yokes that we wear on our shoulders. He removes them. Take his yoke and learn from him. Follow him. Look to him. Listen to him.
Jesus’ yoke is a yoke of peace. As Henri Nouwen once wrote – “What we are called to is a life of peacemaking in which all we do, say, think, or dream is part of our concern to bring peace to this world. Just as Jesus’ command to love one another cannot be seen as a part-time obligation, but requires our total dedication, so too Jesus’ call to peacemaking is unconditional, unlimited, and uncompromising. None of us is excused!” That’s what a Yoke sounds like.
Jesus says, “For I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” Ah, rest for your soul. Not just a sitting down from a long walk in the heat and humidity of summer. No, not a physical tiredness. Rather, a weariness of our very souls. Jesus offers rest for the soul – the core of who we are. Do you need that kind of rest? I do. The world is restless and weary – it offers no rest, only more obligations, expectations, demands of allegiance, and endless demand of producing. But Jesus is different.
Jesus offers rest, Sabbath, for the core of who we are. Because when we take on Jesus’ yoke, we become subject to Jesus – we belong to Jesus. We are no longer the world’s with its image and expectations and requirements. No, we belong to Jesus, and have the Imago Dei – the Image of God.
Jesus finishes up this passage by saying, “For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” The yoke of Jesus is not riddled with rules we must follow, with burdens, with shame, with guilt, with coming to expect brokenness and violence as normal. No, Jesus’ yoke is kindly, and his yoke releases us from the expectations of the world. It releases us from the burdens. It releases us from these things so that we are free to serve, to forgive, to be peacemakers, to love both our neighbors and our enemies, to be stewards of God’s creation, to care. Or as Henri Nouwen said – “to call forth, affirm, and nurture the signs of life wherever they become manifest.”
Life is simply a choice of yokes. Everyone must bear some yoke, either this or that. Life is simply a choice of them. Everyone must come under a yoke of some sort. The world is pushing it’s yokes down on you and I, whether we like it or not. They are hard yokes. They are heavy. The world doesn’t care if you can handle it. It doesn’t care about you. It just demands more out of you. And will whip you when you don’t follow the burdensome rules and expectations.
Jesus has hand crafted a different kind of yoke. A lighter yoke. A yoke that comes with a different burden – a burden of loving care. It’s the same loving care that Jesus has for you and I. Jesus’ yoke isn’t about exhausting us, but giving us some much needed rest. Jesus’ yoke isn’t about making us conform to the expectations of this world, but rather bringing us into encounters with the unexpected – unconditional love, love of enemies, forgiveness, care for the poor and the weak, seeing the Imago Dei in all people, and being a part of God’s kingdom, experiencing God’s Shalom. Or as Martin Luther King, Jr once said “I have decided to stick with love. Hate is too great a burden to bear.” Amen.