Take my Yoke Upon You
Ordinary Sunday 14: 9th July, 2017
Rev'd Dr Hugh Kempster, Vicar of St Peter's, Eastern Hill
Zech 9:9-10; Ps 145; Rom 8:9, 11-13; Matt 11:25-30
Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.
Before embarking on his preaching and healing ministry, Jesus was a humble carpenter from Galilee. As a child he would have seen, and no doubt helped, Jospeh make countless wooden yokes for the local farmers. It was their bread and butter as carpenters. No doubt father and son were proud of the yokes they made; "For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light."
In the Hebrew Scriptures the yoke is a common metaphor, from Genesis to Maccabees. After Jacob steals his brother's birthright, his father Isaac can only give Esau a tempered blessing: "By your sword you shall live, and you shall serve your brother; but when you break loose, you shall break his yoke from your neck" (Gen 27:40).
The yoke was often used as a symbol of slavery and falsehood. In Leviticus (26:13) for example, we read: "I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, to be their slaves no more; I have broken the bars of your yoke and made you stand tall." In the Book of Numbers (25:5) Moses says to the judges of Israel: "Each of you shall kill any of your people who have yoked themselves to the Baal of Peor."
Liberation for the Hebrew people was symbolised by the removal of the yoke, as the exiled prophet Ezekiel proclaims (34.27): "The trees of the field shall yield their fruit, and the earth shall yield its increase. They shall be secure on their soil; and they shall know that I am the Lord, when I break the bars of their yoke, and save them from the hands of those who enslaved them."
For the early Christians, it was the yoke of unnecessary adherence to every detail of Jewish law that they were trying to eschew. In chapter 15 of the Book of Acts there is a conflict between Pharisaic believers and the missionaries to the Gentiles, ovr the issue of circumsision. Peter makes a speech, reminding the gathering of apostles and elders that God has given the Holy Spirit to gentile believers, making no distinction. "Now therefore," he says, "why are you putting God to the test by placing on the neck of the disciples a yoke that neither our ancestors nor we have been able to bear?"
Our Lord's yoke is very different from this. It is not oppressive. It is not a symbol of slavery, or legalistic expectations. "Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens," he says, "and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls."
Our Lord's yoke, that we are invited to place on our shoulders, is the burden of wisdom, gentleness, humility, forgiveness, a priority for the poor, peace, prayer, worship, compassionate service of our neighbour.
In a word, love. In his sermon on this gospel reading, St Augustine sums it all up with these words (sermon XX): "For love makes all the hardest and most distressing things, altogether easy, and almost nothing."
I had the most moving encounter at St Vincent's hospital this week. A colleague of mine in a country parish, asked me to visit a parishioner of his, who had suffered a massive stroke. After the visit, I was leaving the hospital and smiled at an elderly Aboriginal woman in a dressing gown who was taking a walk. She responded with the most beautiful toothless grin. "Good evening Father," she said, "I give thanks to God every night and day." I was tired, it was the end of the day, but I fumbled a rather benign response: "that's a good way to be."
Then she gave me the greatest gift, she told me a story that almost brought me to tears. Her son, aged 18, had committed suicide. She was devastated, as you can imagine, but then a few months later she was walking past her son's empty room, and it was inexplicably filled with a heavenly light. "What a beautiful story" I said. "It's true," she replied, "it really happened. My husband saw it too. I believe in heaven now, and I give thanks to God every night and day. My son is at peace." Then she added, "Will you tell people about it?" I promised that I would.
Our Lord undoubtedly had placed his yoke on her shoulders. And I imagine he has placed the yoke of Christian faith and love on many of your shoulders too. There's not room for it, mind you, if we are puffed up with our own self-importance and self-sufficiency. It is often gently placed there in times of challenge and adversity. And then it is up to us to carry it from that point.
It is not easy to forgive those who wrong us, especially if it happens again and again. But that's the yoke of love. It is not easy to make the needs of the poor a priority in our lives or the life of our church; it upsets our nice ordered world. But that's the yoke of love. It is not easy to put the needs of others ahead of our own self-interest. But that's the yoke of love. It is not easy to find peace, to pray, to worship, in today's world of distractions and temptations. But that's the yoke of love.
"Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls."
The Lord be with you.
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St Peter's Eastern Hill, Melbourne Australia.