“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.” (Matthew 11:28–30)
Last week I joined a prayer class at church that follows the Oremus program developed by Fr. Mark Toups. As daily exercises, the workbook has a scripture passage that we are to read in the lectio divina style. The first day of week 2 (last Friday) was the Gospel reading above.
Now, I’ve always struggled with this passage because what I knew about yokes weren’t the “easy” that Christ promises in this passage. I knew a yoke to be a device used to shackle a pair of oxen together to pull a cart or plow a field. This seems like very hard work to me. And Jesus’ yoke? He took on all the sins of all the people who ever were and ever will be, and for this He was tortured and crucified in the most inhuman way imaginable. And he wants to shackle me to this yoke?
The essence of lectio divina is to slowly and deliberately read a passage until you feel a pull to a certain word or phrase. For this passage, yoke hit me like a 2×4 across the face. I couldn’t understand why Christ would want to shackle me to His cross. I thought I was supposed to place my cares at the foot of His cross, not join Him on it.
I decided to look up the definition of yoke to see if I was missing something. I was kind of surprised to find 20 separate definitions. (WOW!) The first was the one I described above (a device for joining together a pair of oxen) but there at #6 was this gem:
“An emblem or symbol of subjection, servitude, slavery, etc., as an archway under which prisoners of war were compelled to pass by the ancient Romans and others.” (Dictionary.com)
Now it started to make sense to me. The Apostle Paul introduces himself in several of his epistles (Romans, Philippians, Titus) as a “servant” or “slave” of Jesus Christ (depending on the translation). The modern ear appropriately bristles at the term “slavery” because we associate it with the institutional subjugation of one group of people to another, often along racial or ethnic lines. But slavery as we commonly know it is evil precisely because it is involuntary servitude.
What if, like Paul, we subject ourselves voluntarily, not to humans, but to the God of the Universe? Then slavery takes on a whole new meaning.
As I was thinking about this, I started thinking about the relationship of children to their parents. Children seem to be the most happy and carefree when they willingly submit to their parents. In a sense, they become subjects—or slaves—under their parents’ authority. Their parents tell them what to do and when to do it, providing increasing freedom as they grow older and more responsible. And (with the sad but all too prevalent exceptions of abused and neglected children) kids are generally OK with this because they get fed, they get tucked in at night, and they feel safe because they know (to the extent that they even think about it) their parents are taking care of everything. Yeah, they’ll hem and haw and throw tantrums when they don’t get their way, but that just proves the point. When they defy their parents, they become stressed and unhappy.
This is useful for me in thinking about taking on the yoke of Christ, because the parent/child relationship is an often used analogy for our relationship with God. We are the spiritual children of God the Father who created us. So I started thinking. Wouldn’t the same apply to me? Won’t I be most happy and least stressed if I surrender myself to Christ?
Thank you Captain Obvious.
So now I see this passage in an entirely new way. I see Christ telling me my life will be much easier if I just give everything to him.
But this is hard for us mortals because we’re raised to be independent and free-thinking and make up our own minds about things and to think that subjection to anybody is weakness. And, yes, subjection to another human is fraught with peril because they are just as sinful and broken as we are, so we rightly put limits on how much we subject ourselves to others.
But we’re not talking about being slaves to other humans here and we’re not talking about involuntary servitude. We’re talking about willingly subjecting ourselves to the authority of Jesus Christ, Lord of the Universe, who created us and everything else, willingly subjecting ourselves to the One who doesn’t just love, but to the One who is love itself.
As an added bonus, this same passage was the Gospel reading for this past Sunday. (I see what you did there Holy Spirit, you sly fox you!) Our deacon gave the homily at my mass and he added another layer to my understanding of this previously difficult passage. He suggested that taking on the yoke of Christ means that he’s pulling the cart with me. You know, that cart full of my baggage, foibles, sins, idiocy, foolishness, and all the other human nonsense I generate for myself. Who better to help pull it than the God of the universe Himself? I can’t handle the messes I get myself into, the nonsense I burden myself with. The God of the Universe wants to take it all on for me? Yes please!
Now, as I write this, I can see this happening in my life already in the area of my sexuality. I speak often of being newly chaste. This new life began when I surrendered this area of my life to Christ. I subjected my sexuality to the authority of Christ so that (at least in this area) I have become a “slave of Christ”—and I couldn’t be happier. There is so much less stress and heartache in my relationships and in my approach to dating. For the first time in my life I’m at peace with saving sex for marriage because I know it’s what Christ wants of me.
And yet—despite already seeing its fruits in one area of my life—I still struggle with surrendering the rest of my life to Christ. It’s still hard. I’m still learning.
Image: BarbaraLN / https://flic.kr/p/eztbDK