What is the yoke that Jesus invites us to put on?
“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened,” Jesus 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. For my yoke is easy and my burden light.” (Matthew 11:28-30)
This may be one of the most loving and grace-filled invitations of all time.
Robert Bellarmine, Bishop and Doctor of the Church in the 16th Century, says that the yoke that Jesus is talking about is the first and greatest commandment, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart.” Loving God with all of our heart, soul, mind and strength, and our neighbor as our self, is the yoke Jesus invites us to put on. In contrast to the yoke that holds two animals together for purposes of pulling a wagon or plow, Jesus’ yoke is not heavy or burdensome.
Many years ago, my wife and I purchased an ox yoke which we found in the attic of an antique store while traveling in Maine. It is massive, made of solid oak. Its beam is more than a yard in length with a girth of six inches. It is quite heavy to lift.
In contrast to such a heavy burden, Jesus tells us his yoke is easy and light. It is not a burden to carry. In fact, when we choose to love God with all our heart and our neighbor as our self, whatever other burdens we may be carrying become lighter.
Life’s circumstances can be filled with a variety of burdens — a chronic illness, the care of a spouse with terminal cancer, the loss of a job or career opportunity, the estrangement from a son or daughter, the challenge of a difficult boss or colleague, to name just a few.
One of the greatest burdens that we often choose to carry is sin. What kind of sin? St. Paul offers a long list, which he characterizes as obvious: “sexual immorality, idolatry, hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness and the like.” (Galatians 5:19-21) Implicit in this list is anger, resentment and unforgiveness, not only a heavy burden, but also an obstacle to experiencing the presence and fullness of God in our lives.
But if we accept Jesus’ yoke of loving God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength, we will want to repent of our sin, accept Jesus’ forgiveness, and experience his presence in our lives through the Holy Spirit. Instead of experiencing the sin described by Paul, we experience the fruit of the spirit, also described by him as “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.” (Galatians 5: 22-23)
The contrast of the two lists is stark. The first, a heavy burden; the second, the means to lighten the burden. Jesus tells us to learn from him. He says he will be gentle and humble with us. Paul eloquently captures the result of carrying Jesus’s yoke –
“No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him.” (1 Cor. 2:9)