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“The Yoke of Freedom”
Sermon on Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30 (Romans 7:14-25)
14th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A
If Jesus’s ministry were a campaign for political office, this is the point at which his strategists might be calling for a mid-course correction. The ministry is not going especially well at this point in Matthew’s narrative. Jesus has some populist appeal, to be sure – since the Sermon on the Mount, he has performed a series of healings, and the word is spreading about his deeds of power. But not everyone has accepted his message. The people in power have been especially hard to win over: the Pharisees, or members of the religious elite, have been suspicious of him from the beginning, and now their criticism has ramped up considerably.
It was hard to tell what people wanted. John the Baptist, it seems, was too stern and strict. He fasted and abstained from hard drink, and advocated an ascetic way of life. People probably felt guilty about their own loose ways when they were around John. Then along came Jesus, who went to parties and enjoyed himself, ate and drank what was offered to him, and accepted everybody, but that didn’t seem right either – they called him a glutton and a drunkard and a friend of sinners. So John was too serious and Jesus was too frivolous. In the words of the song quoted by Jesus in our reading, John was the wailer, calling people to repentance, and Jesus was the flute-player, calling them to rejoice in the coming kingdom of God.
At this low point in his ministry, you would think Jesus would offer something both dazzling and attractive. If he were a politician, he would undoubtedly offer a tax cut. But as we know, Jesus was not one to waste his energy trying to figure out what people want. He was going to offer them what they needed, regardless of what they thought would please them.
What he offers them is freedom. But he uses a strange symbol to describe this freedom – he calls it a “yoke,” which sounds like just the opposite. But accepting this yoke, Jesus says, is the one sure way to find something that everyone needs: “rest for [their] souls.” From what he could see, they needed rest specifically from the burden of the religious law.
To be clear, Jesus was not dissing or dismissing the law. Earlier in the Gospel he says, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill” (5:17). The problem was that by the time of Jesus, the Pharisees had developed such a strict code of regulations that most people were not able to observe all of them. To those who felt the law as a burden, Jesus was offering them not so much a way out, but a better way.
That’s what Paul was arguing for, too. Paul told the Roman Christians how they could be free of the agony he describes in Romans 7: “I do not understand my own actions.” I know what is the right thing to do, but I don’t do it. Who will rescue me from this deathly way of life? As Eugene Peterson paraphrases in The Message, “I realize that I don’t have what it takes.”
Scholars have puzzled over the context of this anguished outcry of a stricken conscience. It doesn’t really sound like a description of Paul himself before he met the risen Christ, but it is very definitely a description of a troubled human soul feeling the burden of religious rules. Paul has a rather complicated argument about how religious law itself implicates human beings in sin, but the gist of it is something we are all familiar with: when you are told not to do something, suddenly doing that very thing becomes much more tempting. If you are on a restricted diet, for example, the foods you are not supposed to eat suddenly seem more tantalizing.
And there is something in us that just wants to disobey orders. When I was a Doctor of Ministry student at Pittsburgh Seminary, a group of us were given a tour of a special room at the seminary, a kind of “holy of holies” which contained the personal desk of the great theologian Karl Barth, with some of Barth’s papers under glass on the desk. We were all adults, mostly in our 40s and 50s, but the guide told us beforehand not to touch the desk – and to reinforce it, there was a sign on the desk saying “Do Not Touch.” We all stood at a respectful distance while our faculty guide talked about Barth and his time in America. When it was time to leave, though, and our guide’s back was turned, my friend and classmate from the Church of Scotland darted out her hand and quickly touched the desk with a triumphant smile on her face.
Of course, the temptations we all struggle with go way beyond desk-touching. And those of us who would never, ever break a rule may be trapped by something that’s way more enslaving than rules and regulations, and far harder on our souls -- like the trap of perfectionism, that keeps us constantly striving without ever feeling content. The perfectionist never feels good enough. No honor, no accomplishment, no good deed performed, brings any satisfaction or peace of mind. The perfectionist, underneath all her achievements, is always torturing herself with the thought, “I realize that I don’t have what it takes.” Who will rescue me from this deathly way of life? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!
In spite of his first-century reputation as a party boy, Jesus doesn’t tell people to simply forget about the law and do whatever they want – he tells them, in fact, to put on a yoke, a different kind of yoke from the yoke of the law. The yoke he’s referring to is the yoke of discipleship – allegiance and obedience to him. It is liberation from the heavy burdens of the religious law as well as from our perfectionistic, fault-finding, carping inner voices. But it is not exactly a vacation. Discipleship is not a formula for an easy life. Disciples are those who are supposed to love their enemies, turn the other cheek, go the extra mile, and forgive “seventy times seven” times. They’re supposed to put the other person’s needs before their own comfort. They’re supposed to seek first the kingdom of God, and let everything else – jobs, family, social life, possessions – take a backseat to that overriding concern. Disciples are supposed to go wherever Jesus tells them to, and not to expect any reward for their labors – except possibly the “reward” of resistance, conflict and even persecution. Those things, Jesus says, are all in a day’s work for a disciple.
And yet Jesus calls his yoke “easy.” The Greek word this description comes from actually means “kind.” We have to use our imaginations here, because we don’t see much farming with oxen in our part of the world, but I understand that farmers who really cared about their animals would custom-make the yokes so that there would be a minimum of rubbing and chafing. The yoke would feel light as the animal went about the work of plowing. The oxen would be able to do their work more easily.
Discipleship in Christ means getting free of the burdens that make our lives intolerable: guilt, shame, and perfectionism, and the anger and despair that go with them. It also means taking on a new kind of responsibility and accountability, to him and his purposes.
“His yoke is easy, and his burden is light.” Again, I have to rely on your imagination here, because we are not used to seeing yoked oxen in North America. But there is one very salient feature of a yoke that we urban types are likely to forget: a yoke is made for two oxen. The animal does not carry his burden alone. The farmer relies on the combined effort of two oxen to do the necessary work.
And now I am sure it is clear to you who offers to share his yoke with us: it is Christ himself, Christ the Lord, who has promised to place no burden on his disciples that he will not help us carry. “The yoke is not one [he] imposes but one he wears!”[i]
It is a better, kinder, gentler yoke than the yoke of the ancient regulations, or the yoke of our sorrow, guilt, or anger, or the yoke of our ceaseless striving after some imaginary perfection.
The yoke of Jesus will not weigh us down, for it has about it all the “lightness” of Jesus himself, who comes to us with an invitation: he calls to us with the lilting sounds of a flute-player summoning people to a wedding-dance: “Come to me, all you that are weary and carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest... my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”
Manassas Presbyterian Church
July 5, 2020
[i] Douglas R. Hare, Matthew (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1993), 129.