Connections 07.05.2020: Yokes

Matthew 11:16-30

Merriam-Webster offers several definitions of “yoke.” First, a yoke is “a wooden bar or frame by which two draft animals (such as oxen) are joined at the heads or necks for working together.” That primary meaning makes it a good symbol for something that controls and manipulates people, which brings us to the second meaning of “yoke:” “an oppressive agency.”

The meaning of words often changes over time, but “yoke” still means today what it meant in the time of Jesus and in the time when Matthew’s Gospel was produced, which was five to seven decades after the end of Jesus’ time on Earth.

Let’s try to put ourselves in the place of the people who heard Jesus say, “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 is light” (vv. 29-30).

The people who heard Jesus speak and those for whom Matthew wrote wore the yoke of political oppression. In the case of those who heard Jesus, the Romans occupied their country. In the case of Matthew’s audience, the Romans still occupied their land, but a couple of decades before Matthew’s Gospel was written, the Roman armies under the general Titus had destroyed Jerusalem and its temple.

The people who heard Jesus speak and those for whom Matthew wrote wore the yoke of economic oppression. Those in Jesus’ audience were victims of a system that protected the rich and exploited the poor. Those in Matthew’s time had to survive in a devastated region.

The people who heard Jesus speak and those for whom Matthew wrote wore the yoke of religious oppression. In Jesus’ time, received and accepted religious tradition pushed people toward legalism and shoved people who couldn’t or wouldn’t adhere to the rules out to the margins. In Matthew’s time, the development of rabbinic Judaism alongside that of the early church made for tense relations that led to people in both groups adopting and us versus them mentality.

Our situation is far different from that of Jesus’ and Matthew’s audiences, and yet we can still wear oppressive political, economic, and religious yokes. We can still be victimized by oppressive systems.

Or—and this is probably more likely for me and for those reading this—we can, either purposely or unwittingly, participate in and benefit from systems that oppress other people. You and I probably need to consider how we’re yoked to systems, to perspectives, to assumptions, and to privilege that oppress other people. That’s a better use of our time and energy than looking for and complaining about ways that reforming such systems, perspectives, assumptions, and privilege might inconvenience us. In fact, we would do well to contribute in whatever ways we can to the reform of those systems. We can start contributing by taking seriously the voices of the oppressed. We can continue contributing by standing and working alongside the oppressed.

Jesus offered people a different kind of yoke. He still offers us a different kind of yoke. He says that the yoke he offers is “easy,” and the burden he offers is “light” (v. 30).

This doesn’t mean it isn’t challenging. To take on Jesus’ yoke is to learn to be “gentle and humble in heart” (v. 29) as he is. As the stories in the following chapter (Matthew 12) demonstrate, this means putting people’s needs ahead of other concerns, requirements, or expectations. The easy yoke that Jesus wore led him to act to challenge the oppressive yokes that people wore. Taking on his easy yoke will lead us to do the same thing. We will be wise to remember that wearing the easy yoke didn’t lead Jesus down an easy path. It won’t lead us down one either.

Maybe one reason Jesus’ yoke is easy is that it frees us from having to try to be good for our own sake.

Maybe another reason Jesus’ yoke is easy is that it frees us to do good for others’ sake, with no concern for the personal consequences.

Maybe wearing Jesus’ easy yoke leads us to do all we can to destroy the oppressive ones people wear.

Discussion

  • Jesus was “a friend of tax collectors and sinners” (v. 19). How can we be the same? What will being a friend to them look like in our context? What kind of reaction can we expect if we practice such friendship?
  • Why do you think Jesus says what he does about things being hidden “from the wise and intelligent” and “revealed…to infants” (v. 25)? What is required of “wise and intelligent” people if they are to see what God reveals in Jesus?
  • Why do we need “rest for [our] souls” (v. 29).  What wears down our souls? Do you think people are spiritually exhausted today? If so, why?
  • A farm animal doesn’t have any choice as to whether it will wear a yoke. If the farmer wants it to wear one, it will. But Jesus invites us to take on his yoke. What is the significance of our having a choice? Why would anyone choose not to wear Jesus’ yoke and to keep wearing the ones imposed on them?

Michael Ruffin is husband to Debra, father to Joshua (Michelle) and Sara (Benjamin), grandfather to Sullivan and Isabella. A graduate of Mercer University and Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, he has previously served as a pastor and as a university professor. He lives on the Ruffin Family Farm in Yatesville, Georgia. He is the Connections Series Curriculum Editor.

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