Matt. 11.16-19, 25-end
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit
There are many passages in the gospels where Jesus emphasises the cost of discipleship. “I have not come to bring peace, but a sword… one’s foes will be members of one’s own household… whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”
But today we have a collection of sayings that concludes with the promise of finding rest from Jesus, who describes Himself as “gentle and humble in heart”. Jesus promises rest for those who are “weary and carrying heavy burdens” – rest in His “easy yoke”.
The promise of rest seems to be at odds with the Jesus who promises not peace but a sword; it seems to be at odds with the Jesus who requires his followers to take up their cross and follow him.
And the complications grow when we consider that the image of the “easy yoke” is a strange image, an image that is almost at odds with itself. The image is not restful or easy – a yoke is a bar of wood used to join two oxen together, sometimes combined in larger groups, to pull a plough or a heavy load – and yet in Jesus’ “easy yoke” we are promised rest for our souls.
It is possible I think to analyse this image at a psychological level, and at that level there is a truth in it. I’m sure we’ve all at one time or another had to make difficult decisions. We’ve all had at times to choose a difficult option we knew to be best, when easier options appeared to be available. We’ve all had to decide on taking courses of action we would rather have avoided.
And so often, the hardest thing about taking a difficult decision is simply taking the decision. It can be an agonising process, but once the decision is made, things often become quite simple. Deciding single-mindedly on what seems to be a difficult course of action is often harder than actually pursuing that course of action; once the apparently easier alternatives have been rejected, our energies are focussed. Once the harder path has been accepted, the difficulties appear less daunting and sometimes even just melt away. Following Jesus can be like that sometimes. Accepting His yoke, accepting His path of sacrifice, accepting the apparent constraints of following Him – viewed from the outside, at the point of decision, it can seem to be a hard path. But once you have committed yourself wholeheartedly to Him, the constraints that you once feared become the very sources of your liberty.
But of course it’s not always so easy. As S. Paul writes in his letter to the Romans, “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” We are so often contradictory, contrary creatures, with a sort of inbuilt swerve towards being naughty. We so want to be good, but somehow despite our better selves we find ourselves drawn towards the bad.
And that is why Jesus’ words in today’s gospel can sometimes be so difficult to take. “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me… my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” Easy? Light? Really? ‘“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” All your heart. All your mind. Is that easy? “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” The love and care and attention you lavish on yourself, your clothes, your food, your leisure, your holidays, your scheming for your own advantage, your emotional energy – all that care and attention you should lavish equally on your neighbour. Is that easy? We might want to do those things in principle, but in the nitty-gritty of everyday decision-making, we so often find that we do not do what we want, but we do the very things we hate.
Let’s come back to the image of the yoke. For there is something else in the image, something that goes beyond the psychology of decision-making. What does a yoke actually do? It gives the ox direction. But it does more than that. It also binds it to others, allowing oxen to work in pairs or in larger groups.
By accepting Jesus’ yoke, we do not bear the burden alone. Our labours are united with those of our brothers and sisters in Christ. We pray for them, they pray for us; when we go wrong, they go right; when they go wrong, we go right; we carry each other, we bear one-another’s burdens.
This is a poignant thing to reflect on today, on this our first Sunday together in many weeks. It’s amazing to think that it was Lent when we last gathered in church, and many of us have keenly felt the absence of that togetherness we usually enjoy Sunday by Sunday, and at our weekday services as well. For my part I have found it quite hard going, especially preparing sermons. Preaching is really hard when you feel yourself to be disconnected from the people you will be addressing. I’m sure all of you have found it hard too, in different ways. And so we rightly rejoice in being together again, and in bearing the easy yoke together.
But there is still more to Jesus’ easy yoke. Not only does it give us direction, not only does it bind us to our brothers and sisters in Christ, but it binds us to Christ Himself, and in Him lies our hope. And even when we feel ourselves to be at our most alone, in self-isolation in whatever form that may take, in our moments of desolation and despair, He does not abandon us. And in Jesus’ easy yoke, our labours, and such good as with His help we are able to accomplish, these things are united with the saving labours of the One who bore the weight of the Cross for our sake. For in our acceptance of Jesus’ easy yoke, and in the sacrament of the altar we celebrate together at last here this morning, our poor offerings and sacrifices are united with His full, perfect and sufficient sacrifice, to whom with the Father and the Holy Spirit be all praise and glory now and for ever.