There are times in our lives when people try to help us; and although they mean very well, and have the best intentions, sometimes their help is really not so helpful. We might have done this ourselves. Sometimes it actually makes things more difficult or worse; particularly when something in our lives hasn’t gone well or the way we hoped, or even in a moment of loss. They might respond to our loss with, ‘well you think you have problems, let me tell you what happened to me….or I know just how you feel; it’s just like the time ….´ If something good happened to you, something better happened to them – or if something bad happened to you, something worse happened to them. They think this approach will help encourage us in getting through a ‘crisis’ or rough patch, when in fact, it doesn’t help at all. We don’t feel like our load has been lightened at all – if anything, it’s become a bit heavier. There has been no help in carrying the load – the load has just shifted a bit.
In today’s gospel, we hear an offer to those who carry a heavy load or a burden, from Jesus. But Jesus does not have an approach of saying ‘ let me take control of your yoke’; he is also not saying ‘carry my burden with me’; he says ‘take up my yoke and learn from me’
What kind of yoke could that be? Perhaps we can reflect on that for a moment. Maybe we’ve all seen pictures or videos of parts of the middle East, or Africa or central America, where people – usually the poor – are shown carrying loads of bricks or jugs of water. Sometimes we see them balancing a stick or pole across both of their shoulders, with the load of bricks or the water buckets hanging of either side, balanced across their back. They’re people, but they must work as beasts of burden. Often these images are associated with impoverished areas, where the people don’t have fresh wells, or running water.
When I picture the yoke that Jesus speaks of in today’s gospel passage, this is the type of yoke I think of. It’s often a very heavy crushing load, a real burden, stretched across their shoulders and their backs. And the people carrying it don’t have the benefit of someone to do their work for them, or machinery to carry their water or bricks, or even someone to help carry the yoke or load.
We all have a yoke – we all carry a burden of some kind; the loads that we carry are as varied as the people who carry them. Sometimes those burdens don’t seem so difficult; other times, they are just too heavy for us to bear. Our burdens might be grief, or sadness or disappointment; they might be stress or worry, fear of loss; our burdens are those things which move us away from God and each other; selfishness, ignorance, pride, apathy. Whatever it might be, we can end up clinging to these heavy loads, these burdens, until they seem to threaten to crush us and drive us to despair; to give up all hope; to give up on people or even give up on God.
But Jesus says ‘come to me’ and ‘take up my yoke’. He doesn’t ask what our burdens are, or our heavy loads are. He doesn’t say only those who labour in this way, or set conditions on who can come to Him. He says, come to me ALL who labour and are heavy-burdened. He says ‘come to me and take up my yoke’. The point of this example of the yoke, is to really illustrate what Jesus is offering us.
With this type of yoke, the pole across the shoulders, if I am carrying this type of load, and I come to someone with a similar yoke, I cannot take theirs, or carry theirs, unless I let go of mine and put it down. I have to put my load of bricks down in order to take up theirs.
This is precisely what Jesus offers; for us to take up his yoke, we need to release ours, to put it down. When we weigh ourselves down with the desire for power or possessions; when we wallow in self pity or refuse to try to better our situation in life; when we deliberately neglect those in need, we actually feel weighed down. We have a burden which is driven by fear; fear of losing that power, or those possessions, fear of having to try again no matter how difficult; fear of having to consider the needs of others before we consider our own comfort or convenience. This fear moves us further away from others and from God. We have to stop clinging to grief or anger or disappointment – whatever our load consists of; if we want to take up His yoke.
And what could His yoke consist of? What two counter-balanced loads could be on His yoke that would be so easy and light?
Love of God, and love of neighbour; these are the two great commandments that Jesus stressed through His whole earthly ministry. These are the burdens on either end of his yoke. Love of God and love of neighbour. But it is a load that is balanced – if we separate them and try to carry only one side, we get nowhere; if our love is strictly for people to the exclusion of God, it is no more than a kind of social work, it is shallow and doesn’t last; if we give our love only to God and refuse to be charitable to others, we fail to live as Christ commanded. As St. John the evangelist wrote we cannot claim to love God whom we cannot see if we do not love our neighbour who we can see.
It truly is a yoke that is easy and a burden that is light. It is a yoke that allows us to become fully human, fully alive.
But when we set aside all those things that draw us away from God and each other, we actually feel uplifted. When we put that burden down, and reach out to take up that yoke that Jesus offers, we feel it is really no burden at all. It truly is easy and light. But it doesn’t happen on its own. Jesus makes the offer, but the first move is up to us. It is up to each of us to identify those things in our lives that weigh us down; those burdens that we carry. Sometimes we can readily see those things that are our burdens; sometimes it takes more effort, that things we never thought of as ‘burdens’ really hamper our relationship with God. But once we identify what that burden is, we can freely choose to lay it down or to cling to it. Jesus doesn’t force us; He doesn’t say, ‘come close and I will take that burden from you and make you take up mine’…it’s an invitation, not an order.
It`s an invitation that we can freely respond to or not; an invitation offered in love; an invitation worth listening to again and again.
“Come to me all who labour and are carrying heavy burdens and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble of heart; and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”
Praised be Jesus Christ, now and forever!