There’s a legend preserved in the Eastern Orthodox Church told about Jesus’ life before he began ministry. The story goes that Jesus had become a master carpenter, and he made such good yokes that people from all around would come to him to make yokes for their oxen.
Jesus lived in an agricultural community where most people made a living by farming and livestock. For the heavy work in Palestine they used a team of oxen. For the oxen to pull a load, a burden, they would need a yoke. Yokes were made of wood, and this was one of the carpenter's primary jobs in Jesus' time. Basically, a yoke is a long wooden beam to fit over the necks of a pair of draft animals, usually oxen, to harness them together to pull a plow, a cart, or some other load. (1 Sam 6:7). Yokes were also used for humans. These were simple beams or poles carried across the shoulders with a load attached to each end. With them, laborers were able to carry heavy loads. (Jer 27:2; 28:10, 13)
In order for a yoke to work right, the farmer would actually bring his ox to the carpenter, who would measure the animal. Then, when he had roughed out the yoke, the farmer would bring the ox back for a final fitting. The carpenter might line the yokes with cloth or leather, so that they would not chafe against the neck excessively. It was a tricky business, because the wood had to be crafted just right. If the yoke was too tight, it would dig into the animals, choking them. The legend has it that the yokes Jesus made were always perfect; they were made to fit easily, making the burden seem light.
In that time, as in our own, a shop owner would put a sign over the door of his shop, telling of his work. The legend goes that the sign over the door of Jesus' shop said, "MY YOKES FIT WELL." How fitting that today we reflect on the words of the master yoke maker who yokes himself unconditionally to us – to relieve us of burden and hardship.
According to Jewish tradition, to be in a right relationship with God is to accept the yoke of heaven. The prophets Jeremiah and Isaiah also tell us that to be burdened with sin is to live under the heavy yoke of slavery, a slavery that is cruel, overbearing, oppressive. The yoke of slavery is the worst humans can bear, to be yoked to something, cruel, punishing, in absolute control of us of body and soul and spirit.
Human beings, however, are created to be yoked. We need help to grow and achieve anything in life. We need guidance, support, encouragement. We need to be yoked to something stronger, greater to reach our goals. If we are not careful, we can become yoked to something negative but powerful, something manipulative – something that would control us for evil purposes. So, today’s text asks us: to what or whom are we yoked? Goals of material gain? Are we yoked to sinful cultural norms? We become misyoked, and it is heavy, harmful and painful. It weighs us down. We need to equally yoked in our relationships, to push forward with strength. Most of all, to bear up well, we need to be yoked to Jesus.
Jesus uses the yoke as a powerful image of what it means to be in relationship to God through him. Being yoked to Jesus means we do the work he did and live the way he lived (1 Cor 11:1; 1 Peter 2:21). It also means we do not go through life alone – Christ is there, alongside us, at times carrying us, like the image of the good shepherd, carrying the lamb on his shoulders. Jesus encourages us, telling us his yoke is easy – because he is gentle and humble of heart.
Yoked to Jesus we feel the load is bearable. We can stand straight. As a professional carpenter, Jesus knew how to shape a yoke to fit so that maximum work could be performed as comfortably as possible. In the same way, the yoke that Jesus offers us is easy to bear --- but powerful in results. Jesus reminds us it is not strength of body or a fiery temperament that will pull us successfully through the ups and downs of life, but gentleness and humility.
Humility is also often misunderstood. Many think of humility as poor self-esteem or being timid. But that cannot be true if Jesus used this word to describe Himself. Throughout the gospels Jesus is confident in His identity. He confronts those who need confronting. He never walked away from a difficult situation. He never failed to give an honest answer even if others disliked him as a result or manipulated his words. In the Hebrew Scriptures, the great leader and liberator, Moses, is considered the humblest man on the face of the earth (Num 12:3). The apostle Paul said that he had been “serving the Lord with all humility” (Acts 20:19). C. S. Lewis gives a great definition of humility, “Humility is not thinking less of yourself but thinking of yourself less.”
Jesus says to us: I will help you do great things with love. I will show you how to be gentle and humble. The most significant trials we face have to do ultimately how we are to respond and consider others, the moral choices we make that affect the wellbeing of our nation, our family, our church and our neighborhood – strangers. Humility trains us to count others higher than ourselves (Eph. 2:3). Yoked to humility we become considerate of others, we realize our well-being to linked to the well-being of others.
Being gentle is described this way by Isaiah 43:3 “A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out.” Underneath these images is the understanding of the correct use of power. Our strength is to be used to be of greatest benefit. If we applied brute force with a child, they could be seriously harmed. If our words are applied brutally, even if what we are saying is correct, we can cause damage. Jesus did not deal with sinners in a hard manner. He was gentle with them, inviting them close, spending time eating and drinking with them. And they loved him for it. Jesus wants us to us the God-given talents and powers we have and channel them in a gentle way, a way that encourages others, builds others up, especially those who are in pain, oppressed, at their wit’s end.
As we celebrate Independence Day weekend, we are called to seek to heal our nation’s troubles and wounds, we need to fix to what our nation is yoked. To inequality. To corruption. To racism. To greed and self-centeredness. We need to change our Yoke so we can produce a harvest of righteousness and peace, sowing in peace.
The yoke of gentleness and humility, a yoke of upbuilding people, putting other needs first, being kind-hearted, handling wounds with patience and gentleness, our yoke can guide us to heal well. Jesus’s Yoke of gentleness and humility, the opposite of slavery, can make our nation heal and spiritually prosper. Let us be yoked well, carrying each other well, working well, balanced well, so we can move forward, and shine bright once more across our great land. Amen.