Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light. (Matthew 11:29-30)
I love how immensely practical Jesus’ teaching is, and these particular teachings speak to the farmer’s daughter in me. It’s something I can immediately identify with, and see the wonderful grace of God in operation in a way that is supremely simple. While at first glance, the concept of wearing a yoke may seem negative – slaves, for example, were sometimes yoked together as well as being chained, hence the expression ‘the yoke of slavery.’ Alternatively, this conjures up the implication of beasts of burden, yoked for hard labour and with no will or choice to do otherwise.
What Jesus is actually doing, however, is using common and easily understandable imagery to turn our preconceived ideas inside out, to define both what He is not and also what He is. Consider the image of a slave. In the very first word, Jesus is telling us that this is a false conception. The word is ‘take,’ which implies action on our part. It is our choice to take His yoke or not. We are not compelled to do so but are rather invited to do so. We are not commanded but encouraged to participate as a partner with Christ Himself. Instead of it being a negative thing, it’s actually an incredible privilege that the King of Kings would consider being yoked with sinful humanity.
Jesus is not the slave master, the one who wields the whip and beats us for any infraction. He is gentle and humble, a teacher and leader rather than harsh and cruel. He doesn’t force us into labour, but rather takes on the yoke with us, walking beside us and sharing His strength, His wisdom, His experience and His compassion.
I’m reminded that Jesus died to purchase our freedom from slavery to sin, the law and the enemy. That freedom comes with the ability to choose. The New Testament also talks about not being unequally yoked, and this is particularly relevant in the context of free will. Jesus is inviting us to be yoked to Him rather than be yoked to the world. The inference, of course, is that our interaction in life will involve being yoked or aligned with others. Instead of being onerous, Jesus is offering us an opportunity to avoid the yoke of the world and all the negative influences this brings.
The image of the oxen is just plain wonderful. Life on the farm taught me any number of things which have helped to make this metaphor very clear. For one thing, two oxen yoked together pull far better than one. The result is that things get done a lot quicker and a lot easier. One would have twice the amount of work, and double the burden and the toll on its strength. It just plain makes sense to use two whenever you can. So in effect, Jesus is saying: ‘Join up with Me. Together, we can halve the work and still have strength and energy left over.’ He is offering to share our burdens and our toil.
The second thing is that the best team always pairs two equally matched oxen together. They may not look alike, but their strength, experience and temperament enables them to work together as a team rather than pull in opposite directions. Over time, they become familiar with each other. They learn to read each other’s responses and can even become bonded so that, when out of the yoke, you may often see them together at rest. How incredible is this analogy? Jesus is offering us a bonded relationship, a mutual understanding, a synergy with Him, for want of a better word. It’s not a one-off get together for mutual benefit. He’s saying that He’s there with us for the long haul. That, as we grow in fellowship, we will reach a place of oneness with Him that will remain with us.
The other really interesting fact is that, when training young oxen, it’s customary to pair them with an older, mature and experienced ox to ‘break them to the yoke.’ This is successful for two reasons. Firstly, the training and temperament of the mature one helps to keep the younger calm. It has a gentling effect in a situation that is new and unfamiliar and therefore frightening. In this way the younger avoids panic, which in turn avoids chaos and perhaps even harm. Secondly, the mature ox gradually teaches the younger by example. He’s not thrown in there and expected to get on with it. It’s a gradual process of walking together until the young one starts to think, behave and react in a like manner.
This is the rest for the soul – the peace, the calm, the mutual understanding. Truly, the grace of God is awesome. Jesus Himself, through the power of the Holy Spirit in us, becomes our teacher, our mentor, our guide. We have the opportunity to walk with Him and to learn from Him. With Him, the yoke is easy and the burden light. We are gradually, through fellowship and grace, transformed into the image of Christ. It will take our whole lives, but He promises that He will wear the yoke with us, every step of the way.
We have a choice. We can wear the yoke of the world, where Satan is the slave master, or we can share the yoke with Christ. The first will bring a heavy burden. The second brings the peace which passes all understanding. When the Master shares the yoke, all things are possible.