(Photo of yoked oxen courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)
Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30:
Jesus said to the crowd, "To what will I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to one another,
- `We played the flute for you, and you did not dance;
- we wailed, and you did not mourn.'
For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, `He has a demon'; the Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, `Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!' Yet wisdom is vindicated by her deeds."
At that time Jesus said, "I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will. All things have been handed over to me by my Father; and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.
"Come to me, all you that are weary 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 in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light."
I've always wondered why oxen are yoked and horses are harnessed. A little research found my answer.
The force of horses pulling their load is in the hindquarters. The force of cattle pulling is in their neck and shoulders. Cattle put their heads down to pull; horses more or less squat, with heads up, to pull heavy loads. Another important concept is that the most common yoke used in the area in Biblical times was the neck yoke. This works much better for cattle than horses, because horses don't have the same kind of withers cattle do. Although all yokes, under too heavy a load or ill fitted, can push against the windpipe and cut off breathing, the hump on cattle make this less likely than with horses.
The modern horse collar had not been invented yet; harnesses of the time still had the problem of choking the horse, as they were designed with a belly girth and a neck strap. More so for horses, less so for cattle, working improperly or inefficiently "cut their air off."
But let's think a little about what yokes meant to people of the time. It was a symbol of slavery, bondage, and subservience. Human slaves were often yoked together to pull heavy things. (Think about slaves helping build the pyramids.)
Most of them would have been familiar with the concept that you trained a young ox by yoking it to an older one. The older one would not let the younger one work stupidly under the yoke so that it would be choked.
Where is this shaggy dog story going theologically, you might wonder?????
Traditional theological positions with the yoke and in the Bible are of the yoke as a symbol of bondage, slavery, and subservience.
But I think once again, Jesus is turning everything upside down. It's as much as what Jesus DOESN'T say as what he does say.
He doesn't say, "Scoot over, I'm going to take your yoke out from under you and lighten YOUR burden that you chose to carry." We are shown earlier in the passage that some of the human burdens include our ability to judge, and being ungrateful.
The people of the time would have seen the yoke as a symbol of slavery and oppression.
But look what Jesus says. He says for us to take HIS yoke. He says, "Take on my interconnectivity with the Divine. Cast off this burden of being judgmental, and ungrateful, and resentful. In exchange, you will find a lighter burden. You won't be burden-less, but you will find easier burdens."
Look what else he says, "Learn from me." Just like how the older ox will teach the younger ox. Yeah, the younger ox does get his wind cut off some, in this training process--but not fatally.
"Learn from me by being intimately connected to me--so close you can feel me move and hear me breathe. But in exchange, I (Jesus) will hear you breathe and feel you move, too, and I'll do stuff to get you to come around. Count on it."
How many times do we choose the burden of taking the judgment of God upon ourselves, and get to carry the additional burden of ingratitude and resentfulness as a result?
How many times do we back away from this offer of a lighter burden of The Yoke of Jesus, because we will have to give up our rugged individualism and give up control, the tradeoff being intimacy with the Divine and interconnectedness to each other????
The theological richness of this just staggers me.