For the folks at St. Thomas More in Omaha, NE.
My yoke is easy… (Mt 11:30).
If we’re honest, most of us would admit that we’re far from “self-made.” Wherever we have grown beyond our immaturity and our limitations, we have usually grown through another’s personal influence: a parent, a coach, a teacher, a friend. In my experience, these key people almost always manage to combine two seemingly contrary attitudes: 1) fundamental acceptance and 2) ongoing challenge. I find myself most free to change in the presence of someone who loves me as I am, but who desires—by reason of that love—that I become more. The football coach who wins games is the one who loves his players like sons and drives them like mules. The teacher who gets the best results is the one who delights in her students as they are but pushes them toward a common goal.
We see then a basic law of human growth: acceptance and judgment, support and challenge, mercy and justice, must meet. Support without challenge is cheap love. Rigor without basic acceptance crushes the spirit and paralyzes with fear. Only when we encounter both sides of love do we really receive the strength to grow. And, deep down, we all long for someone who loves us in this challenging way.
Jesus presents himself in today’s Gospel as the ultimate fulfillment of this longing. And he sharpens our hunger for it through the paradoxical image of the “easy yoke.” How can a yoke ever be easy? The dual purpose of yokes gives us a clue. On the one hand, yokes serve to link a draught animal to a heavy burden, like a plow. In this sense, a yoke seems wholly negative; it only adds to our heaviness and toil. But yokes do not link animals only to their load; yokes also link animals to one another. That’s how a pair of oxen came to be called a “yoke of oxen,” because a yoke fixes the two oxen side by side. Yokes don’t just serve to impose burdens; they also serve to distribute burdens.
This dual purpose suggests, in turn, two ways of understanding Jesus’ command to take his yoke. We can imagine Jesus strapping the heavy cargo of moral and spiritual perfection to our necks and walking away. And it’s true that it requires effort to be a Christian: Jesus doesn’t hide this fact. But we know that Jesus cannot mean this alone, since he reproaches the Pharisees elsewhere for “tying heavy burdens on men’s backs” without “lifting a finger to help them” (Mt 23:4).
No, there is a second way to imagine taking on Christ’s yoke: namely, becoming Christ’s yokefellow, stepping into the yoke that he already shoulders. Here we imagine Jesus in the yoke alongside us, distributing the weight onto his own shoulders. Both images capture a part of what it means to cooperate with grace in the Christian life.
But this second aspect is the one that, in my experience, we most easily forget. Our conscience rarely allows us to forget the first–that Christianity sets a high moral bar. We all know that Jesus didn’t stop at commanding his followers not to commit adultery and not to kill. He went deeper. He insisted that they stop entertaining lustful thoughts, that they let go of grudges. This is all true. But sometimes when we go about tackling our sins of weakness, we forget that we do not face them alone. When temptations of lust, or anger, or laziness beset us, we may grit our teeth and violently mobilize our will against them. But this rarely works all of itself. And Jesus knows this. That’s why he commands us in no uncertain terms: “Come to me all you who labor …”
Often, when we struggle with a pattern of sin, it’s because there’s a deeper cause, some fear or insecurity that we have not yet brought to Christ for healing. I know of a woman who had a terrible problem with gossip. She worked as a parish secretary, knew a lot about the comings and goings of parishioners, and related these facts almost compulsively to whomever would listen. She heard the Gospel all the time; she knew it was wrong; but she couldn’t stop. One day she admitted her problem to a priest. The priest simply asked her what she feared would happen if she stopped gossiping. After reflecting for a moment, she finally replied, “I’m afraid that I’ll be boring, that people will lose interest in me.” Deep down, she was afraid that she was not lovable in her own right.
The priest then suggested that she bring this fear to Christ in prayer. When this woman did so, she sensed Christ telling her, “Fear not.” She felt Christ loving her, supporting her and giving her strength. She kept the practice up; she kept going to Christ with the root of her temptation; she kept receiving his assurance. Things didn’t change overnight, of course. But little by little she was transformed. Because she became convinced that she was loved quite apart from her gossip, she gradually let go of the habit.
This is what it means to take on Christ’s yoke: to strive to live the fullness of the law’s demands—yes—but never to do so alone. It means to allow Christ to stand in the yoke alongside us, to allow him to shoulder the greater part of the burden. Christ’s yoke is easy because, at heart of Christian discipleship, we find not a law, but a person, a person who is “meek and humble of heart” (Mt 11:29), a person who loves us and shoulders our load. Thanks be to God.