March 12, 2024

The Yoke of Love

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.

— Matthew 11:29-30

Many of us are feeling heavily burdened these days. Almost a quarter of all Americans experienced some sort of mental health condition in 2022. For young adults this number rose to over a third. There are numerous reasons for this. Covid, technology, social isolation, global instability, and political polarization all contribute to our sense of dis-ease. Americans and others around the world are more anxious and depressed than ever.

All of this got me thinking about the burdens we carry. Jesus tells us his yoke is easy and his burden is light (Matt 11:30). But what does this really mean?

When we think of Jesus’ yoke, we often associate it with his bearing our burden for us, so we don’t come under the full weight of this broken world. This understanding is both important and true, but there’s more to it.

Over the years, I’ve heard many teachings on this passage. Certainly, a yoke can symbolize servitude or submission, but it helps to understand more about how the yoke functions. A yoke is a wooden harness worn by oxen to assist in hauling a heavy load. Generally, an older, experienced ox would be yoked with a younger, inexperienced ox. The mature ox would bear the heavier burden as the younger ox learned how to do his work by following the lead of the elder. And so it is with us, we learn as we are yoked to Jesus.

But it is also interesting to think of Jesus being yoked to his Father. Isn’t this the type of relationship we see illustrated in the gospels? Jesus says, “Very truly I tell you, the Son can do nothing by himself; he can do only what he sees his Father doing, because whatever the Father does the Son also does” (John 5:19).

The image of the yoke teaches us about sonship. As we take on Jesus’ yoke, we too learn to follow the Father’s lead.

I was recently reminded of another meaning for “yoke.” A first century Jewish rabbi, Nehunya ben HaKanah, wrote of taking up the “Yoke of Torah,” which was a commitment to studying and observing God’s law (Pirekei Avos 3:5). This was a binding act, not to be taken lightly. When one studied with a rabbi, they took on that rabbi’s “yoke” or interpretation of the Law.

Understanding Jesus as a Jewish rabbi, or teacher, we get a sense of what he must have meant when he said, “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me” (Matt 11:29). He is telling his disciples to take up his teaching. Why? In order to be become like him.

Think for a moment about what that really means. Jesus, we are told in Matthew 5:17, is the fulfillment of the Law. When Jesus is asked which is the greatest commandment in the Law, he states:

‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments (Matt 22:37-40).

You see, Jesus is the fulfillment of the Law because he is Love!

In Luke 6:40 Jesus says, “The student is not above his teacher, but everyone who is fully trained will be like their teacher.” If we take up Jesus’ yoke and bind ourselves to him, we become like him (and like his Father!)—we become Love, thus multiplying the image of God on earth.

We can be so good at piling religious requirements onto Jesus’ commands, but in a sense, Jesus’ teaching is simple. It is always centered on Love. When our heart motivation strays from Love, we take on a different, and more burdensome, yoke. Jesus’ yoke is easy because it is not the yoke of slavery to the Law; it is paradoxically a yoke of freedom—the yoke of Love.

Will you take up the yoke of Love today?

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