Readings: Zechariah 9:9-10; Romans 8:9.11-13; Matthew 11:25-30
Theme: The ‘Yoke’ of Jesus
On the night of October 11, 1962, a large crowd of mostly young people, many carrying torches, made their way to St. Peter’s Square to celebrate the opening of the Second Vatican Council. Excited and gripped by an air of expectancy, they hoped to hear a few words from the Pope. Tired after a demanding day, Pope John XXIII was reluctant to speak once again. However, when he saw how many people were gathered in the Square, the good Pope asked for his stole and made his now famous impromptu ‘moonlight speech’. After some words of encouragement, he said: ‘When you go home give your children a hug and say “This is a hug from the Pope”’.
Today’s gospel reading feels like a hug from Jesus, a hug especially for all who feel the weight of the world on their shoulders. The reading contains some of the most consoling words in the Bible: ‘Come to me, all you who labour and are overburdened, and I will give you rest. Shoulder my yoke and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble of heart, and you will find rest for your souls’ (Mt 11:29-30). This is surely an invitation we cannot refuse!
In his invitation, Jesus uses the image of a ‘yoke’, an image familiar to the farmers of his time, though perhaps not so familiar to most people today. This was a curved wooden beam placed over the neck of two animals (usually oxen) to enable them to pull a cart or a plough. In the bible the ‘yoke’ was often used as symbol of the bondage and oppression from which God had delivered the enslaved people of Israel: ‘I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, that you should not be their slaves; I have broken the bars of your yoke and made you walk upright’ (Lev 26:13).
At the time of Jesus, the Torah, or Law of Moses, originally intended to help the Israelites to walk in the way of the Lord as a free people, had become another yoke, another form of oppression. This was because the religious leaders had added a whole plethora of man-made rules and regulations – 613 of them – to the Ten Commandments God gave to Moses, thus placing an insupportable burden on the shoulders of the people. Growing up in Nazareth, Jesus lived and worked among ordinary people. He had first-hand experience of their struggles and frustrations. He felt for them and reached out to them with compassion and kindness, healing their sicknesses, dispensing God’s mercy, casting out demons, and giving them hope. He excoriated the Scribes and Pharisees for crushing people with impossible demands, without ever lifting a finger to ease the burden (cf. Mt 23:4). Jesus wanted to free the people from unnecessary burdens. So he invited them to surrender to his loving embrace and accept his gentle ‘yoke’. And he promised them that, if they gave themselves to him, they would find peace and solace for their weary hearts.
Jesus is making the same invitation and the same promise to us today. He is not giving us a ‘soft sell’ or telling us that following him is always going to be easy. As we saw in last Sunday’s gospel, Christian discipleship is a ‘costly grace’ (D. Bonhoeffer). To embrace the ‘yoke of Jesus’ means choosing to live by the values and standards of the gospel, not those of the world around us. And this involves resisting the permissive spirit of the age, that invites us to cast aside all restraints and create our own values. In such circumstances, embracing the ‘yoke’ of Jesus may prove demanding. But we are not left to our own resources. Jesus is always with us. We are ‘yoked’ to him. And, as our gospel reading reminds us, he is ‘gentle and humble of heart’ (Mt 11:29).
The ‘yoke’ of Jesus, unlike that of the heartless masters we may be tempted to serve – Wealth, Power, Fame – does not enslave. It frees us. Even when we sometimes fail to live by the demands of the Gospel, all is not lost. The Lord never rejects us. As our responsorial psalm reminds us: ‘The Lord is faithful in all his words and loving in all his deeds. He supports all who fall and raises all who are bowed down’ (Ps 144: 13-14). In tune with today’s gospel, Paul reminds us, in our second reading, that the Spirit of Christ is living in us, enabling us to resist the downward pull of our unspiritual selves and embrace the invitation and challenge of Jesus. Trusting in the Spirit and going all the way with Jesus is never a burden, but a constant source of liberation, peace and joy.
I end with an apt reflection from the pen of Flor McCarthy, SDB:
The Lord said to me, ‘Come to me. But I said, ‘I’m not worthy.’
‘Come to me’, he repeated. And I said, I’m afraid.’
‘Come to me.’ ‘I’m too proud.’
‘Come to me.’ ‘But I’ve no appointment.’
‘Come to me.’ ‘But I can’t afford the time right now.’
‘Come to me.’ With that I fell silent.
Then he said,
‘Come…sit down… take the load off your feet.
‘Sit here as in the shade of a tree.
Refresh yourself as at a running stream.
Here you will find rest. Here you will find peace.
And your yoke will become easy, and your burden light.’
Michael McCabe SMA
To listen to an alternative Homily for this Sunday, from Fr Tom Casey of the SMA Media Centre, Ndola, Zambia please click on the play button below.