At that time Jesus exclaimed: “I give praise to you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, for although you have hidden these things from the wise and the learned you have revealed them to little ones. Yes, Father, such has been your gracious will. All things have been handed over to me by my Father. No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son wishes to reveal him.” “Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart; and you will find rest for yourselves. For my yoke is easy, and my burden light.
As I prayed and pondered the Gospel lesson for today, I got to reflecting on this statement that is so very dear to our hearts: “Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest. This phrase in all its various translations has given immeasurable comfort to people in distress. It can be found engraved on tombstones or designed in stained glass windows or even stitched in needlepoint and framed to hang in church halls.
This is a wonderful promise, a comforting promise to which many of us turn when burdens are seemingly impossible to bear, when our best efforts to cope are inadequate and we are close to collapse. This is the promise of a loving Redeemer who will lift the sweaty loads off our backs and replace them with something that is greater than we are, and yet with this supernatural help we can shoulder any burden.
Let’s reflect on the situation in which Jesus spoke these words.
Here we are in the beginning stages of Jesus’ ministry. He had just called his inner core of disciples, the ones whose names we know: Peter, James, John and so on. Many others had decided to follow Jesus as well, perhaps as many as 200 or so. So here was this itinerant preacher and miracle worker wandering about the country preaching and teaching about the coming Kingdom of God. And he was accompanied by a whole slew of other folks.
Jesus had just finished the portion of his ministry that is generally known as the “Galilean Mission.” He had been preaching, teaching, healing and exorcising in various cities in Galilee, a region of what is now Northwestern Israel, but his reception had been less than warm. First, you can imagine the sight of a couple of hundred people descending on your village or town. That in itself would make you somewhere on the scale between curious and anxious, maybe even fearful. But itinerant Rabbis and their entourages weren’t that uncommon, so most folks took it in stride.
It also must be noted that the people in these communities were smart, resourceful, capable and most were prospering despite the Roman occupation. The vast majority were not looking for help from Jesus, nor from anyone else for that matter. Sure they hoped the Romans would be kicked out, but they knew this wasn’t likely, so they did the best they could. And like so many today in our own country, those folks may have found Jesus and his message interesting, but they were far more fascinated by the miracles than in the call to repent and amend their lives. They soon grew tired of this itinerant rabbi and his motley band of followers.
We can see how that group of newly minted disciples of Jesus would be discouraged. They hadn’t been at this very long and they were far from seasoned. It was all new to them and it was probably tougher than they expected.
The setting for today’s Gospel lesson depicts Jesus and the disciples sitting down to rest. Right before our reading, Jesus had been heaping some powerful reproaches on those who did not receive him and his Gospel message. In our text, Jesus is starting to pray. He thanked God for revealing his message to those so called “little ones” who took his words to heart over against those so-called wise and understanding who could not/would not be receptive. We read: “I give praise to you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, for although you have hidden these things from the wise and the learned you have revealed them to little ones. (By the way, if you are among the “little ones” to whom God has revealed the fullness of the Gospel, consider yourself blessed.)
And then Jesus addresses his burdened disciples by saying: Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart; and you will find rest for yourselves. For my yoke is easy, and my burden light.”
My word, what does he mean? First of all, I think he was addressing the immediate situation. It wasn’t easy following an itinerant rabbi. You were always scrounging for food and a place to stay. Frequently you weren’t particularly welcomed and often, in the dust and fatigue, it would be easy to be discouraged. We do know that some joined and then left. We note this especially in the 6th chapter of St. John’s Gospel where Jesus made the great pronouncement that unless you eat his body and drink his blood, you have no life in you. We are told in verse 66 that after he said this, many of his disciples drew back and no longer went about with him. But that’s later. Now we are in the beginning stages of his earthly ministry and Jesus is teaching his disciples about the importance of sharing burdens. That’s something we need to be reminded of as well.
Second, it’s important to note that Christ gave this message of helping with our burdens shortly after his first pronouncement about taking up our crosses. Both are critical for faithfulness; the cross shows our willingness to sacrifice for the greater good. Taking on the yoke of Christ shows that we desire to be useful for the Kingdom.
Much has been written and said about the yoke of Christ. It is almost always thought of in the singular, that there is a unique, distinctive personally made yoke for each one of us. I wouldn’t refute that, but there is another dimension here as well. Starting with a basic tenet of Catholicism that drew me to the faith, I want to affirm once again that Catholics “think ‘we’ instead of just ‘me.’” I’ve said it many times and I believe it applies here. We are communitarians. We are people who function in community with a heavy emphasis on collective responsibility and blessing.
With that as a premise, I want to do a bit of reflecting on yokes. If you’ve traveled around the world or just read National Geographic on occasion, you know that there are two basic kinds of yokes that are used to bear burdens, single ones and shared ones.
The single ones are very efficient. By placing a yoke across the shoulders and fitting buckets that are hung from poles on each side, a human being can carry almost as much as a donkey. However, a single person will tire easily and have to sit down and rest frequently. Their shoulders will ache all the time and backs will eventually give out. But it is possible to move great loads from one place to the next using a single person under a single yoke.
A shared yoke works quite differently. It requires two creatures for one task, but if they are well matched, they can work all day, because under a shared yoke there is a greater distribution of the load. They can take turns bearing the brunt of the weight; they can cover for each other without having to lay their burden down so frequently. They have company all day long and when the day is done both are tired but neither is exhausted because they are a team and the burden has been shared.
Plenty of us labor under the illusion that the yoke Christ has for each of us is a single one, that we have to go it alone, that the only way to please God is to load ourselves down with heavy requirements: good deeds, pure thoughts, blameless lives, perfect obedience while not receiving any help. And yet, as I like to remind folks, we Catholics have so much help available to us.
We start with Christ and the other two members of the Holy Trinity. We have the Angels and Saints, especially the Blessed Virgin, we have patron saints and saints who are focused on specific needs. As an example I’ve been calling upon St. Alban lately. He’s the patron of immigrants and prisoners and those being persecuted. I invoke him in my daily prayers to watch over and tend those millions of people who flee for their lives from the incredible violence and persecution that is out there. We also must believe that we are yoked with these folks in peril and distress, especially with the Christian minorities who are blatantly being persecuted. We are yoked with so many others, those who have incredible burdens and those who help carry them.
We must believe that the mysterious yoke that Christ lays upon us and upon so many others is the same yoke that he bears himself. We are called to be “yokefellows” if you will. Jesus is right here, half of the yoke on his own shoulders, the other half wide open and waiting for each of us, a yoke that requires no more than that we step into it and become part of a team. “Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest. It’s not just for select individuals. It’s for all of us who get weary and teeter on despondency and despair. And it’s also for those of us who are willing to help shoulder the burdens of others, both physically and with our prayers and by means of other support. No wonder these words have weathered the centuries so well; no wonder these words are still music to our ears.
They assure us that those who please God are not those who can carry the heaviest loads alone, rather they are the ones who are willing to share their loads and to be with Christ as he hefts the burdens of so many.
In closing, it must be said that we who are willing to share burdens are blessed by entering into relationship with the one whose invitation is a standing one. Once again we hear: Take my yoke upon you and learn from me… for I am meek and humble of heart; and you will find rest for yourselves. For my yoke is easy, and my burden light.