I have always had a difficult time with the passage from the Gospel of Matthew that we hear on the Fourteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time. I suspect that other people have a problem with it as well. This is because the passage presents us with a paradox that is worked out only through careful biblical interpretation of the passage and a thoughtful analysis of our own lives.
From my own experience, I know that yokes are very, very heavy. I use to sit in front of my family’s black and white television set and watch “Death Valley Days,” a weekly western series with former president Ronald Regan as the host. The weekly series opened with twenty mules staggering under the weight of heavy yokes which were attached to a three wagon caravan made up of a tank filled with water, a wagon loaded with borax, and a supply wagon loaded with tools and grub. Under the weight of their yokes and the heat of the sun, the mules trudged along unendingly never reaching their final destination.
And there was the weekly series called “Wagon Train” where pioneers were attempting to reach the green valleys and gold- filled mountains of California. Huge oxen whose necks were fitted with yokes pulled some of the wagons. I knew the yokes had to be heavy because all the years I watched the program the pioneers and their oxen never made it to California.
In the ancient world, yokes were fitted to the oxen that were to wear them. Measurements were taken and adjustments were made so that the oxen would not be overly burdened by the added discomfort of a poorly fitted yoke. Because yokes were usually built for two oxen, Jesus was promising to be the yokemate of those who would come to him as the Messiah.
In the early church, when believers tried to understand the way in which Jesus was the Messiah and still a yokemate, they sometimes went to the description of the promised Messiah found in the words of the prophets. In the Book of the Prophet Zechariah, the Messiah is described not as someone who would come among them as a warrior to lead them to sure victory over their enemies. Instead, the prophet depicts the Messiah as being just and meek, riding not on a horse, which was used for war but on a donkey as an ambassador of peace (Zech 9:9-10).
Scriptural exegesis tells us that the passage from Matthew’s gospel can be understood as a different version of a passage in John’s “Last Supper Discourse.” In the gospel of John, Jesus says, “I am the way, the truth and the life.” This statement captures the three fundamental concepts of the Jewish faith. The “way” which is what God promised to Moses and the Hebrew people as they left captivity in Egypt. The “truth” which was the moral integrity of a Jewish person shown by the way he or she lived their lives and the “life” which is the purposeful meaning of human existence.
Matthew’s version is similar by including the brief part that ends with, “Take my yoke upon and learn from me for I am meek and humble of heart.” Through these words, Jesus was offering himself, his attitude, and his teachings as the “lessons” to be learned by those who would follow him as the way, the truth, and the life.
Today’s gospel is a conversation between Jesus, the Son, and God, the Creator. The conversation between the two of them is focused first on their relationship with each other and then with God’s relationship with us through Jesus. The purpose of the conversation is to describe Jesus as the yokemate, the bridge that enables and empowers the will of God to be in relationship with us.
So how does the image of the yoke speak to us? Going back to my knowledge of yokes that came only from watching two dimensional black and white television and doing further research, I found out that with yokes a larger animal always is teamed with a smaller animal. While the larger animal is pulling most of the weight, the smaller animal is being shown how to pull the weight. Perhaps, just perhaps the key to solving the paradox of the gospel and maybe all the paradoxes in our lives are the three words “…learn from me.”
Fr. Bob Kelly