The Fourteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time – 5 July 2020
Lectionary Readings: Zech 9:9-10; Ps 145:1-2, 8-11, 13-14; Rom 8:9, 11-13; Matt 11:25-30
Theme: Take my yoke upon you
The word ‘yoke’ can be understood in several ways. It can mean the frame which ‘yokes’ together a pair of draft animals. It can also mean any one of a number of devices used to help carry heavy loads by making use of the muscles of the back and neck: yokes, carrying-poles, knapsacks, tumplines, cradleboards, porter’s knots and head-carrying. An online search for ‘women carrying water’ provides many contemporary examples of “those who carry heavy burdens.” A yoke, whatever its meaning, is an obvious metaphor for domination or ‘subjugation’ which literally means ‘bringing under the yoke’. Casting off the yoke is a metaphor for rebellion (e.g. Gen 27:40; Jer 5:5). The yoke is also an image for a way of life, as in this saying of R. Nechunia: “One who accepts upon himself the yoke of Torah is exempted from the yoke of government duties and the yoke of worldly cares; but one who casts off the yoke of Torah is saddled with the yoke of government duties and the yoke of worldly cares.”
Commentators on this reading may opt for the agricultural metaphor, as Brendan Byrne does. My preference is for the other usage. Jesus is addressing a group of people and asking them to make a choice, a choice an animal would not be given. He resembles Wisdom, inviting everybody over to a party at her house: “She has sent out her servant-girls, she calls … ‘Come, eat of my bread and drink of the wine I have mixed’.” (Prov 9:3 & 5) But he is not inviting them to a party. He does begin by offering ‘rest’ but as he continues to speak they learn this ‘rest’ consists of another yoke, less onerous, but a yoke nonetheless. The two yokes have been contrasted as the way of the Pharisees, seen as overly concerned with precise observance of the Law, and the kindly way of Jesus. This interpretation lends itself to anti-Judaism. The New Testament scholar Warren Carter offers another view. He sees one yoke as “the taxing demands of Rome … But God’s empire is life-giving, and Jesus is a meek or compassionate king whose reign benefits others.” He continues: “This use of imperial language to present God’s empire is ironic. The Gospel takes over the language of what it resists to present God’s empire.” The choice Jesus offers is not to cast off the yoke of Rome and then take up his yoke. This gospel is generally considered to have been written after the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE. Rome was definitely not going anywhere. The choice, then as now, is to take up the yoke of Jesus while still laboring under the yoke of Rome. We must try to live, as Carter writes, “a countercultural, alternative existence in the midst of [Rome’s] claims and commitments.”
For Reflection and Discussion: Each of us lives within historical, political and economic confines which constitute our ‘Rome’. How do we experience the burdens placed on us? How do we take responsibility for the burdens carried by others? How does taking up the yoke of Jesus help us in the work of freeing ourselves and others from the yokes we all carry?
Bibliography: Byrne, Brendan, Lifting the Burden: Reading Matthew’s Gospel in the Church Today (Collegeville MN: 2004); Carter, Warren, “Matthew” in The New Interpreter’s Study Bible (Nashville TN: 2003, pp. 1746, 1766); R. Nechunia, Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers) 3:5, available on www.chabad.org