Reflection for the Fifth Sunday after Pentecost: The Thing About Yokes

Yokes—the kind you use to harness a team of animals to a task like plowing or hauling—do not have a positive metaphorical connotation.  In the Bible, they are almost universally a negative image.  See, for example, Dt. 28:48 (“He will put an iron yoke on your neck until he has destroyed you.”), 2 Chron. 10:4 (“Your father [the king] made our yoke heavy.”), and Isa. 58:6 (“Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?”).

There is one notable exception—Jesus.  He spoke positively of the yoke: “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.”  (Mt. 11:29-30)  So, what’s up?

There are a couple of explanations, but here’s the one I like the best.  It turns on this fact—yokes are used for a pair or team of animals, not so much for single animals (there are exceptions, but not with oxen, the usual subject of yoking in the Bible, or in Middle Eastern culture).  Yokes allow animals to work together to accomplish a task.  Yokes are essential to one rendering assistance to the other.  They are essential for common effort.  They make cooperation possible.  They make possible what would otherwise be impossible.

But for that to happen, the oxen have to give up a little of their autonomy and a lot of their freedom.  That seems to me to be the essential reality that makes the communal even imaginable for animals like oxen—and human beings.

Jesus is the incarnate reality of a yoke.  For one thing, as Paul reminds us (Phil. 2:6), Jesus willing gave up some portion of his autonomy, his freedom, in order to cooperate with humankind.  He took on a yoke.  Though he seems to have sometimes found it frustrating, he realized he was inextricably bound to his disciples as if by a yoke (Mk. 9:19). 

Human beings differ from oxen as to the yokes that are essential to our common life in only one respect—choice.  We may choose them or not.  Our common life requires that we give up something of our freedom, compromise our autonomy to some extent, and submit ourselves to one other.  Or we can remain alone, isolated, and not nearly as powerful or useful. 

Sometimes we choose explicitly; sometimes, implicitly.  Sometimes we do it by promise; sometimes, by contract.  Sometimes it’s a matter of morality; sometimes, of law.

It is in this sense that yokes are not a negative reality but an essential part of what makes us truly human, for human beings were made to live together.  From the beginning, it has been so, that it is not good for human beings to be alone, but instead in companionship.  And the yoke, as easy and light as it may be, is what makes alienation possible to overcome and companionship possible to achieve.