Come to me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke
upon yourselves and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart, and you will find rest
for your souls; for my yoke is easy and my burden is light.
Throughout the Old Testament, the yoke is a symbol of oppression. We find it as early as
the story of Jacob and Esau in Genesis. After Jacob has deceived his father into giving
him the blessing due to his older brother, there is a prophecy that while Esau will serve
his brother, at some time in the future he will gain the dominion and "break the yoke"
from off his neck (Genesis 27:40). In the twenty-eighth chapter of Deuteronomy, where
there is a summary statement of the blessings that follow from obedience to the law and
the curses that follow from disobedience, one of the principal curses is that "you will
serve your enemies whom the Lord will send against you in hunger and in thirst and in
nakedness and in want of all things, and he shall put a yoke of iron upon your neck until
he has destroyed you."
Accordingly, deliverance from enemies is described as a breaking of the yoke. One of the
favorite prophecies of the Advent, Isaiah's proclamation that "unto us a child is born,
unto us a son is given," includes the announcement that "you have broken the yoke of his
burden and the staff of his shoulder, the rod of his oppressor, as in the day of Midian"
(Isaiah 9:4). Again, Isaiah prophesied that "it shall come to pass in that day that his
burden shall be taken away from off your shoulder and his yoke from off your neck, and the
yoke shall be destroyed because of the anointing" (Isaiah 10:27).
Perhaps the most dramatic instance is that of the encounter between Jeremiah and Hananiah
in our Old Testament reading. To understand it, we need a little background. Under a king
named Jehoiakim, Judah had become a vassal state to Babylon, obliged to pay regular
tribute and to provide soldiers on demand. He rebelled, though, and during the reign of
his son Jehoiachin the Babylonian army came and besieged Jerusalem. In the eighth year of
his reign the city fell and was despoiled. Jehoiachin was taken captive to Babylon and his
uncle was enthroned as a puppet king with the throne name of Zedekiah.
Jeremiah saw that things were going to get even worse. His message was unequivocal. The
nation had indeed been disobedient, believing that the presence of the temple would
somehow offset their violations of the ten commandments, but the was no way around the
words of Deuteronomy. If they did not heed the law, they would serve their enemies. Their
enemies would put a yoke of iron on their neck. As a symbol of this, he wore a yoke on his
own neck. Hananiah had a more welcome message. He announced that the Lord had already
broken the yoke of Babylon and that within two years the stolen treasures would be
returned. To dramatize this promise, he broke Jeremiah's yoke.
We can well understand that ordinary people would not know what to believe. There had been
miraculous deliverances in the past. There were hallowed principles that called for
punishment for transgression. In a way, both prophecies came true eventually. The temple
was destroyed and the people were taken captive to Babylon. Not two years but two
generations later, though, Babylon itself was conquered by Persia and the captives were
encouraged to return, bringing with them many of the sacred treasures of their temple.
It would not be all that long, though, before their fortunes would turn again. Early in
the fourth century, the whole region fell to Alexander the great, and when his empire was
divided after his death, Judea fell to the lot of the Ptolemies of Egypt. Then the Greek
empire faded as Rome's star rose, and little Judea was engulfed, dwarfed by the Roman
In Gospel times, Judea was again under the yoke of an oppressor--a fact we may overlook
because that particular phrase does not occur in the Gospels themselves. We can be very
sure, though, that when Jesus used the word "yoke," the first thing that would come to his
hearers' minds would be the control that Rome exercised over them--the taxes that were
collected, the soldiers that patrolled their streets, the young men who were conscripted
for building projects or for military service.
Unless we are aware of all this background, we cannot realize that Jesus is here taking a
familiar term and giving it a radically new meaning. He is not talking about breaking the
yoke, the way the prophets did. He does not seem to be talking about Rome at all. He
recognizes that these people are laboring under heavy burdens and he does promise them
rest, but he apparently assumes that they will go on wearing a yoke and carrying a burden.
The difference will be that this yoke will be easy, and this burden light.
It all makes sense if we simply recognize that the yoke and the burden are symbols of all
kinds of obligation. We pride ourselves on being "the land of the free" and since the
American Revolution have not been under foreign control, but as individuals we often find
ourselves feeling severely constrained. Sometimes it seems as though what everyone else
demands of us or simply expects of us leaves us no room to do what we really want to do.
Every time we turn around, an obligation is staring us in the face.
If we could see ourselves through children's eyes, things would look very different. To
children, it looks as though adults have the power to make all the decisions. As children,
we ourselves longed and worked for what we saw as the independence, the freedom of
adulthood, when parents would no longer make our choices for us. As adults, it can be hard
to realize that this longing has been fulfilled. What we have discovered, though, is that
every freedom brings with it a corresponding responsibility.
The childhood dream is a little like the vision of the prophets, that someday the yoke
will simply be broken. Someday, that is, we will be free of all obligations. There is a
touch of this in current social thought, which lays heavy stress on inequalities of power
and draws a sharp line between the oppressed and the oppressors. The inequalities and
injustices are very real, make no mistake about it. However, it is an illusion to think
that "the oppressors" live and choose in some kind of freedom from obligation. Some of
them in fact turn out to be excessively or even obsessively "driven" individuals. They
work long hours under debilitating stress. Their family life suffers drastically. They
wind up with ulcers and heart attacks. Their burdens are heavy and their yokes are harsh.
It may be true that these yokes and these burdens are of their own choosing and even of
their own making, but this is only partly true. They did not invent the social pressures
toward "success." In reading Betty Friedan's The Fountain of Age, I was struck by her
stories of a couple of women who remarried in late middle age. Both of them said that
these second marriages were far better than the first, and that the husbands were types
that they would not have given a second glance to when they were younger. I suspect that
the husbands might say the same thing. The point is simple. As a young person of either
sex, given what the other sex is looking for, what do you have to do to get that second
glance? Evidently, what you have to do does not have much in common with being a good
We are indeed social creatures. If the freedom we are looking for is freedom from all
outside pressures, we might as well give up right now. If we could find it, our lives
would be meaningless because nothing we did would matter to anyone but ourselves. From a
Christian point of view, this social nature is no accident. The second great commandment
is that we love the neighbor as ourselves. The Lord added depth to this in commanding us
to love each other as he has loved us.
If we put this together with the idea of freedom, something quite remarkable happens.
"Whatever we do from love," Swedenborg says, "appears to us to be free" (Arcana Coelestia
¶ 19375). When we love to do what exalts ourselves at the expense of others, though, we
set ourselves at odds with those others. We choose to live in a world that resists our
intentions. Conversely, when we love others as the Lord has loved us, we find delight in
their delight. We choose to live in a world that welcomes our intentions.
There could be any number of illustrations of this. If as a sales clerk I find real
satisfaction when customers find what they are looking for, I will feel free when I am
doing what customers want me to do. I will not feel that their legitimate expectations are
burdensome. We will be on the same page, so to speak. If as a teacher I find delight in
students' discoveries, my mind will of its own accord turn to reflection on their learning
processes and preparation for classes. These will not be felt as obligations imposed by
the system but as tendencies of my own being.
Further, our theology insists that what forms our eternal character, what makes the
difference between heaven and hell, is our own daily choosing. We are kept in enough
freedom to respond more constructively or more selfishly to our circumstances, and the
choices we make in that freedom are the choices that gradually form our eternal character.
When we choose self-gratification at the expense of others it feels like freedom, but it
leads toward slavery. When we choose to discipline ourselves toward what we know to be
right, it feels like acting under constraint, but it leads toward freedom.
Again, there is no lack of examples. Professional athletes have extraordinary physical
capabilities. These capabilities give them a measure of freedom that is striking--they can
do things that are utterly impossible for most of us. They gained that freedom by hours
and days and months and years of practice, of self-discipline. Going out and hacking
around when the spirit moves us does feel like freedom, but it does nothing to expand our
One Gospel image of this is that of the narrow way that leads to life as opposed to the
broad way that leads to destruction. That describes vividly the way things look at the
beginning. The broad way is the set of mind that sees freedom simply as the breaking of
the yoke. The narrow way is the search for the yoke that fits and the burden that is made
for us to carry.
This is the Lord's yoke. If we try to shape it for ourselves, we shape it for our own
gratification and run into all the problems that entails. What we need to do is to try to
understand the Lord's will, to reflect on his life and his words, and to pursue in our own
lives the values that we find there. He understood the people he met. As we try to
understand each other, we learn about ourselves as well. He translated that understanding
into caring, thoughtful deeds and words. As we try to follow this example we discover our
own resistances and our own gifts. We find our own unique ways of being his disciples.
We might say that the Lord does not want to transform us into angels. He wants us to be
ourselves and angels at the same time. The Psalmist tells us truly that the Lord does not
withhold anything good from us. Our deepest happiness does not lie in freedom from all
obligations, but in finding the obligations that we love, that bind us into the community
we call his kingdom.