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When A Yoke Is More Than A Farming Tool

Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.  -Jesus

For years I've read these words and imagined two animals attached at the neck or shoulders by an apparatus--a yoke. I see them in a field, plowing or doing some hard work. In other words, I picture the header image above. And you do, too. Not because of the header image, but because that's what we've been taught--that Jesus's yoke is like this. That, just like these two animals, he wants us to yoke ourselves to him. That he wants our lives connected to his in such a way that he is the one working in us and through us. That we can't bear the heavy weight of the Law and sinlessness, but he can. This is widely how it's preached from the pulpit, printed in commentaries, and encouraged by devotionals.

And none of those applications are wrong, but what if they're... incomplete? What if there's another meaning of 'yoke' that gives a much richer, fuller significance to Jesus's words? What if we can have a deeper sense of Jesus's yoke by abandoning the agricultural image?

Remember, Jesus Was A Jewish Rabbi

Years ago, I heard someone teach a pretty hot take on the 'yoke' in this passage. It was one I'd never heard before, and it was profound! So profound, in fact, that I looked for it elsewhere--in books and commentaries, and online in the sermons of some of my favorite preachers. To my disappointment, I couldn't find anyone else teaching it. So I put it in the back of my mind, always remembering it, wanting it to be true, but resigning myself to thinking that, at best, it's an interesting thought. Last week as I began reading Andrew Murray's Abide in Christ, and meditating on the ideas of working, resting, and abiding--I recalled that teaching on yokes:

Rabbis during Jesus’ time selected students...who followed their rabbi in order to learn his interpretations of the Torah and to model his obedience to God’s law. A rabbi’s [disciples] were said to take on the “yoke of Torah,” which meant they committed themselves to obeying Torah as the rabbi interpreted and taught it. -Ray Vander Laan, “Life and Ministry of the Messiah: Study Guide”

To double-check this teaching that I needed to be true now more than ever (as it relates to abiding in Christ, and coming to him for rest), I reached out to a Jewish friend of mine at Chosen People Ministries. I simply emailed him and asked if a yoke is a rabbi's set of teachings about the Torah. "Yes, that is absolutely true!" But it's not only teachings and interpretations; it includes practices and behavior as well.

As the master of master teachers, Jesus certainly knew (perhaps even also intended) the farm analogy of a yoke--but remember, Jesus is a Jewish rabbi! We think about yokes as tools for work, but Jesus was speaking about rest. In other words, Rabbi Jesus has a way that he interprets and teaches the Torah. This rabbi has practices and behaviors that he wants us to model. This rabbi has a yoke--and it's easy! It's not like the yokes of the other rabbis. And if we'll take it and learn from him, we'll find rest. So what is Jesus's yoke? Reread his invitation without the oxen plowing the field: "Take my yoke (my teachings, interpretations, behaviors, and practices) upon you, and learn from me...and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light." 

Love God, Love People

Jesus's yoke is not about working, but about resting. Abiding in him by faith. Learning from his teachings, following his example of loving and serving people. Jesus not only interpreted the Torah, but fulfilled it! And summed it up in one--the greatest--command: Love God, and love people.

"Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?" And he said to him, "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself."

That is Jesus's yoke! Love God, and love people. Forget the farm animals. Take that yoke upon yourself, and you will find rest.