Under the Yoke

‘Under the yoke’ is an expression that means under the mercy of an immense and unjust force, burden, or pressure. Often it refers to being under the rule of a brutal dictatorship or cruel government. A yoke is a plank of wood that connects two work animals together, or the act of connecting two things together. Picture the image of a farm girl carrying two buckets of water hanging from ropes attached to a stick balanced across her shoulders. Although a classic tool of farmers for centuries, the yoke has become a symbol of oppression.

In these difficult times we can feel as if we are under the yoke of the coronavirus. We are sheltered in our houses, extremely limited as to where we can go and what we can do. Events and celebrations have been cancelled; grandparents can’t see newborn grandchildren while families can’t spend the final moments alongside a dying loved one. Our normal Easter festivities and services, events that could have served as an emotional rock for us in these times, were not the same. We are growing impatient under the yoke of restrictions imposed at the directive of health experts.

“Respect the burden.” – Napoleon Bonaparte

This yoke grows weary with time. Think about how heavy (or light) a glass of water is. An 8-ounce glass weighs about half a pound. So, if held for a minute, no problem; if for an hour, we’ll have a pain in our arm; if for a day, we may need a trip to the ER. It is the same weight, but over time becomes a heavy burden. If we carry this burden all the time, like watching the endless news coverage or reading social media posts – sooner or later the burden becomes too overwhelming and we feel we can’t carry on.

In these days, we can add to our own burden. If we put the brakes on our physical, intellectual, and spiritual growth, we can allow the load to become heavier and plague us. The temptation to pack it in right now is a fight. We cannot bury our calling, our talents, our gifts, because of fear, uncertainty and doubt. It’s easy to fool ourselves into believing that we are living life to the fullest when we are not truly challenging ourselves due to these circumstances. We all have gifts from God that we are called to use.

“I ask not for a lighter burden, but for broader shoulders.” – Jewish proverb

An anchor in any unpleasant situation can be Joy and I don’t mean happiness. Joy is personal while happiness is circumstantial. Joy is an outcome of an internal virtue that we can work on and shape, happiness is often determined by external factors. Joy can be everlasting, happiness is fleeting. Joy helps us accept that some days we’re the pigeon, and some days we’re the statue. We are all capable of creating joy. In John 15:11, Jesus says: “I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and your joy may be complete.” The joy we have is the joy of Jesus. Notice he does not say “joy like mine,” He says, “my joy.” Jesus is placing it in us, to complete us – if we accept it.

In the Old Testament book of Nehemiah, Baruch, son of Zabbai, was engaged with many others in the repetitive work of rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem; a tedious process that took long hours and offered little reward. However, unlike the discouragement many of us might feel in that situation, Baruch was extremely passionate, and in some Bible translations, he repaired “zealously,” filled with enthusiastic devotion to a cause. Baruch rose above his yoke of monotonous labor and was joyful in it, knowing that the goal of the rebuilding was to honor God, bring Him glory, and safeguard the city – sound familiar?

Today’s quarantine restrictions complement centuries of Christian response to pandemics. The church has always urged the faithful to take every sensible precaution in defense of human life, while continuing to serve God and neighbor. When the plague came to Wittenberg in 1527, other pastors asked Martin Luther if it was proper for a Christian to flee. His response was that it was wrong to abandon the sick and dying; Luther himself remained to help. When the plague outbreak came to London in 1624, St. Henry Morse immersed himself in serving victims and even after being banned from England, secretly returned in 1635 to continuing his comforting efforts.

In the West today, we organize both our working lives and our leisure hours around consumption. We live as if youth, health, and wealth are the default settings of life. Most Christians through the centuries have not had that luxury and millions of Christians today worship in the developing world under the yoke of persecution. Why then are the slightest adaptations to our status quo, by canceling concerts and dinner parties to protect the vulnerable, such a personal sacrifice?

Few Christians would ask for this cup, but we must drink it—to serve God by serving our neighbors, and to grow closer to God. Quarantine is not a prison but a costly act of service that meets the urgent human need of our neighbors. Of all people, God’s people should be most willing to risk ourselves for others. That’s because we know that the worst that can happen to us, leads to the best that can happen to us.

In Matthew 11:28-30 Jesus said, “Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me; for I am meek and humble of heart, and you will find rest for yourselves. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

Jesus is referring to those burdened by the law as expounded by the scribes and Pharisees. In place of the yoke of the law, complicated by scribal interpretation, Jesus invites the burdened to take the yoke of obedience to His word, under which they will find rest. Despite the choice of Adam and Eve to “throw off the yoke of God’s will,” as St. Thomas Aquinas described it, we can choose to take upon ourselves a yoke that is easy and a burden that is light.

Like the oxen who are yoked to be productive, we need to “plow” and like Baruch, do so with the fruits of devotion, diligence, and joy to promote God’s kingdom. As with the glass of water, we must seek rest and comfort so that when refreshed, we can carry on with the burden. Let’s honor both the quality and the quantity of these days.

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