In Old Testament times, crime and punishment was an intricate, if somewhat brutal, subject. The Old Testament and other authoritative books had many a list of illegal acts and just as many lists of prescribed punishments; justice was to be done, and the Hebrews and the other Semitic peoples knew how to dole out justice. “The basic principle in biblical law is that a person who is convicted of a crime must make restitution to the victim of their crime. For example, the penalty for theft is four or fivefold restitution to the victim…The thief must pay his victim four times the value of what he has sold.”1 Other penalties were more severe sounding, but equitable given the situation: life for a life, eye for an eye, and so on down the line. Ransom could be paid for such things, a judge determining the economic value of your eye. If you committed a crime that also managed to be a big sin, say, adultery, you’re dead, unless everyone gets together and convinces the judge not to have you stoned. In those cases, judges could have you whipped, beaten with reads, or, as a sign of judgment, you could have had a yoke put around your neck.
Yokes were not comfortable. That probably goes without saying, but most yokes were made for draft animals so that they could pull stuff around, they weren’t fitted or padded for us soft humans. Oxen, donkeys, horses, mules, water buffalo were all yoked for the purpose of plowing fields or pulling carts. The word yoke is actually derived from a Proto-Indo-European word, yugóm, from the verb yeug, which means to unite; yokes were made for two, though single yokes were made for towing around little stuff.2 Yokes were heavy as lead, or at least as heavy as big wooden beam; yokes were and still are a marvelous invention, useful for making animals work as a team, useful for all kinds of work, and useful for judgment.
And so we get to our Gospel lesson for this week. The eleventh chapter of “Matthew… has its share of turbulence. John the Baptist led off by doubting the very identity of Jesus as the Messiah. Jesus answered that question but then went on a bit of a tear in pronouncing judgment on the present generation and on unrepentant cities that saw the work of God’s Christ but refused to embrace him as their Lord. It’s quite a chapter. So maybe it’s no surprise to have Jesus round it out with a call to the weary and to the heavily burdened, inviting them to come to him for rest. Even as he gave this invitation, maybe Jesus himself was feeling a bit weary and burdened. His cousin’s doubt in him must have stung, and we all know how someone’s questioning of us does more than take the wind out of our sails—it’s a burden that saps us of enthusiasm and energy. And as a truly human person, we should not doubt that Jesus was vulnerable to that kind of hurt no matter how much confidence he had in his truest identity as God’s Son and… Christ.”3
It seems that Jesus Himself was carrying a yoke, a burden of sadness, of disappointment, the yoke of a whole world, a whole creation that had fallen before His very eyes. Jesus was not immune to the changes and chances of this human life, and in delving into this world and all that means, our God and Lord took on all of our troubles; the God who invites the weary to come unto Him is Himself acquainted with grief and sorrow.
And yet, even while wearing a yoke, Jesus doesn’t hide the yoke that His followers must wear. “Jesus’ words in Matthew 11 about his “easy” yoke and his “light” burden are among the best-known in the New Testament.” I say those words almost daily most of the year in the Comfortable Words; you’ll hear them again in, oh, about five minutes. “The word usually translated as “light” is accurately rendered as meaning something that is light in terms of weight. But the other word associated with Jesus’ yoke—the Greek word chrestos—means something more than “easy.” Chrestos carries with it more of a ring of “kindness” and of “pleasantness.” Apparently, Jesus’ yoke is the opposite of what we’d usually associate with yokes.”4
And so once again, Jesus takes the world and turns it upside down. Just as the cross, that instrument of death, has become the means of life, now a yoke, that instrument of judgment, of punishment, that symbol of brutal, backbreaking work, has become the means of unity, of rest, of refreshment. We are, as it turns out, yoked together; yoked to each other, yoked to God. We carry the yoke of servanthood to the only Master gives His servants more than they give Him; our Lord offers us a yoke, to be sure, but that yoke is an easy burden, a comfortable word, and finally, divine rest. That’s an offer hard to pass up.
1Crime and Punishment, http://www.kingwatch.co.nz
3Scott Hoezee, This Week