“Take My Yoke Upon You”

“Take My Yoke Upon You”

A week ago I spent an hour with an old friend of our family, a woman who was in the final stages of life. She was a good friend of my mother, and welcomed me to her house when I was in grade school, and best friends with her son. When Mom was having trouble in years past, her friend would call me, and begin by saying, “I don’t want to interfere, but….” She would share with me her concern over Mom’s declining attention span or other health difficulties. When Mom went to the nursing home, she was a faithful friend. And even though her family was ready for death, and we shared both laughter and tears as we sat together and watched their mom’s labored breathing and unresponsive eyes, there was a sadness—and the only thing we could do is share the burden of the mystery of death.

Everyone has a favorite Bible passage. The Gospel for the 14th Sunday of the Year (A), Matthew 11:25-30, is mine.

“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 light.”

Perhaps I like this text so much because I’ve felt burdened at times in my life, or have known others who labor greatly under sorrow and suffering. I’ve heard these words addressed to myself, and in turn I’ve shared them with others in homilies at Mass, particularly at funerals.

Part of the power of these words is that Jesus delivers a very personal invitation here. But before he does the inviting, he prays, letting us in on a very personal prayer. The prayer, if you recall, is to the Father. It is—itself—a comforting prayer because it tells us that those with a childlike heart truly understand what God wants to reveal.

God’s secrets do not need complicated scholarship to grasp. We only need to have the curiosity and wonder of a child.

In his prayer, Jesus acknowledges his intimacy with his Father. We might do the same, as the grown-up daughter did on Friday at her dying mother’s bedside. Hoping that her Mom could hear her, she expressed that intimacy which mothers and daughters often share. It struck me that the daughter was now returning to the mother all the love she had shared with her children over the years; now it was the daughter’s turn to care in love.

The wonderful thing about Jesus’ prayer is that we are invited to be part of such a loving relationship. To know and be known—as mothers and fathers know their children, and we instinctively understand them—so it can be with the Trinity!

The inviting relationship in Jesus’ very personal prayer gives way to the very personal invitation he extends. That invitation comes in three action steps:

  • “Come to me….”  This cuts through our self-centeredness, our illusions that we can solve our own problems. There’s a freedom there, like when you’ve worried over a problem for hours, and then go to someone—a confessor, spiritual director, therapist, physician, good friend—who walks you through the emotions and the facts, and leads you to what Jesus promises: refreshment and peace.
  • “Take my yoke upon your shoulders…”  It’s a curious phrase. We don’t see “yokes” much around here in the city. But my friend Brian Patrick from Sacred Heart Radio in Cincinnati reminded me that a yoke was used to allow two animals to carry a weight together, like two oxen yoked together to plow a field. I’d never thought of myself as “yoked” to Jesus, but the image was helpful. I can make it with Christ helping me. And his “yoke”—perhaps we substitute “the cross” here—is paradoxically “easy” and a “light” burden. It is, after all, the burden of love. It’s what that family was sharing on Friday morning, and doing it very well—supporting one another in walking together in their mother’s dying.
  • “…learn from me….”  Here in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus has become the figure of “Lady Wisdom” from the Hebrew tradition. In Proverbs, Wisdom, Sirach, Baruch, this biblical “persona” or figure uses similar phrases as Jesus does here. She invites her children to live according to the Torah, the Jewish body of law which gives identity to the people. And, unlike Jesus’ opponents, the scribes and Pharisees, who have rejected his way at this point in the Gospel, the “burden” of the Torah as Jesus teaches isn’t a heavy, oppressive load to carry. Rather, by living the Law as Jesus embodies and teaches it, free us. We are then liberated from ourselves to help relieve the burdens of others.

I’m drawn back again to that bedside on Friday. The dying woman has been “Lady Wisdom” for her family, and for me. She taught us well. I could see her children putting into practice what she had taught. They were shouldering the burden of living, even as they embraced their mother’s dying. And it is not her lesson, but the lesson we learn from Jesus. We’ve come to him this morning, and have heard his words and learned from him.

Let’s now take up the yoke, the cross with him in Eucharist—knowing that it will set us free, and lead us to his everlasting refreshment.

Featured Photo Credit: © iMAGINE\photoXpress
Oxen Photo: © Alysta\photoXpress


About the Author

Fr. Greg Friedman, O.F.M., is a Franciscan priest who serves as creative director on the media production team at Franciscan Media, where he produces audio and video programs. He hosts American Catholic Radio, broadcast and streamed to over 70 Catholic radio stations and available on the Web at Productions.FranciscanMedia.org. Fr. Greg is also pastor of St. Francis Seraph parish, a part of the Franciscans’ inner-city ministry in Cincinnati’s Over-the-Rhine area.
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