Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.
— The Gospel of Saint Matthew, 11:28-30
Those words of Jesus Christ Himself, from Thursday’s mass readings, must be among the hardest to believe and follow. They’re right up there in degree of difficulty as “Love your enemies” and “Take up your cross and follow Me.” How can carrying crosses and caring for those we curse, be easy and light?
Puzzling indeed — until one considers what it means to spurn Jesus’ yoke. It isn’t, as one may think, having nothing to carry. Rather, we take on other burdens. That’s why Jesus offered His yoke to those “carrying heavy burdens.”
For every creature devotes his, her or its lifelong exertions to something, whether it’s just staying alive, obeying inner compulsions, seeking one’s own joys and aspirations, or serving some outside entity, ideal or institution.
Whatever it is, every living and breathing thing has a yoke, from the daily begging of a destitute to the constant worrying of a billionaire or a president over the vast company or country he heads.
So if we all have wooden tresses around our necks, so to speak, the real question is: How do you like your yoke?
It’s the why, not the weight
The uncanny thing about the burdens we bear, it is often not the weight that makes them easy or hard to carry, but why we put them on our shoulders, in the first place.
A line made popular by a 1960s hit song of The Hollies was “He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother.” It’s the answer a boy gave when a man asked if he was having a hard time carrying a younger kid on his back.
If we love something or someone, we willingly, even happily expend time, attention, effort, blood, sweat and tears for the object of our caring.
Fathers and mothers toil from dawn till dark for their children’s future with no reluctance or resentment. Also seeking a better tomorrow, students skip sleep and parties to earn degrees, and entrepreneurs work long hours and risk hard-earned savings for start-ups.
Painters, sculptors, writers, composers and other artists slave for months, years, lifetimes on their masterpieces. So do scientists and inventors on their theories and devices. And thinkers and social reformers devote their lives to propagating their ideas and initiatives.
The religious, of course, devote their every day to prayer and meditation, charity work, study and preaching, plus fasting and other penances, to achieve holiness, bring the faith and divine mercy to others, and give glory and praise to God.
In sum, love impels us “to give and not count the cost, to fight and not heed the wounds, to toil and not seek for rest,” bearing and sacrificing all with joy, as St. Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Jesuit order, declared.
So in choosing our yoke, the key is to pick one hitched to the plow we deeply care for.
Which is not always possible, unfortunately. For great masses of people through the ages and across the globe serve entities or ideologies out of economic need or by force of state power. Their yokes are put on their shoulders by the powerful and the wealthy.
On a national or global scale, rulers have expended countless lives and immense treasure for country and ideology, including the millions of people decimated under the inhuman policies of Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin and Mao Zedong. Political factions use means fair and foul to gain and maintain power, with opponents and dissidents co-opted, intimidated, hounded, jailed or killed.
In the financial world, the quest for wealth takes precedence over feeding the hungry and uplifting the poor. Witness how nation after nation have been put through extreme hardship so lenders who lured them into heavy debt would be paid back. Plus the ranks of working men and women yoked to jobs that may not edify them and their families.
In sum, Jesus touched countless souls in calling on those “carrying heavy burdens” because the yokes under which many of us struggle and suffer do not stir our hearts. Or worse: the weights are put on our shoulders by those wielding power and riches to serve their ends.
Whose ends do you serve?
Which brings up what is perhaps the crucial question about the burdens we bear: Whose ends do they serve?
Those able to chart their course and do as they please, believe they serve their own ends, from personal fulfilment, gain and lifestyle to the advancement and welfare of their family, firm, community or country.
Many others may willingly or unwillingly work for the goals and tenets of an organization or entity, whose leaders chart its course and sustain its members. Then its people may embrace its objectives. Or they may simply submit to a burden they cannot cast off.
In offering His yoke, Jesus is ultimately inviting us to believe and love not just His message and vision, but Himself. And the choice for humankind is between serving their own ends or the call of God to spread His truth, justice and mercy on earth, and to eternal communion with Him and all His children in heaven.
That brings up the third aspect of our chosen yokes: Will we carry it by ourselves and our fellow mortals, or will we bear it with the grace and strength of Almighty God, serving His ends? It’s not hard to see which burden would be easier and lighter. Amen.