Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Obedience is not a burden but freedom

Fourteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time Year A

I have no illusion that growing up as a child in suburban Petaling Jaya is quite different from growing up, say in some small rustic rural town or even on a farm. Nevertheless, I can proudly boast that I was privileged to have experienced a mini-farm at the back of my family home. Well, perhaps I should not call it a farm - a few chicken coops do not a farm make! But we had an entire menagerie of animals at one time or another – chickens, rabbits, pigeons (this was before the Avian flu epidemic and health warnings about bird droppings), and some other unmentionable creatures. I considered myself privileged (though a little traumatised as I had to participate in the periodic slaughter of fowl for the dinner table) as I was able to personally witness the entire cycle of life of a chicken from egg to mature bird. I definitely knew that chickens did not come from the supermarket or the freezer. They once had feathers and they ran around. Gulp.

Today’s generation may be considered impoverished as most urban children would not have seen a life animal, apart from their pets and those kept in the safe enclosures of a zoo. So, when Our Lord uses examples from farming and agrarian life, these would surely seem foreign to many of us. A yoke? What’s that? Even if one were to have grown up on a farm, a yoke would still be an alien concept. The reason is that yokes aren’t used much today. Let’s state the obvious by painting a verbal picture of this contraption. It is a wooden harness used to guide oxen or other draft animals while ploughing fields. It has been replaced by tractors or other mechanised equipment.

In a figurative sense, the “yoke”, used frequently in the Old Testament, came to mean something more severe: to subjugate, or force into labour or bondage, as with a beast of burden, or worse, a slave; truly unpleasant ideas in an age that values autonomy above all else. In fact, this may be the very perception of many people who find the rigours and demands of religion excessively oppressive. The famous quote of Karl Marx comes to mind. He taught that religion was “the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of heartless world, just as it was the spirit of a spiritless situation.” And yet, Jesus uses this very image to speak of freedom.

At first glance, the Lord’s words in the gospel this Sunday may seem to offer a rather simplistic and strange way to follow. “Come to me, all you who labour and are overburdened, and I will give you rest.” No problem with that. But then the method of finding rest which follows seems like a sick joke: “Shoulder my yoke and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.”  It does seem like substituting one burden with another. In fact, we would not be far from Marx’s view if we were to interpret these words as an invitation to accept our labour and predicament without complaint, as oppressed people accepting everything in the hope of finding the pie in the sky! And to clinch the deal, the Lord concludes with this puzzling statement, “Yes, my yoke is easy and my burden light.”

I think it is fairly accurate to say that the majority of us do not always feel like this is true. There are days, weeks, or even prolonged seasons in which following Christ seems torturous, when His yoke seems unbearably hard and His burden feels crushingly heavy. The reasons for this disconnect between Christ’s words and our personal experiences are definitely worth pondering over. So, how can we properly understand these words?

Let us examine the context and meaning of the Lord’s words. He was speaking to Jews under the Mosaic Law who were heavily burdened both by their inability to obey the Law and by their corrupt religious leadership. He was inviting them to enter into His New Covenant rest—not a kind of rest that is void of submission and obedience, but a kind of rest in which He supplies the power to submit and obey. He who perfectly obeyed the Father’s will would be our model of obedience. The Lord calls us to come out from under the crushing load of sin and embrace faith-driven, love-saturated, divinely-empowered obedience. What He invites us to discover is; to do by love what we have been taught to do by duty. Too often, however, we fulfil our duties simply by duty, like religious petty bureaucrats without freedom who forget the spirit of our rules and laws. We observe the religious prescripts of worship and moral obligations because we fear reprisal and punishment from God. This is precisely the reproach Jesus made to the Pharisees: to lose sight of the centre implies to make things more difficult.

This is why Jesus says His yoke is easy and His burden light. We should not, however, be under the illusion that the commandments of Our Lord, that His Laws are lighter than those of the Jews. In fact, as the Sermon on the Mount, so rightly demonstrated, Our Lord sets a much higher standard as He reformulates the Mosaic Law. His demands go above and beyond a mere outward conformity to the Law and deal instead with the inner person. The standard is higher because although the law sets limits, Love doesn’t!  And when we choose to do something out of love and not because it is required by the law, we are truly free. 

When we take Christ’s yoke upon us, He begins leading us away from the destructive ills of sin and toward expanded joy and deepened peace in God. And the burden we bear on this journey is light, because our Lord Himself bears the weight of the load. You see the yoke is actually a crossbar that encircles the necks of a pair of oxen, or other draft animals working in a team. We are yoked to Him. To be sure, we do carry some weight in this process. We are charged with the daily task of abiding in Christ so that He can perform His sanctifying work within us. With temptations and weaknesses within and around us all the time, this can be extremely difficult. Yet, even in light of this difficulty, the Lord still describes His yoke as easy and His burden as light. Why? Because the supernatural strength, joy and peace He lavishes upon the one who is yoked to Him far outweighs the difficulties of discipleship.

So then, what precisely is the yoke of Christ for us? It is the vehicle of grace on the path of life by which we progressively and obediently come to know, love and serve God. It means being a disciple of Christ, being true to one’s vocation in life—which may be lived out in many different ways. Our yoke finds many different expressions - It may be a wedding ring, or a clerical collar, or a religious habit, or it may be something less visible but no less demanding—such as an illness, loneliness, or other difficult circumstances.

When the Lord issues an invitation to come and be yoked to Himself, He isn’t picturing a carefree life in which we can do whatever we want while experiencing rest and reassurance from Him. He is issuing an invitation to come and be inseparably linked to Himself, going where He goes, doing what He desires. Being inseparably bound to Him entails the willingness to bear our crosses. But, by choosing the imagery of the yoke, the Lord is highlighting the reality that we can never outgrow our need for Him. Being yoked to Him means He bears the weight of our sin and brokenness and He directs our paths. This shift from being sole responsibility-bearers of all our concerns to taking our cues from God, offers us rest and lightness. The Lord isn’t merely giving us an invitation to rest. He is giving us an invitation to Himself. “Come to me… and I will give you rest.” It is by coming to Jesus, abiding with Him, literally being “yoked” together with Him that our souls find the rest they so desperately need.

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