You probably recognize the image Zechariah is giving us in the first reading today as it is the scripture quotation that both Matthew and John use to describe Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday.
Over Easter I read a book in which the writer contrasts this humble, simple arrival through the eastern gate with the arrival of Pilate at the selfsame time, from the West, in all his force and aggression. Pilate would have been coming to stay in the city over the Passover so as to insure the oppressed stayed oppressed whilst Jesus was coming to do the exact opposite, to set them free. The writer declared that he saw Jesus’ entry as a direct challenge to the action of the Romans.
When I come to reflect and live Palm Sunday next year, hopefully with a gathered multitude of course, it will surely be in the back of my mind. It is, after all, what Jesus does. He challenges and makes us think and look at our own efforts. We all, in some way, shape or form, have influence, authority, power over others; whether this be in intimate relationships, in work situations or in wider society. How do I express this authority, how do I exercise my ‘power’? In Zechariah, the authority of the king will be expressed not in fist and force, no chariots or bows of war but in the open hand, stretched out to heal and enable.
This is same unexpected situation is shown in the Gospel. Yokes are symbols of hard gruelling work. They are worn so as to ease the carrying of heavy burdens or to spread the pull of machinery as it is dragged behind us. They represent effort, sweat and pain. Fight against them and they continue to bite and wound and scrape and damage but once these burdens are accepted they begin to mould around the shoulders and neck of the bearer. It does not make the weight lighter, it simply makes the effort less painful. Rebel and fight and they grind and bite but accept the burden and at least it becomes less painful, more bearable.
This, I suppose, is what oppressed people have had to endure always. This, I would imagine, is where the whole BLM demonstrations have come from; the feeling of oppression and not being listened to and being overlooked and being disrespected. A yoke which is unfair and cruel, even when it moulds to your shoulder is a continual reminder of your oppression. Pulling a yoke through your own soil, to scatter your own crops, burdensome and difficult though it may be, is worth the sweat and pain; dragging a yoke through someone else’s soil because they ordered you to, and from which you may gain no benefit whatsoever, will never make that yoke anything but a weight of demoralization.
So, when Jesus declares that the yoke He will lay on our shoulders is easy, His listeners, an oppressed and belittled people, would have thought either He was mad or He was saying something mind-blowingly wonderful. When He promises that His burden is light, the contradiction inherent in the oxymoron of burden and light would have made them stop to listen. Most of us will never have seriously worked with a yoke; most of us will very rarely, if ever, have had to heave a mighty blade through unforgiving land. (although my wielding of the mattock, as I sought to initially clear the Secret Garden 5 years ago, gave me blisters and aches aplenty). Nevertheless the image can still speak to us.
Down the centuries those in authority both in Church and state have sometimes resorted to declaring that people should be satisfied and accept their position in society etc etc. This was a way of ‘keeping people in their place’. Interestingly, when I studied ‘Macbeth’ at School my English teacher, Mr Flint of blessed memory, pointed out that Macbeth was criticized in the play for ambition, for not being satisfied with his state. This was the error and demerit from which all the horror came. Ambition, the desire to be better and to do better and to achieve is now seen as a good thing but in previous times not so much. Power would say ‘Where you are is where God intended you to be’. This was the yoke which bore people down.
Christ does not see us like this, He sees no-one in this way. Society and history and opportunity may lay all sorts of yokes and burdens on me; some of which it is right to fight against and seek to throw off, some may be of my own making and some, if I look at them with an open mind, may be ones I can see that will help and encourage me along the way but Christ’s…His is a quite different one.
Think back though the Lord’s life. His way of leadership is to show and go before and not expect another to do anything He would or could not do. When and where did you see the Lord dragging something behind Him, where was He heading, for whom was He doing that work ?
The Yoke He lays upon me and upon you is love. If it is the answer to every question it is a useful yoke indeed. If I rebel and fight against it, it will never settle on my shoulder and mould to my outline but if I seek to accept it then, over the years, it will get better and I will, with His grace, be working not just for my good but for all good.