At that point, he ran into human nature and limitedness: "I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want to do, but I do the very thing I hate." He felt himself trapped in a failing he couldn’t control – what he identified as "a law that when I want to do good, evil lies close at hand." His frustration rose until he cried out, "Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?" And his answer: "Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!"
Now, we don’t need to think too hard about this, because it’s our own all too common experience. Sometimes it’s not a matter of intent, but just of the limitations of the world. We have a new puppy in our home. She has decided either that I’m the best toy, or that I’m the Big Dog; but one way or another she wants to play hard and test herself against me. She’ll come at me in mock attack as she would at another puppy, and I will push her away. As she comes back again and again she gets more and more excited, and sounds like some vicious creature. In fact, she doesn’t try to hurt me, even as she comes at me mouth open and teeth bared. She doesn’t try to bite, really, but those puppy teeth are really sharp. So, I get scratched and I bleed. It isn’t wicked intent at all, but I get hurt anyway.
Sometimes it is about wrong intent. When I was in Eighth Grade there was a day in my math class that I saw an opportunity. I was never all that good at algebra, even in those first steps. I was never all that popular, either. So, when I saw that my teacher had made a mistake in the third step of an eight step solution I saw the chance to look smart, and to look cool to my classmates by showing up the teacher. Now, the teacher was a nice man. He was short in stature, and is sometimes the case, he was defensive about it. He was shorter than most of the boys in class – shorter, even, than most of the girls – and had something of an attitude in reaction. So, as I pointed out the mistake, and then walked through correcting the remainder of the solution, I did feel the class beginning to chuckle at the teacher’s discomfort. But that sense of pride became ashes in my mouth as I watched the man cringe, and seem even to visibly shrink. I had started with goals I thought harmless, and realized that I had done harm.
We are grateful, of course, for Paul’s response: "Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!" At the same time, that doesn’t tell us a lot about what that looks like, actually lived out in our lives. But, then, that’s what Jesus was talking about in the Gospel lesson from Matthew 11. More to the point, he was beginning with the fact that people’s preconceptions can keep them from seeing how God might be working among them.
Jesus said to the crowd, "To what will I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to one another,
`We played the flute for you, and you did not dance;
we wailed, and you did not mourn.'
For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, `He has a demon'; the Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, `Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!' Yet wisdom is vindicated by her deeds."
Because they were looking for something particular, they weren’t able to see God working around them, whether in John or in Jesus.
This was a problem, too, because in the last few weeks’ Gospel lessons Jesus was sharing about discipleship, and how it was expected to be difficult. It would not be what was expected, and would not be easy. And yet he said, "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." If discipleship would not be easy, what could it mean that "my yoke is easy?"
I read a number of comments about that, and one that caught my attention was that "easy" isn’t really the best translation of the Greek. The word translated "easy" might be better translated "appropriate" or "well-fitted." Then I started reading about working with oxen - as in
Oh, don’t you remember sweet Betsy from Pike
Who crossed the green mountains with her lover Ike,
With two yoke of oxen and one spotted hog,
A tall Shanghai rooster and an old yeller dog.
I started looking at images of oxen yoked, and I noted that there are almost always two yoked together. It isn’t that you can’t yoke one ox, but almost all the images I found were of two oxen yoked together. I wondered about how one got them to work together.
Now, I admit that I’m a city kid. I may spend a good deal of time gardening, but I’m not a farm kid, and I don’t know about training oxen. On the other hand, I do a little something about training elephants. At least, this one I got to hear from the folks who actually did it. When I was seventeen I spent a summer in Sri Lanka, and had the chance to visit with elephants who had been domesticated, and with their trainers. Of course, there are elephants raised in captivity, and their training isn’t the same. But when a wild elephant is captured, first it is isolated until it becomes used to the human beings around. Then, to train it to work it is tied to an older, trained elephant. So, it literally learns the tasks required of it by being there as the trained elephant carries out its duties. The new elephant learns from the elephant to which it is yoked.
That got me to thinking about Jesus calling us as disciples to take his yoke. Certainly, it is a call to vocation, to work; and he promises that the yoke will be properly fitted, with no chafing. But, again, I found myself wondering who was on the other side of the yoke. Jesus called it "My yoke." What if that meant that the other person "yoked" to us was Jesus? What if it wasn’t just Jesus’ yoke because he fitted it to us and walked alongside us giving commands? What if it was Jesus’ yoke because it was the yoke he himself shared with us? That would certainly make sense of how the work, the burden, might be light; for he would be pulling with us, sharing with us in the load.
Jesus calls us to vocation. We struggle with how to live out that vocation, and not least with the realization that whatever our best efforts, we fall short and do, not what we know is best, but something less – and that’s when we do make our best efforts. But what if our vocation is not simply about task, but about formation? What if we are called to work sharing Jesus’ yoke, properly fitted to us, with Jesus? What if he calls it his yoke because he shares with us and shapes us in our discipleship because it is he who shares the yoke and the load with us? That would, I think, put a very different and a very hopeful understanding of what he meant when he said, "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 his yoke is properly fitted to us, and our burden, shared with him, it becomes light.