Scripture often refers to objects and actions quite foreign to our modern lifestyles. Many of them have to do with the agrarian life of the ancient Middle East. Today’s readings mention the yoke and the plow, objects few of us have ever used.
The yoke was a wooden bar that bound animals together so they could pull a load; there are more than 50 references to the yoke in the Bible. However, references to literal yokes are fairly uncommon. Instead, the yoke is usually employed as a metaphor for either an object of subjection and slavery or as something binding persons together for a common purpose.
A famous reference to a yoke is found in the Gospel of Matthew, where Jesus stated, “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” (Mt 11:28-30). The burden was the weight of the law, which provided stability and direction, but could not deliver real, lasting freedom. The paradox, of course, is that putting on a yoke would not seem to be “easy” in any way. How is the burden offered by Christ “light” and conducive to “rest”?
The readings today reveal that the paradox of Christ’s easy yoke is grounded in the paradox of freedom realized through sacrificial love and abandonment to God’s will. God reaches out to each of us and asks us to follow him on the way he has established. Accepting God’s call is not easy, as Elisha discovered. Having received the divine call, he requested permission to say goodbye to his family. He was given permission by Elijah, but instead sacrificed his old life, realizing that being a prophet required a death to his former way of life. It would have been wrong to hold on to the past after God had met him in the present and opened the way for the future. Answering God’s call means realizing and demonstrating that there is no going back.
“It is impossible,” observed Father Hans Urs von Balthasar, “to be free to do contradictory things simultaneously, but, in order to be free, one must overcome the contradictions within himself.” St. Paul recognized this truth; it was, in many ways, the hallmark of his life and writings. He often pointed out that there are two freedoms: one true and one false. False freedom is the pursuit of one’s passions and desires, which leads to sin, slavery and death. True freedom is found in following Jesus Christ all the way to the cross. “For freedom Christ set us free,” wrote St. Paul, “so stand firm and do not submit again to the yoke of slavery.”
Today’s Gospel describes a key moment of transition in the ministry of Jesus: “When the days for Jesus’ being taken up were fulfilled, he resolutely determined to journey to Jerusalem ….” Another translation is that Jesus “hardened his face to go.” This echoed the resolution of the prophets, such as Ezekiel: “Son of man, set your face toward Jerusalem … prophesy against the land of Israel …” (Ez 21:2). The journey to Jerusalem was a prophetic mission and the radical realization of a new Exodus from sin, death and separation from God.
As we heard last week, Jesus prophesied of his approaching passion, death and resurrection (Lk 9:22). He saw the way clearly and accepted it completely. “The freedom of Christ,” wrote von Balthasar, “is constantly to do the will of the Father.” The divine yoke is perfect love.
Carl E. Olson is the editor of Catholic World Report.