My Yoke is Easy
The readings for the 14th Sunday in Ordinary Times begin with a passage from the Book of the Prophet Zechariah in which we find the lines, “Lo, your king comes to you, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey” (9:9). Matthew’s Gospel will refer to these words in his account of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem on what Christians call Palm Sunday.
However, Matthew 21:5 misreads them: he has understood them as “on a donkey and on a colt,” as two animals and not just one. Since it is to fulfill this prophecy (Matthew 21:4) that Jesus sends his disciples to fetch these ordinary beasts of burden, the author feels compelled to have Jesus sit on them both (21:7). And so we can only assume that he rides both of them at once as he enters the Holy City!
I’ve often wondered how we were meant to imagine this feat, when it occurred to me that perhaps Matthew assumed the donkeys were yoked. In that case, Jesus could be mounted on one of them but still ride in with both together.
The gospel passage for that Sunday concludes with the words, “My yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:30). A yoke is literally a wooden beam laid across the back of the neck—of a man or woman (for carrying pails of milk or water), or of a pair of draught animals (for pulling a plough).
A yoke of oxen, by extension, meant a pair of oxen. Symbolically, the word could mean either submission or oppression. The “yoke of slavery” was oppressive, but to be under the “yoke of God” was liberating, as opposed to being under the “yoke of the king of Babylon.”
To what, then, is Jesus comparing his easy yoke? He’s comparing it to the yoke of the Law, which, though we may delight in it and love it, is still very demanding: “You shall love the Lord your God with all our heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might” (Deuteronomy 6:5), and “You shall love your neighbour as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18). This is not easy.
The paradox is that Jesus is even more demanding than the Law: “You have heard it said…but I say to you…turn the other cheek…give your cloak as well…go the second mile…Love your enemies…Be perfect…” (Matthew 5:38-48).
With all these demands how can Jesus’ yoke be easy, and his burden be light? It is easy because we are yoked to Jesus. We have been yoked to Jesus in our baptism, and so we stand shoulder to shoulder with the risen Christ.
We have his Spirit, the Spirit of God, dwelling in us, as Paul tells us (Romans 8:9), and so we are no longer left with only our weak human nature (our flesh), but Jesus is there with us, to labour with us and to bear our burdens. A yoke of oxen can pull more than double what one ox can pull alone. What, then can we not do if we are yoked to Jesus?