Brief synopsis of the readings: The prophet Zechariah speaks words of rejoicing because their king was victorious and the “bow of war will be banished. In Matthew’s Gospel Jesus speaks praise to God for revealing truth to “mere children.” He then invited his disciples to “Come to me, all you who labor and are overburdened and I will give you rest. Shoulder my yoke and learn from me for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. Yes, my yoke is easy and my burden light.”
I’ve often spoken about this, but agricultural references we find in Scripture usually need translation in the 21st Century. It’s not that we don’t have farmers but because while we have fewer farmers and they cultivate larger farms. Additionally farming technology has improved so much in the last 2,000 years that farmers in Jesus’ day wouldn’t recognize today’s farms.
And so let us talk about yokes. During the time of Jesus most plowing was done by oxen and farmers used yokes to pull the plows; their yokes fit them well. Oxen were strong, but slow and (apologies to any oxen reading this) not very smart. A thousand years later farmers in Europe found that horses were smarter and faster than oxen, but that oxen yokes wouldn’t work on horses. The yokes pressed on their necks and didn’t allow the horses to breathe. Eventually these farmers developed a yoke that would allow the horses to both breathe and plow.
And it made all the difference. The horses were able to plow more acreage and the farmers were able to grow more food. Fewer people starved to death and most people’s standard of livings improved. It’s not an exaggeration to say that this increase in wealth helped plant the seeds for the Renaissance.
All because the yokes became easy for the horses.
Today when we hear phrases like “[s]houlder my yoke and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls” we can be forgiven for being puzzled. The idea of pulling a plow, let’s face it, sounds distasteful to us.
But I suggest we can expand our understanding of yokes and think of it in terms of our vocations. Yokes didn’t enslave the horses, but allowed them to plow the fields. We sometimes think about vocations in terms of our job selection but it’s much, much more than that. In religious life we have “vocation directors” who help men and women discern whether or not they have a vocation to religious life. Good vocation directors don’t see their roles as “selling” their order or diocese but instead as “walking with” the person they are meeting with. In 1987 I was discerning a possible vocation to the priesthood and I met a Franciscan priest. He was a good priest and he put me in touch with his order’s vocation director. I met with him and actually went on a weekend retreat. But over the next few weeks I found that didn’t see myself in that order and I sheepishly told that to the vocation director. Instead of being upset he told me that his job wasn’t to make me a Franciscan but accompany me on my journey. With his encouragement I eventually found the order that I was called to and joined them (and yes, I believe God called me both to priesthood in that order and then to marriage, but that’s grist for another day).
Our vocations call us to jobs, to marriages, to children, and so on. But let’s begin with our career. I used to be a high school youth minister and a college campus minister and I’ve participated in countless conversations with young people who felt pressure to make a decision right now in choosing their career for the rest of their lives. In fairness, a few generations ago that was the norm. My father spent his career as a government employee writing computer code and it suited him. He didn’t always like his job but it allowed him to marry, father two children, and purchase a house.
Others of us have journeyed a different path. I spent high school and my first two years of college convinced that I wanted to be a lawyer. For the past 22 years I’ve worked as a hospice chaplain, a job I didn’t know existed until 1997 when I applied for the job.
My point is this: we all choose a path and put on a yoke. If we see a yoke as a burden we’re missing the point. As disciples of Jesus we are given certain gifts that play out as talents. When we embrace our talents we wear a yoke that fits us well. But when we embrace a path that we think we should want, or a path that others want us to have, the yoke chafes and blocks us. At that time we are a horse wearing an oxen yoke and it will suffocate us if we keep trying to make it work.
In our first reading we hear from the prophet Zechariah who proclaims gladness, victory, and triumph. I think that happens when we embrace the yoke that fits us well.
That sounds fine but so often we feel drawn to a yoke that we want to fit us well. I knew a parishioner who was disappointed that he wasn’t elected to the parish council. He emphatically told me that he could talk anyone into becoming Catholic. To no avail I tried to explain to him that he had the gift of exhortation. I suggested that instead of wanting a place on the parish council he should become a hospitality minister that greeted people coming into mass. I suggested that, especially on a college campus, each week we saw a few people who showed up not knowing if they should be members, and he was exactly the right person they should meet. Alas, he didn’t take my suggestion.
A yoke isn’t a burden: it’s a direction. A yoke that fits properly guides us on a path that improves not only our lives, but the lives of those around us. The horses of the Middle Ages gave themselves more food to eat and gave those around them more food and more strength.
It also gave the Church the wealth to encourage and invest in artists like Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci. If you admire their work, thank the guy who made the yoke that fit the horses.