The “Easy” Yoke of Jesus

For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.

-Genesis 22:8

(Preached on Sunday, July 9, 2017)

In Cedar Rapids, Iowa, there is a cardiopulmonary surgeon who is a legend in the hospital among the patients and staff.  He is an excellent surgeon in a hospital of fine physicians.  What makes him legendary, though, is not his technical expertise but his visible kindness.  Although he is very busy – in many cases busier than some of his colleagues – he approaches his patients with an aura of “I have all the time in the world for you.”  He will come into the patients’ rooms, sit down, stretch out his legs, and inquire after their health.  He usually doesn’t stay very long, but it feels like he would stay for hours, if needed.  Patients feel cared for and at ease.  He is present to them in a powerful way.  He is the same with the families.  Occasionally he is seen perched on a windowsill, leaning forward toward a family member with his chin leaning on his hand, listening intently.  He views both the family and the person who had surgery as worthy of the highest attention.  He is not only competent; in a word he is “kind.”

Kindness is simple, yet profound.  It doesn’t take much time, yet leaves a lasting mark.  However, kindness is also difficult.  There is an old saying: “Most people are kind, polite, and sweet-minded – until you try to get into their pew!”  Why is kindness so difficult?  Because it is so darn close, so near at hand.  It demands that I act in a selfless way to these human beings right in front of me or next to me: this co-worker who cracks her gum all day; this elderly woman who talks incessantly; this teenage boy who is such a smart aleck; this next door neighbor who plays his music too loud.

Kindness is also difficult because it is so concrete.  It almost always makes some specific, personal demand.  Kindness says, “Help carry those groceries – now!  Offer to change that tire – now!  Run to the store for milk – now!”  In addition to being concrete, kindness is also usually obvious!  There’s almost no mistaking kindness when you see it – no mistaking its absence when you don’t.

Kindness is one of those actions that we have difficulty “making ourselves do.”  In fact, it is nearly impossible to fake kindness.  There is even a word for faked kindness: obsequiousness.  What happens if we try to force kindness?  It becomes a burden for us.  When we try to force practices or beliefs on ourselves what we are doing is wearing an old yoke.  One that doesn’t fit.

Most of us have never seen, let alone felt, a yoke.  As a result we have this idea that a yoke is something hard and heavy and burdensome.  Thus when we hear Jesus calling his yoke “easy” and his burden “light” we think he is turning the world upside down again like he often does.  But I learned some interesting things about yokes that I am sure Jesus, being the son of a carpenter, probably knew far better than I did.

Yokes are designed to be put around the necks of oxen for the purpose of harnessing their energy and strength for plowing a field or pulling a wagon.  A good yoke, properly made and fitted, is formed to the shape of an individual ox’s neck.  They are tailor made, so to speak.  You could not go and get a yoke off a rack.  It must cover a large area of skin to distribute the stresses as widely as possible.  It must also be smooth, rounded, and polished with no sharp edges or rough spots.  That way no one point of contact between the yoke and the ox will endure unduly high stress.  When an ox is individually fitted to its own yoke, the yoke is actually comfortable: it is “easy” on the neck of the particular animal for which it was tailored.  When an ox’s muscles do not have to compensate for a yoke unsuited to the particular contours of its neck, the animal’s energy is directed right into the harness; its burden is lightened.  When Jesus says, “My yoke is easy and my burden is light” he is suggesting that the guidelines he offers for living life are custom fit for each of us.  They are not restrictive and uncomfortable, but rather they fit well and they lighten our loads in life.

There is another truth about yokes.  They are generally created for a pair of oxen.  When Jesus invites us to take “his” yoke upon ourselves and learn from him, he is inviting us to walk with him, in harness with him.  In such a way he will help us share the load of our lives.  This is the way kindness becomes less burdensome.

Jesuit priest William O’Malley says that kindness goes beyond the Golden Rule.  He writes, “Do unto others as you would have others do unto you,” is not the touchstone of any one religion; it is a matter of human survival … but kindness takes one step further, beyond morality, into unreflective loving.

Unreflective loving is a good definition of kindness.  For kindness is primarily unselfconscious.  Kindness requires slowing down, paying real attention, and sharing some of you with others.  Which requires one to get out of oneself, one’s own needs, and one’s own desires.  Kindness is a product of our gratefulness to God I prayer and is cradled by our spiritual attitude.

That is one key to cultivating kindness; like Jesus, drawing closer to God in prayer.  One of the Desert Fathers from the early centuries of the church, Abba Mateos, said, The nearer we draw to God the more we see ourselves as sinners.  He was not trying to beat up on people or instill a great guilt trip in his students.  What he is pointing out is the truth that the more time we spend in quiet prayer talking openly and honestly with God; listening to God share with us about God’s perspective on our lives – then the more we see ourselves as we really are.  Such prayer is not the prayers of our childhood, asking God to take care of everybody important in our lives, or asking God for something we desire or need.  Abba Mateos is speaking of deep, honest prayer that is reflective, contemplative, and is fully honest with God, as though one were speaking with your best friend in total and complete confidence.  This is prayer that brings us to a deeper, more honest understanding of our lives – of our strengths and talents and our shortcomings and failures.

The result is that the more we honestly know ourselves, the less we can condemn others.  None of us is perfect.  All of us have made mistakes – done or said things we wish we could take back or change.  All of us have done things we hope never become public.  The whole world changes when we know ourselves fully and honestly.  We become more gentle with the world.  We live our lives more from a position of kindness.  Realizing our own brokenness, we more willingly bind with tenderness the wounds of others.

Janice was dying with cancer in a hospital room.  A generous woman of simple taste, she was friendly, caring, a good listener, and had a wonderful sense of humor.  Her friend Jo was very needy, self-involved, always complaining and looking for sympathy, and never really happy even though she had so much.  When the chaplain called to tell Jo her friend had been diagnosed with cancer and it didn’t look good given her tests, she was momentarily concerned.  Then as if a switch had been thrown in the conversation, she changed the topic to her own arthritis and the discomfort she was in.  Captured by his own grief, the chaplain missed the signs of Jo’s great neediness and her inability to truly be concerned about anyone other than herself.  He reacted with anger and disbelief, to which Jo replied: “You just don’t understand.”  She was right, of course.  He didn’t understand.  He didn’t have the openness and generosity of spirit to recognize how sad it was for this woman to be in such an ego-involved state, not to be able to be compassionate toward her own dying friend.  Later that week the chaplain went to visit Janice.  In the course of the visit, he asked her if she had received any calls.  Janice rattled off the names of family and friends he recognized and then added with a real smile on her face: “Oh, yet, and I heard from my friend Jo.  You must have told her I was in here.  Wasn’t it nice of her to call with all she had to do and the pain she is in herself?”  The chaplain thought he would cry on the spot.  He learned that day what true kindness is all about.  Janice died long ago.  Jo is over ninety now and still complains about her arthritis.  In honor of Janice, he now listens quietly to Jo’s complaints.  It’s the kind thing to do.

Kindness accepts people where they are and offers them a little of our time and attention when they are with us, no matter what their response may be.  When we walk with Jesus, remembering how we are accepted by God just as we are, kindness becomes possible.  Who are the people in your life who have been truly kind to you, demonstrating the same acceptance and grace which Jesus offered?  In their honor, this week, think of the difficult people in your life, and yoked with Jesus, sharing the burden with him, seek to become kinder to them, letting go of your expectations for appreciation or change.  Instead, accept them as Jesus does.  For remember, the yoke Jesus offers you is “easy” – that is it is fit perfectly to you and your life.  With Jesus, the burden of kindness is light.