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Will you let Jesus be your co-worker, personal trainer, and mentor?

April 29, 2014

Matthew 11: 25-30                            [Feast of St Catherine of Siena, 2014]

I saw a TV show recently that completely transformed my understanding of the gospel words “My yoke is easy and my burden is light”. It explained how our ancestors in mediaeval England used to plough the fields using a pair of yoked oxen – the same method of yoking, unchanged, from the time of Jesus in Palestine.

Two oxen would be held side by side with a yoke, a specially designed bar of wood that was used to hold each animal firmly round the neck.

The first surprise for me was that each individual ox has its own personality. Some are co-operative. Some are intelligent. But certainly none of the animals would naturally accept being yoked to another animal.  At first they resist and fight any yoking, which, as you can imagine with huge beasts like oxen, can get rather exciting and dangerous. And once yoked to another animal, they can rear up and struggle to get free.

The way farmers overcame these problems was to start by pairing an untrained ox  to an experienced one. They would start by simply having the two animals in a small field, untethered and wandering freely. Gradually they would get them closer together, encouraging them to stand by each other and so on. And then eventually, very gently and calmly, they would link them with a loose yoke around their two necks. And finally, with patience, you could get the two animals to be harnessed together by the neck with the proper yoke fitting tightly so that it could not fall off or be shaken off.

The next stage was to get the pair of linked oxen to start doing work. I was fascinated how the prospect of work brought out the animals’ attitudes. Stubborn resistance sometimes. And some animals are just plain lazy. If one or both of them refuse to do any work, you’ve got problems. So again, it’s important to get the right pair of animals together, with an experienced one who is willing to do most of the work. The farmer doing the training would start by walking them about together, then they would have them drag a fairly light load, until gradually the oxen would, with encouragement, co-operate in working together as a partnership. But this was still not the end. The farmer then had to make sure the animals understood commands so that they would stop and start, turn and walk in straight lines. Not at all easy.

And the final crunch came when the farmer lowered the plough into the ground for the first time. Suddenly the animals would find they had to pull really hard, because the dragging resistance of the soil makes it all much harder work and very tiring. And if one or both of those animals were inclined at that point to stop work, there was not a lot the farmers could do.

The technique is all about encouraging the animals, recognising their individual capabilities and personalities, and gradually getting them to recognise a link between doing what the farmer wants – doing hard work – and getting what they want – which is the freedom to roam and graze as a reward for their hard work.

 

In the Bible we see the idea of being yoked, to Jewish minds, was a reference to slavery to sin, carrying a huge burden of sin, being oppressed by sin.

Jesus is making us a compelling offer to help us in overcoming that burden of sin that we drag around with us. Knowing that farmers used to yoke a young ox to an older, more experienced ox to train them, with the older ox taking the major load and the younger one walking alongside and learning from him, what Jesus has to say takes on a completely different picture.

“Come to me all who labour and are over-burdened and I will give you rest.”

Do you see what He is saying? When we pair up with Jesus, He takes the main load, easing our burden. The reward for this joint effort is a welcome rest.

Shoulder my yoke and learn from me”

People may be stubborn, they may resist, but by pairing up with Jesus, someone who knows what it is to suffer as a human being, and someone who has already triumphed against all the odds – that is a fantastic offer, not to be refused. Becoming a partner with Jesus, working together against the burdens of this world, using His experience and wisdom. A personal trainer. A life coach.

And finally: “My yoke is easy and my burden is light”

Together with Jesus we can make real progress as we work through this life – being with Him in our struggle against the burden of sin, towards the eternal reward of a place in heaven. That’s why we receive Holy Communion: we have Jesus with us as we work through the day – Jesus becomes our co-worker, our trainer and our mentor.

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