Sunday, July 3, 2011

“My yoke is easy and my burden is light”

As our nation is now running in high gear with their preparation for the 4th of July celebration, I could only hope that the circumstances behind this annual great and festive celebration remain alive in the collective consciousness of this great nation. 

What I’m really hoping for is that our reasons for our various engagements in the wide range of celebrations actually rise above and beyond a gathering for sheer fun and holiday activities; such as a day in the park, or the beach and perhaps, watching the evening’s fireworks display.

In other words, I really hope that the accounts of oppression wielded by those who represented the foreign dominion under which America was purportedly beholden, would be given continued emphasis in our learning institutions for only by acknowledging such stories can we then truly appreciate this nation’s forefathers’ willful act to free themselves from those who lorded over them.

The word “independence” usually denotes a state of being freed from various forms of oppression. This state of independence ranges from something personal and relational to a more complex and perhaps, of political nature. An example of relational independence is when a battered wife gets freed from spousal abuse and is thus removed from her particular form of oppression. For the more complex ones, a good example would be this nation’s liberation from an oppressive government such as what was perpetuated by the late King George III of Great Britain on the American people since the period of colonization ending up to the last quarter of the 18th century.

On what is now commonly referred to as the “Unanimous Declaration of the Thirteen United States of America”, there lies the reasons that led to their willful desire to set the people of America free from further political oppressions.

If I were to describe such condition, using the language of the gospel lesson for today, I suppose that their political move of demanding liberty and freedom from their political oppressor was an example of how our nation demanded “rest from their having been weary and carrying heavy burdens.”

To better appreciate this use of seemingly unrelated language, here’s a portion of the assigned gospel lesson for this 3rd Sunday after Pentecost. "Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light." (NRSV Matthew 11:28-30) These are words attributed to Jesus of Nazareth, recorded in the gospel according to Matthew. I particularly draw your attention to Matthew 11:28 which says: "Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.”  

It is in this context that I took the liberty of modifying these words to suit the situation I earlier attempted to describe.

Now, obviously, those are Jesus’ words of invitation for us to trust in him and seek rest on him. Jesus is the one we can “lean on” when our roads get rough and rugged.

This nation’s forefathers saw how the American people, in that place and time, were so “heavily burdened” . Hence, and I quote, “when in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.”

The causes that led them to desire for independence were their just reasons to search for such “rest” which ultimately took form in the declaration of our independence. This, then, establishes the justifiable use of such lofty words of invitation as we look back to those circumstances that led to our perpetuation of the rich tradition we continue to uphold.

There is also another area where these words of invitation are so apropos. Heavy burdens may be political as in the case I've just referred to. And while I arbitrarily used the issue of marital or spousal separation as an example, the reality is that there are much deeper situations of our being “heavily burdened”.

By looking back to how we progressed in our different stations in life, there we will find our own pertinent examples. If we were to do that inward look, we will then realize that the “burdens” laid on us respect no boundaries. These heavy burdens transcend class boundaries; whether you are in the lower, middle or affluent category, such burdens find their way among us.

Weighed down with those unpleasant predicaments in life, there appears before us the yearning to be set free; the hope that the “heavy burdens” be off-loaded from us. For some, such yearnings are answered and they wave their laurels of victory as tokens of their having achieved their “independence”. For others, they are not; thus, they’re led to question the integrity of those words of invitation for “rest”, claiming that they continue to sink in the proverbial quicksand with burden upon burden continuing to pile upon their backs.

Are the words of Jesus then not trustworthy? Do they promote doubt? Could we sue him for false advertisement? "You say you will give us rest but we find no rest". We continue to be burdened.  We could always be tempted to line up similar questions hoping that our doubts will not turn into disbelief.

How then should we reconcile this? I propose we take another look at the gospel lesson and see if there are other words that could help us in this struggle. In today’s gospel lesson, we find the following: “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (NRSV Matthew 11:29)

I think this verse should shed light in what we’re faced with. But first, we need to look back at the possible reason why Jesus used this very imagery.

Yokes, for those who haven’t been to a farm, are wooden bars applied on the back of beasts of burdens to help them pull their load. Yokes are tools to make the laboring of the animals much easier. By “easier” I mean, the empowerment to be as productive as they could get. There’s another kind of yoke that is used to “join”, so to speak, two animals in order to maximize their productivity and again to make the load “lighter”.  This is the farming practice that Jesus knew and used as background for his words of invitation and it is in this lens of understanding that we take another look at the seeming contradiction found in Jesus’ words.

A better way to understand what Jesus meant when he made allusion to our “taking his yoke because it is easy” is to take that imagery of the farmer trying to “reconfigure” his oxen’s yokes so they’ll be easier for them to perform their tasks. From that common practice of two animals getting “yoked” together, we can picture Jesus inviting us to be “yoked” with him. Jesus was not suggesting when he said “Come unto me…” that we “off-load” our burdens, rather, he wants us to be yoked with him so we will be able to bear our burdens in a manner befitting the creatures of God that we are.

Jesus is assuring us that our “rest” will be achieved because our burdens will be turned lighter, if only we get yoked not with other fellow creatures but with the Great Creator himself. With us yoked together with Jesus, we can break the barriers that establish perpetual distance between us and God and between us and our fellow creatures. With us being yoked with Christ, we will not only be able to quench our yearning to be free but will even restore us into real rest where we would be totally set free from any claw of oppression, especially the claw of sin that separates us from God.

Brothers and sisters in Christ, it is my prayer that as we continue in our festivities today and tomorrow that we bear in mind the “burdens” or reasons that prompted our forefathers to seek for independence from their oppression; that we call to remembrance our similar quest to be freed from the “burdens” that inflict us; not by off-loading our burdens, but by being yoked with Christ our Lord who truly gives us rest; even eternal rest.

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