Aha moments are those little points in time when the proverbial light bulb goes off and some previously known factoid gains new, deeper meaning. What first existed merely as meaningless trivia sprouts and grows into a three dimensional reality. Needless to say, my two years in Africa have presented me with more than a couple of Aha moments. * Life is lived in such a way here that many points of contact still exist with the biblical culture.
I had one such incident this week.
It happened in one of the villages where we do a considerable amount of work. In preparation for a volunteer team coming, we had decided to go out and spend a couple of days getting things ready. This really amounted to nothing more than cleaning and making sure the bathroom (read: concrete slab with hole in the ground) did not stink too bad.
As the cleaning began, so did the steady string of villagers coming by to welcome us back to the village. However, one of these visits brought with it a new face. He was introduced to us as a veterinarian. He looked to be a regular villager, but we were informed he had come from a distant town to facilitate the “cow training.” At least, cow training is about the best way I know to translate what they said. Sure enough, we followed this small group of villagers over to a large clearing where I witnessed cow training.
In this part of Africa, oxen are used to plow fields. They are yoked together in pairs with a large wooden brace that lashes between their neck and horns. Ropes are attached to rings that run through their noses so they can be steered by the driver, a man who stands behind the set with a whip.
Two by two, I watched as 17 sets of oxen made their way around a makeshift dirt track. Each set was being pushed by a driver and was pulling a large log meant to simulate the plow. Over the last several days, the continual dragging of these logs had dug ruts into the sandy soil. The course had several turns; looking roughly like the path one would take plowing a field.
The yokes were crude devices, each one hewn out of a large beam of wood. They were clearly heavy weights, as the muscular necks of the cattle were straining to keep their head high. The oxen were locked into position with these burdens. The apparatus served both as a means of keeping the pair in line and as a form of steering wheel.
I watched as pair after pair of oxen walked past. Some were struggling against their yoke. Others were resigned to its presence and complied simply with the master’s commands. However, all were submitted, for they had no option.
Now for the Aha moment:
In Matthew 11, Jesus had taken to the streets teaching his message. We are informed at the beginning of the chapter that he had “he went on from there to teach and preach in their cities.” During this time, messengers were sent from John the Baptist to ask Jesus if he really was the Messiah. His answer is definitive, and he begins to speak of the significance of John’s message.
In turn, this causes Jesus to reflect on the unbelief that he has encountered in various cities. He passes harsh judgment on those cities and leaves those within earshot (and all who read the gospel of Matthew) with an alternative.
He says the following:
Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light. (Matthew 11:28-30)
As I watched those oxen labor under their yoke, this passage finally sank in.
Jesus offers an alternative to anyone weary of the yoke they wear. For his original audience, it was the ridiculous yoke of legalism placed on them by the Pharisees. It was the heavy burdens of the Law, a burden that had been perverted into a tool for the glorification of self. It was a weight too heavy to bear, and a life of submission to a path that led nowhere.
Today, our yoke may not be the Jewish Law. Where I live, it is the yoke of fatalism. In a world wrapped in this cultural religion, people see no means of change. There is no freedom of decision and no need for action. They are powerless to go against the flow of culture and family here, and they have a view of God that is distant.
In the States it is a different yoke altogether. Perhaps it is the yoke of materialism, the constant need to find your success in keeping up with your neighbors. What a heavy weight that is to bear, to always feel the need to have nicer stuff or a nicer job to prove your worth. There is no satisfaction in that lifestyle. Americans toil away to achieve “the dream,” only to find it is empty when they get there.
Jesus offers all who are burdened with a heavy yoke a different option, a yoke of joy. But please hear what follows.
Too often, people read this passage as Jesus simply freeing us from our old burdens. It is a passage oft misquoted and used to make life seem just grand and happy and carefree if you just say you are a Christian. There was more to Christ’s message than, “walk an aisle and have an easy life.”
Jesus does not simply call us to remove our old yoke. He calls us to put on his yoke. This is more than identification with Christianity; this is submission to a master. The call to wear a yoke, any yoke, is a call to submission. It is a call to obedience, and a call to receive guidance and direction. To wear a yoke is to give up your ability to decide where you will go and let another make that decision for you. Jesus does not just ask us to wear a nametag; he calls us to wear a yoke.
If you find your yoke too heavy to bear, Jesus offers you a way out. But you must be willing to take off your old yoke, and exchange it for a new life of labor, a labor of joy.
* If you want to read about some more of my Aha moments, here are links to some others.