The burden of the Gospel

The wooden yoke enables heavy loads to be pulled with some ease. Photo: Canva.com

The wooden yoke enables heavy loads to be pulled with some ease. Photo: Canva.com

I was teaching a class of ten adults preparing for baptism in the parish of Hodogaya in Yokohama City, Japan. As a prayerful reflection, I presented them with the Gospel passage, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take up 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” (Matthew 11:28–30).

Hodogaya is a ward in the centre of Yokohama, a city of 3.7 million. Little of the ancient farmland remains. One person in the class asked me, “Father, what is a yoke?” I asked the other nine, who were all younger than 50 and city dwellers, if they could explain it. None of them had the vaguest idea what a yoke was!

I came to Japan in 1956, exactly 65 years ago. For ten years, I was stationed in rural towns and villages. At that time, there was none of the machinery used today in the cultivation of rice paddies. In early spring, the paddy was flooded and then ploughed.

A cow pulled the plough. On the animal’s shoulders, a yoke made of heavy, straight-grained wood was fitted and two chains connected it to the plough itself. A yoke in the time of Jesus was similar. Yokes of their very nature are exceptionally burdensome. Yet, Jesus says, “My yoke is easy”. Here, “easy” means it fits well. The carpenter takes a measurement and notes the contours of each cow’s neck before making the wooden yoke fit snugly.

There is a non-biblical legend that Jesus, as a carpenter of Nazareth, was known as a skilful yoke-maker. Another crucial point in understanding what Jesus is telling us is this: the yoke Jesus refers to is of the double-harness variety. So even though it was heavy, when carried by two animals, its load becomes light and easy to bear. The point of significance is this: Jesus himself is teamed with us. This gives a deep and encouraging meaning to the text.

Having given this background to my Japanese class of city dwellers, I asked them to ponder Jesus’ living words as addressed to each of them in the quiet of their hearts. “Everyone who is tired, and weighed down with heavy burdens, come to me. I will cause you to be refreshed. Take my yoke upon you. My yoke is easy to carry, and my burden is light.” Fatigue of both body and heart are endemic in our modern society. We are so competitive! We get so busy. We all carry burdens. We all need the rest, the encouragement, the meaning and the new energy that Jesus gives. Let us go to him with confidence.

Columban Fr Barry Cairns lives and works in Japan

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