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The Easy Yoke

I have often heard sermons on (Matthew 11), (Matthew 11:28) or (Matthew 11:29), but seldom has the sermon given equal weight to both verses. The reason? They seem to contradict. "Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest," Jesus calls out. But he continues, paradoxically, "Take my yoke upon you and learn from me." Taken together, the two statements jar. Why would a person who is weary and burdened volunteer to take on a yoke?

The most common suggestion for resolving the dilemma is that oxen work in teams, and Jesus shares the other side of the yoke. But I see no hint of that explanation in the Bible passage. I have, however, spent much of my life studying "weary and burdened" living tissue in a country, India, where yoke and oxen are commonplace. Because of those experiences, I think I now understand this passage.

In India, I worked as a surgeon, mainly with leprosy patients. Leprosy is a disease of the nerves, and its victims do not feel pain. As I treated infected ulcers and shortened fingers and toes, I had to work backwards to figure out what particular stress caused those tissues to break down.

Hundreds of patients had damaged their feet by wearing shoes or sandals that had a tiny rough spot protruding. Step after step, that rough spot ground against the skin, yet these patients' defective pain cells did not warn of danger.

To my surprise, I learned that most of the damage came from small, repetitive stresses like this, not more obvious stresses like bruises, cuts, or burns. Any gentle stress, when applied to a single spot repetitively can destroy living tissue. A bedsore is the clearest proof: an insensitive patient will get terrible ulcers just by lying still on the same pressure spot, whereas a person who feels pain will toss and turn throughout the night in response to messages from fatiguing nerve cells.

Conversely, too little stress also affects living tissue. Cells need exercise. Without it, they will atrophy--a condition common to anyone who has worn a plaster cast. I once treated an Indian fakir who had held his hand over his head uselessly for twenty years, as a religious act. The muscles had shrunk to nothing, and all the joints had fused together so that his hand was like a stiff paddle. Healthy tissue needs stress, but appropriate stress that is distributed among many cells.

Those principles apply directly to the stress caused by a joke on the neck of an ox. In the hospital carpentry shop in India, I helped fashion such yokes.

If I put a flat, uncarved piece of wood on an ox's neck and use it to pull a cart, very quickly pressure sores will break out on that animal's neck, and he will be useless. A good yoke must be formed to the shape of an ox's neck. It should cover a large area of skin to distribute the stresses widely. It should also be smooth, rounded, and polished with no sharp edges, so that no one point will endure unduly high stress. If I succeed in my workshop, the yoke I make will fit snugly around the ox's neck and cause him no discomfort. He can haul heavy loads every day for years, and his skin will remain perfectly healthy, with no pressure sores.

And now, I think I understand the strange juxtaposition of phrases in (Matthew 11:28-29). Jesus offers each of us a well-fitted yoke, of custom design. He does not call us to the kind of rest that means inactivity or laziness--that would lead to spiritual atrophy. Instead, he promises a burden designed to fit my frame, my individual needs, strengths, and capabilities. I come to him weary and heavy-laden. He removes those crushing burdens that would destroy any human being, and replaces them with a yoke of appropriate stress designed specifically for me. "Take my yoke upon you and learn from me," he says, "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."

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