The yoke mentioned in today’s Gospel is an unfamiliar concept for most urban-dwellers. Modern farmers typically use tractors, not draft animals, though my father used horses when he was very young. Several years ago I attended a demonstration of some old-time farming methods that my father had done. A man there had been training a team of young oxen for pulling. For the uninitiated, oxen are essentially steers (neutered males), which may grow to weigh a ton or more at maturity. But this man started working with steer calves when they were small, perhaps two or three hundred pounds, as they were much more cooperative and manageable at that size.
Their yokes were hewn out of wood, and they fit over the strong shoulders of the animal to harness their power to the implement they were pulling. Significantly, the small oxen had small yokes, and as they grew, the man had to make larger ones. The small calves could pull a ground-driven mower, which was easy to pull. When they were bigger, they could pull a plow. I loved watching these animals and their owner working together, quietly mowing hay with the click of the cutter bar and the plodding sound of animals moving through the hay field. Though I enjoy the comfort of my tractor, there was real beauty in this cooperative venture.
Though we might think of a yoke pejoratively (after all, who aspires to be a beast of burden?), there is also a positive and constructive aspect of the yoke. The yoke permitted these oxen to accomplish something that they could not do independently. It channeled their power toward a desirable end – cutting hay in this case – that pleased the owner. The calves did not seem to mind their task, and I imagine they were particularly glad to eat the hay they had cut when the snow covered that field in a few months!
We moderns tend to avoid anything that constrains our freedom. We want to go our own way and do our own thing. Experience and example teaches us that libertine pursuits don’t lead to contentment, only more desire. Yet our faith teaches us that when we submit to the truth of the Church, we truly become free. Jesus is teaching that in the Gospel for today. Yes, we are working for Him, not doing our own thing. But that yoke links us to our Lord and purposes that please him. In those purposes, we will find our own fulfillment.
By Edward Morse