A yoke misunderstood?

A yoke misunderstood?

Listen now

I’m just a soul whose intentions are good. O Lord, please don’t let me be misunderstood… Being good Christian folk, I know you’re wondering which psalm that is, but it was a song first released by Nina Simone in 1964, then covered by The Animals in 1965 in probably a better-known version.

Do you ever feel misunderstood? Do people leap to assumptions because of your gender, or the colour of your skin, or your age? Maybe it’s your height, or your weight, or what school you go to – or your accent? I mean thank goodness that I don’t have an accent!… Sometimes we can find ourselves generalising about others with a minimal amount of information. For those on the receiving end that can at best be mildly irritating and frustrating – but at worst it can lead to violence and discrimination.

A glutton

It seems that Jesus and John the Baptist suffered such stereotyping. John, apparently, had a demon and Jesus was a glutton and a drunkard. Jesus is described in terms of the company that he keeps. That can happen to us too.

In return, Jesus describes the people saying these things as like children engrossed in playing games, oblivious of what’s happening around them. That the Messiah was right there in front of them, and they didn’t recognize him. Clearly even John wasn’t totally sure about Jesus and just before our verses, he sends his disciples to check him out.


Sometimes the Gospel of Matthew is called the ‘teacher’s gospel’ because, throughout it, Jesus is teaching. Jesus even leaves the disciples at the end of this gospel with the instruction to go into the world and teach them to obey everything that he has commanded them (28:20).

For the disciples to teach they needed understanding, they needed wisdom. In our reading, Jesus says that ‘wisdom is vindicated by her deeds’. By talking about wisdom, Jesus was tapping into his Jewish heritage and those around him. Wisdom was thought of as being female, hence ‘her deeds’. Proverbs tells us that one of those deeds is providing order to chaos (8:27-31). In Psalms, Wisdom protects us and guards us (4:6) and grants us humility (11:12).

Pure and gentle

In the book of James, Wisdom “is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, and easy to be entreated, full of mercy and good fruits, without partiality, and without hypocrisy” (3:17). How well does that describe us, I wonder? How wise are we?

And Wisdom isn’t the exclusive property of those at the older end of the scale. Jesus’ prayer makes it clear that hidden things are revealed to children too.

Back in Proverbs, Wisdom calls out to the passer-by to come and eat (9:5-6) but a few verses later, foolishness makes exactly the same invitation (9:16). The trick, both then and now, is to know the difference and to make a choice.

It gets tricky

In our verses, Jesus is suggesting that he is Wisdom. He also calls out. He calls to the weary to come. And this is where it gets tricky…

“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you,” he continues, “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 light.”

Really? Has Matthew misunderstood? It’s not that long ago that he has Jesus say: “the gate is narrow and the road is hard” (7:14) and “whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me” (10:38). That doesn’t sound much like a light burden or an easy yoke. It might be worth noting here that some translators prefer the words ‘good’ or ‘beneficial’ to the word ‘easy’. So, it becomes ‘my yoke is ‘useful’ or ‘helpful’ rather than ‘easy’. But it’s still a struggle to square what Jesus is saying now with what he’s said earlier.

Yoke not Yolk

And just to be clear for all you bakers and poultry farmers, it’s yoke, YOKE, not yolk, YOLK. Yoke as in the wooden crosspiece that is fastened over the neck of an animal and attached to a plough or a cart. Not yolk as in what you get from an egg. Take my yolk, YOLK, upon you conjures up a whole different image…

And maybe we’re not entirely happy with the image of a yoke, YOKE, either. Perhaps it makes us think of bondage and servitude, of restriction of freedom and movement. Something that someone with power imposes on us against our will.

But have we misunderstood this picture of a yoke? What if the yoke is for two not one? What if the yoke is not a symbol of bondage but instead it’s one of connection? Of working closely in tandem with Christ, side-by-side, sharing the effort, sharing the load.


Perhaps there’s an echo here of a verse in Exodus. Matthew is often thought to be comparing and contrasting Jesus and Moses all the way through his gospel. In Exodus 33:14, God says to Moses: “My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest”. And in Deuteronomy 30:11, Moses says on behalf of God: “Surely this commandment that I am commanding you today is not too hard for you…”

Indeed, some commentators make the point that the picture of a yoke was sometimes used to portray the task of obedience to the Torah, to the law.

In Jeremiah 5:5, the prophet is speaking about corruption amongst God’s people when he says: “Let me go to the rich and speak to them: surely they know the way of the Lord, the law of their God. But they all alike had broken the yoke, they had burst the bonds.”

Wisdom and Torah

Here, Jesus is saying that he came as an embodiment of both Wisdom and Torah. For the Jew, the Torah is ‘all that God has made known of his nature, character and purpose, all what he would have us be and do’. The Torah is the full revelation of God and his will for us. If you’re going to be bound to anyone, then Jesus, the embodiment of that divine revelation and will, is a pretty good person to be bound to!

In fact, you could take verses 25-30 from our reading today as being arguably the most important verses in Matthew, Mark and Luke. That these short 6 verses summarise those 3 Gospels and give a hint of John’s Gospel too. Take a long look when you get home and see if you agree.


There’s an interesting text in the Apocrypha of the OT. It’s in the Book of Sirach. It somehow brings the first half and the second half of our Gospel reading together. Perhaps think of Jesus as Wisdom when I read these words:

Come to her (Wisdom) with all your soul,

and keep her ways with all your might.

Search out and seek, and she will

become known to you;

and when you get hold of her,

do not let her go.

For at last you will find the rest she gives,

and she will be changed into joy for you.

Then her fetters will become for you a strong defence,

and her collar a glorious robe.

Her yoke is a golden ornament,

and her bonds a purple cord.

You will wear her like a glorious robe,

and put her on like a splendid crown. (Sirach 6.26-31)

Her yoke is a golden ornament…

I’m human

The song by Nina and by The Animals continues: “Oh, now don’t you know I’m human, I got my faults just like anyone. And sometimes I lie awake, alone, regretting some foolish thing, some sinful thing I’ve done.”

Perhaps the challenge is to ask ourselves what it is that we attach ourselves to today? What are we yoked to? We can bind ourselves to possessions, beliefs and habits. To people and to places. Have you sought those connections out and willingly taken them on – or have you allowed others to place them upon you? Do they develop you or do they diminish you? Do they draw you closer to Christ or take you farther away?

Christ is the full revelation of God and his will for us. Maybe today is as good a time as any to ask ourselves whether that same Christ is asking you to make a different connection? For if we’re yoked, if we’re connected to Christ, then we walk beside him and share in his work of bringing justice and peace, compassion and righteousness to the world around us. Is that what you’re doing?

Shares any burden

But it works the other way too. If we’re yoked, if we’re connected, then Jesus walks beside us every step that we take too, in a relationship where he shares any load, any burden, that we choose, or are given, to bear.

Jesus doesn’t force us. He asks us, invites us, to come. So, do we come to him for that shared connection or do we not?

You and I, we have a clear choice to make between the two. Oh, Lord, please don’t let us be misunderstood. Amen

‘A yoke misunderstood?’ was delivered by Ian Banks at St James, Heywood on 9th July 2023 and earlier on-line. It’s based on Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30.



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