Part of the mystery of the event so recently celebrated by us and, at the same time, part of the glory of Christmas is that Jesus hailed from Nazareth where he was the village carpenter. Nazareth, a place from which no good thing was expected to come. Nathanael, eventually to become a disciple of Jesus, when told by his friend Philip that Jesus was God’s Anointed One, simply could not believe it. “Nazareth,” the bewildered Nathanael exclaimed, “Can anything of good come from that place!” Nazareth, a village of little expectation and Jesus, son of Joseph, an artisan, not a prince – take it with a pinch of salt! Yes, village carpenter he was: good with tools; with skills that were not confined to shaping wood. A carpenter not a joiner, as we understand the term, and certainly not the odd jobs man who advertises his services in the columns of the local newspaper. A good carpenter in Palestine in Jesus’ day was a craftsman of multi-skills. (Trade Unions, as we know them, would have a field day.) If you wanted a door planed or someone to drive in a few nails, you sent for the carpenter, and if it was a chair that you wanted or a table or a coffin, a bridge, even a house or a yoke for your oxen, the carpenter was your man.
I have never driven a pair of oxen. I did drive a pair of horses, Clydesdales, once upon a time, and in some respects that is much the same. If you are a horse man, whether show jumper or, as in my case, a ploughboy, like an ox-man, you are concerned with harness and yokes with which you attach your horse to a plough, or harrows or whatever. No good if they are ill-fitting or badly made. No good if the collar chafes at the shoulder or the saddle-girth strangles the belly or the tree-chains cut into the hock. They have to fit well! In Jesus’ day, if a farmer needed a new yoke for his oxen it was much like going to the bespoke tailor on the High Street for a new suit. A yoke was made of wood and the farmer would take the beast to the carpenter, first to be measured and then to be fitted. The yoke was tailor-made!
Jesus knew all about yokes from personal experience. In the course of his ministry of teaching and pastoral care there was an occasion when he utilised that expertise to illustrate his message. “My yoke is easy,” Jesus says, and the word easy may also be translated, serviceable, good or well-fitting. “My yoke is easy” was actually the motto of the family business – it hung on a sign above his workshop door. It is part of folk-lore too that it was no idle boast, for Jesus had the reputation for making the best ox-yokes in the whole of Galilee and, without exception, the yokes he made fitted like a glove, as we might say. It is Matthew (11: 28-30) who tells us of Jesus’ use of the family business motto in his teaching. But there he does not speak of those well-fitting products shaped on his work bench, Jesus is talking about people; about life. James Stewart, a pulpit giant and theologian at the time of my youth and before, wrote an excellent hand book (Life and Teaching of Jesus) for the use of Boys Brigade Bible Classes. I was greatly influenced by him. He said this: “Made by the same hands, the yoke for the oxen at the plough and the yoke for the disciples of the kingdom were alike, they were light and easy fitting.” Jesus’ invitation and promise were addressed to a devout people whose spiritual allegiance had become a burden. They were exhausted and worn out by the increasing and ludicrous number of demands and regulations their leaders and teachers persistently added to the rule book, with the hope of gaining God’s blessing. The yoke – the task to which they were committed – was nothing other than an ill fit. For a people burned out by the intensity of religious fervour, what was intended to be a blessing had become an intolerable burden. (A yoke could also be the mark of servitude or slavery.) Jesus offers something different: a better way of life, a joy and a blessing, its demands tailor-made. “Take my yoke and put it on; the yoke I give you is easy and light.” The ironic feature of this tale is the reluctance of the Hebrew people to throw in their lot with Jesus. They feared what he offered might be no different – a burden rather than a joy. There is a paraphrase of the Saying of Jesus about the yoke which fits well. It goes like this: “pulling with me is easy; pulling against me is hard.”
The conclusion to this piece is brief, and the impression may be given that it has been forgotten or of lesser significance. The truth is that no one is excluded from this challenging invitation and tremendous promise. When life is tough and hurting; when things are getting on top of us and we are feeling low, Jesus speaks to us, “Take my yoke upon you and learn of me. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” This is not an invitation to escape trial or tribulation. There is no magic wand on offer, or rocking chair in which to take our ease. It is the promise that is at the heart of the Gospel, that there is no situation that must end in failure; no search for truth or for God that inevitably leads to a cul-de-sac. It is the promise that in the strength of grace God’s enabling gift to us, our life will be moulded so that we can cope.
My yoke fits well. A promise to carry with us into the New Year 2014.