In today's first reading and Matthean Gospel, God and Jesus are represented as peaceable, meek and gentle. Zechariah shared a vision of the king and savior of Israel entering Jerusalem not as a conquering war hero on a horse but as a gentle leader astride a donkey. Instead of having trumpets blare out his might, the just savior comes with words of peace for all of humankind.
As Dennis Hamm has pointed out, this text from Zechariah helps us to appreciate the symbolic action of Jesus, who, when he wanted to clarify the character of his messiahship, entered Jerusalem in peace, riding on a donkey (Let the Scriptures Speak, The Liturgical Press, 2001). To further accent the gentleness of Jesus' reign, Matthew has relayed the invitation of Jesus to all those who labor: Come, learn meekness and humility from me. Come, share my yoke, and you will find rest.
How life-giving these words must have been for Jesus' contemporaries, who were eager to love and serve the Lord, but who were finding strict observance of the law increasingly difficult. Particularly burdensome was the enormous compendium of oral law that had accrued to the commandments mediated by Moses at Sinai.
To illustrate how cumbersome the law had become, William Barclay shared a story from the ancient rabbis. There was a poor widow who had two daughters and a small piece of land. When she began to plow, the elders told her, "You must not plow with an ox and a donkey together" (Deuteronomy 22:10). When she began to sow, she was told, "You must not sow your field with mingled seed" (Leviticus 19:19). As she began to reap and pile up stacks of corn, she heard, "When you reap ... and have forgotten a sheaf in the field, you shall not go back for it" (Deuteronomy 24:19).
While she was threshing, the priest came and asked for his portion (the heave offering and the first and second tithe). Having labored so long and hard for so little, the woman decided to sell her field and buy two sheep. When they bore their young, the priest came for his portion, the first born. When she sheared the sheep, he returned and asked for "the first of the fleece" (Deuteronomy 18:4).
At her wits' end, she slaughtered the sheep and was about to prepare a meal for herself and her daughters when the priest appeared yet again. "Give me the shoulder and the two cheeks and the stomach" (Deuteronomy 18:3). "Even when I have slaughtered my means of livelihood, I am not safe from you," said the poor widow. "Behold, they are set aside for the Lord!" At that, the cleric said, "In that case, they belong entirely to me!" (Numbers 18:14). Then, he left with the meat of the lamb and the woman and her daughters wept at their loss (The Daily Study Bible: The Gospel of Matthew, St. Andrew Press, 1975).
In sharp contrast to those who wielded the law as a bludgeon to bring about their own purposes, Jesus offered to lessen the burdens of those who came to him. He did this by being their yokemate. Usually, beasts of burden were paired in a double yoke so they could combine their efforts at plowing. Fully aware of the agrarian methods of his day, Jesus used that image of a shared yoke and a shared burden to assure his listeners that they were not alone as they faced their future as his disciples.
However, while he assured them of easy yoke and rest, he did not promise them a life free from sorrow or struggle. "He does assure them that if they keep close to him, they will find relief from such crushing burdens as crippling anxiety, the sense of frustration and futility and the misery of a sin-laden conscience" (R.V.G. Tacker, Matthew, InterVarsity Press, 1961).
Paul also offers assurances to those who wish to follow Jesus. In his correspondence with the Roman believers, Paul reminds his readers of every generation that our discipleship is strengthened and inspired and directed by the Spirit. Through the Spirit dwelling within, we have life in us. Disciples are no longer debtors to the flesh or weighed down by endless manmade rules that are hard to bear (Matthew 23:4). Now, disciples are graced with strength and the ability to discern what is really necessary for witnessing to God, to Jesus and to the Spirit.
Our witness should reflect the gentleness and peaceable nature of the One who has chosen us to be his yokemate. Then, by grace, we too can ease the burdens of others, for we who follow Jesus' lead are called to be yokemates for others, sharing their sorrows, lessening their burdens, lending them our hope, our faith and our joy. "Come to me, find rest."
[Patricia Sánchez holds a master's degree in literature and religion of the Bible from a joint degree program at Columbia University and Union Theological Seminary in New York.]