In the parish of Hodogaya in Yokohama City, Japan, I was reaching a class of ten who were preparing for Baptism. I presented the “Come to me...take my yoke” text to them for prayerful reflection. Hodogaya is a ward in the very center of Yokohama, a city of 3.7 million. There is little farmland left. One person came in with: “Father, what is a yoke?” I asked the other nine - all were below 50 and city dwellers. All had only the vaguest idea as to what a yoke was!
I came to Japan in 1956, so 65 years ago! For ten years I was stationed in country towns and villages. At that time there was no machinery, as now, to cultivate the rice paddies. In early spring the paddy was flooded, then ploughed. A cow pulled the plough. On the cow’s shoulders was the yoke made of heavy, straight-grained wood from which came two chains connected to the plough itself. A yoke in the time of Jesus was similar.
Yokes of their very nature are exceptionally heavy and burdensome. Yet, Jesus says: “My yoke is easy!” Here “easy” means it fits well. That is, in the concrete, the carpenter takes the measurements and notes the contours of each cow’s neck and makes the wooden yoke to fit snugly. There is a non-biblical legend that Jesus, as the carpenter of Nazareth, was known as a skillful yoke maker.
Another very important point for us to understand what Jesus is telling us is this: the yoke Jesus refers to is a double harness yoke. So even though the yoke was heavy, when it is carried by two, the load becomes light and easy to carry. The important point is this: It is Jesus Himself who is teamed up with us. This gives a deep and encouraging meaning to the text.
Having given this background to my Japanese class of city dwellers, I asked them in the quiet of their hearts to ponder Jesus’ living words to each of them this day. “Everyone who is tired, and weighed down with heavy burdens, come to me. I will cause you to be refreshed. Take my yoke upon you. My yoke is easy to carry and my burden is light.” Matthew 11:29 giving a literal translation of the text in Japanese and which is true to the original Greek text.
Tiredness of both body and heart are endemic in our modern society. We are so competitive! We get so busy! We all have burdens. We all need the rest, the encouragement, the meaning and new energy that Jesus gives. Slowly pondering the words of Jesus, “Come to me…,” let us go to Him with confidence.
Columban Fr. Barry Cairns lives and works in Japan.