Hear the most welcoming and encouraging invitation ever offered:
“Are you having a real struggle? Come to me! Are you carrying a big load on you back? Come to me – I’ll give you a rest! Pick up my yoke and put it on; take lessons from me, I’ll be gentle with you! The last thing in my heart is to give you a hard time. You’ll see – rest you need, and rest you shall have. My yoke is easy to wear, my load is easy to bear.”
(Matthew 11:28-29, (Trans. N.T. Wright,Kingdom New Testament)
Robert Frost was once asked how he would define freedom; without a moment’s hesitation, he replied, “I would define freedom as being easy in your harness.” Thus he enunciated a basic and paradoxical truth about life. It calls to mind this teaching of Jesus about taking his yoke upon us in order to learn about him, and adding that the yoke is easy.
Upon first hearing both of these statements sound like the antithesis of reality. How can freedom be found in a harness? Surely the wearing of a yoke could never be easy. The Pharisees had spoken of people being called to carry “the yoke of the Torah,” the heavy burden of the Jewish law with its commandments. But Jesus offered a different “yoke,” which, because it came from his mercy and love, was easy to bear.
How could following Jesus really be that easy? Didn’t he himself say that people had to be prepared to leave behind family, possessions, even their own life? Yes, he did. But the ease and the joy, the rest and the refreshment which he offered, all spring from his own inner character, his gentleness and warmth to all who turn to him, weighed down by burdens moral, physical, emotional, financial or whatever. He is offering what he has in himself to offer.
Yet it is a fact of human experience that we need discipline, and that unless we submit to it, we are not likely to find life in its largest dimension.
The word “discipline” has many unfavorable or negative connotations. When we speak of an “undisciplined” child or adult, we usually mean that the person is uncontrolled, misbehaving, underachieving or unstructured. It suggests a rigorous effort to keep oneself or others under control and to acquire efficiency in human behavior. However, “discipline” as understood in the Christian context is not the rigor of self-discouraging, breast-beating, doing more and more “good deeds,” mere obedience to rules, or sophisticated techniques.
Rather, as McNeil, Morrison and Nouwen suggest in their book Compassion, “In the Christian life, discipline is the human effort to unveil what has been covered, to bring to the foreground what has remained hidden and to put on the lamp stand what has been kept under a basket. It is like raking away the leaves that cover the pathways in the garden of our soul. Discipline enables the revelation of God’s divine Spirit in us. Discipline in the Christian life does indeed require effort, but it is an effort to reveal rather than to conquer.”
Even so, it’s a hard lesson to learn. Every generation is tempted by the lure of the undisciplined life. Oh, to be free and easy with no responsibilities and no restraints! But the lure proves deceitful and the freedom false. We look forward to idleness; but after we are away from our work for awhile, we are at loose ends. The student who ignores the requirements of the curriculum to let the mind wander at will inevitably becomes a slave to ignorance. The man or woman who chooses to ignore the precepts of morality in order to give free reign to the impulses of the body may wake up to find himself or herself in bondage to the flesh. Strange though it may sound, it is the accumulative experience of the race that the carefree life is not free from care. We are meant for discipline.
When Jesus declares, in the old translation, that he is “meek and lowly of heart,” he isn’t boasting that he’s attained some special level of spiritual achievement. He is encouraging us to believe that he isn’t going to stand over us like a policeman, isn’t going to be cross with us like an angry schoolteacher. And the welcome he offers, for all who abandon themselves to his mercy, is the welcome God offers through him. This is the invitation which pulls back the curtain and lets us see who “the father” really is – and encourages us to come into his loving, welcoming presence.
May God grant to all of us the grace to gladly accept the disciplines of the spiritual life, and may we find that the yokes which at first may feel heavy, at last become light and uplifting. Amen!