Sunday, July 03, 2005

Yokes and burdens

Today's gospel makes me think of a conversation I had last October. It was the day of the first round of the Ukrainian election. This was before the Orange Revolution had seized the headlines, and the goings-on in Ukraine -- Yuschenko's poisoning, the arbitrary arrest of activists, media censorship -- were receiving little attention in the West. The more I thought about it, the more strongly I felt that I had to do something. So I made a sign urging people not to turn a blind eye, hung it round my neck by a piece of twine, and went to stand near the Ukrainian embassy.

It turned out that Ukrainians who lived in the UK were coming to the embassy to vote. One of them, a man about my age, came and joined me. 'I was thinking I should do something like this myself,' he said, 'and now I've seen you I have no excuse.' He asked several times whether I wanted him to take the sign for a while. The first couple of times I refused. It was just a piece of cardboard; it wasn't causing me any trouble.

During a quiet period we got to chatting. He told me he had qualified as an engineer, but had been unable to find work in Ukraine. So he had been doing various menial jobs in London (I didn't ask whether he was in the UK legally) and sending the money home to his wife and two small sons.

He asked once again if he could carry my sign for me. By now I had realised that he wasn't just being solicitous; he had a need to do this. I handed the sign over. He put it round his neck eagerly, then added: 'When I came to England, my first job was to stand in Leicester Square with a sign round my neck advertising cheap theatre tickets. I remember how heavy it got by the end of the day.'

We usually translate Matthew 11:30 as 'My yoke is easy, and my burden is light.' But as
Paul Nuechterlein points out, that isn't entirely accurate. The Greek word used to describe the yoke is χρηστός, which comes from the verb χράομαι, 'to make use of.' It means 'useful,' 'serviceable,' or 'beneficial.'

A yoke that does us no good, and does not allow us to do good, is difficult to bear. By contrast, a yoke that is χρηστός can be borne easily regardless of its weight. The Ukrainian man had borne his share of burdens, many of them unjust. Yet he was eager to take up this new burden because he felt it would do some good -- for his country, and, in a sense, for him as well.

When Jesus says that his yoke is χρηστός, he doesn't mean that his followers' lives will be easy. Indeed, throughout the gospels he tells us just the opposite. Not only will Christ's followers suffer because they follow him; they are also expected to share other people's burdens. What Jesus does promise is that these burdens will serve a good purpose, that they will allow us to do good to others and also to receive good ourselves. That is what makes his yoke 'easy.'

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