Yolks and Yokes

It’s not “seeker sensitive” or “emergent.” It’s just good communication.

In high school a youth minister talked to a group of us about waiting until marriage to have sex.  He used a line from the bible that said we Christians shouldn’t be “unequally yoked together” with non-Christians.  (Whether that bit of the bible has anything to do with sex is another post.) After his speech we broke into smaller groups to discuss what we’d just heard.  Our group leader asked what we thought it meant to be “yoked.”


Then a friend of mine, an outgoing thespian who’d never been to church before this retreat we were on, broke through the awkward pause with a brilliant guess.  He explained how human beings are like eggs, having a hard outer shell and a deeper unseen more substantive part too.  This is the yolk, he elaborated, the part of us that no one gets to see very often.  God, he reasoned, must not want us to open up and share the deepest secrets we have with just anyone.  We should only trust other Christians, he concluded.

Brilliantly wrong.

The problem was this word “yoke” – not “yolk.” The youth minister, the group leader and I all assumed that word was a familiar one that didn’t need explanation.  The word “yoke” here, we knew, referred to a device used to tie two oxen together.  The picture of being unequally yoked is one of a large ox and a smaller ox trying to pull a load while tied together.  They’d work best with an ox of their own size and abilities.

Last year I studied another piece of the bible in which Jesus says His “yoke” is easy.  I assumed He wasn’t talking about eggs.  I assumed He was talking about oxen again, about something that binds two animals together.  Maybe Jesus was saying being bound to Him makes life easier.

Then I discovered that a yoke is what a rabbi in the first century (when Jesus said these words) called his interpretation of a passage of scripture.  A yoke is an explanation of what a particular part of the scriptures means.  When Jesus said His yoke was easy some Jewish scholars think Jesus was declaring He had an interpretation of scripture that wasn’t easy to follow, but easy to understand, compared to others’.  He summed up his interpretation of every law and every word of every prophet easily: Love God with everything you have and are, and love people.  Easy to understand.  Difficult to do at times.

Now, talk about a yoke to a Jew living 2000 years ago, living in an agricultural community, understanding the lingo of the Jewish teachers called rabbis and there would be far less confusion wouldn’t there?  He’d know when Jesus was talking livestock and when he was talking interpretation of scripture and when he just wanted some breakfast.

This is the paradox I’m in right now.  On the one hand I’m told by the teacher in the New Testament named Paul that I don’t have to know anything more than I do already in order to love God and people the way Jesus did.  On the other hand, I wrestle daily – DAILY! – with what this book called the bible means for us today by figuring out what it meant when it was written. 

I find myself having to define words the original audience of the bible didn’t have to define.  I don’t have to but…If I let modern American vocabulary and culture define the words and concepts of the bible for me I wind with a Jesus who says following him is easy, a “peace” that allows for war, a “salvation” that is only about forgiving my sin, a

kingdom of heaven” that is in the clouds, a “good news” that is told only after Jesus does on the cross, “joy” that is happiness, “evangelism” that is telling people Jesus died for them, a “repent” that is being sorry, “worship” that must be musical and a “church” that must be in a building.  And I could end up worshipping a Jesus who doesn’t love God or people as well as the original did.

I’m thinking about all this today because the guest preacher yesterday spent forty-five minutes “teaching” us and I don’t know what he said.  But he sure sounded smart.