By breaking a wooden yoke, you forge an iron yoke! – A meditation on a saying by Jeremiah

080414There is a remarkable line in the first reading from Mass today (Monday of the 18th Week of the year) that is worthy of meditation for us all. It is a phrase that is practical, profound, and sweeping in its implications. It comes to us from the Lord through the mouth of Jeremiah the Prophet, who warns,

By breaking a wooden yoke, you forge an iron yoke! (Jeremiah 28:13)

The words have a historical context to be sure, but they also have a timeless context. (If you are not interested in the historical meaning, skip to the red text below). Jeremiah was commanded by God to wear a wooden yoke about his neck to symbolize the fact that God had delivered the land of Judah and the Jewish people into the hands of Nebuchadnezzar (a name which, strangely, means “Large Wine Bottle”), the King of Babylon. God had done this to punish all of them for their infidelity and to purify them; they were to wear this yoke until God loosed it.

In doing this, God was resorting to a tactic he had used in the past: I will provoke them with a foolish nation (Deut 32:21). Considering the meaning of Nebuchadnezzar’s name, the people would surely have remembered the Psalm: Thou hast made thy people suffer hard things; thou hast given us wine to drink that made us reel (Ps 60:3).

And thus the Lord said through Jeremiah,

In the beginning of the reign of Zedekiah the son of Josiah, king of Judah, this word came to Jeremiah from the LORD. 2 Thus the LORD said to me: “Make yourself thongs and yoke-bars, and put them on your neck … 4 Give them this charge: ‘Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel … 6 I have given all these lands into the hand of Nebuchadnezzar, the king of Babylon, my servant … 7 All the nations shall serve him and his son and his grandson, until the time of his own land comes; then many nations and great kings shall make him their slave … 8 But if any nation or kingdom will not serve this Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon, and put its neck under the yoke of the king of Babylon, I will punish that nation … 9 So do not listen to your prophets, your diviners, your dreamers, your soothsayers, or your sorcerers, who are saying to you, ‘You shall not serve the king of Babylon.’ 10 For it is a lie which they are prophesying to you, with the result that you … will perish. 11 But any nation which will bring its neck under the yoke of the king of Babylon and serve him, I will leave on its own land, to till it and dwell there, says the LORD … 14 Do not listen to the words of the prophets who are saying to you, ‘You shall not serve the king of Babylon,’ for it is a lie which they are prophesying to you. 15 I have not sent them, says the LORD, but they are prophesying falsely in my name … (Jeremiah 27, indicated verses)

Yes, God had chosen to use a foreign land to purify his people from their infidelities. The Lord even goes so far as to call Nebuchadnezzar “my servant” (verse 6).

Jeremiah was to display this by the wooden yoke he was to wear about his neck. Yet God is clear that the yoke is only a temporary measure (vaguely described as lasting for three generations in verse 7). After this time, God will act.

Nevertheless, and despite the warnings, false “prosperity” prophets arose and did just what God forbade: announced a quick end to the yoke. Thus we read the following in today’s passage:

That same year, in the beginning of the reign of Zedekiah, king of Judah, in the fifth month of the fourth year, Hananiah the prophet, son of Azzur, from Gibeon, said to me in the house of the LORD in the sight of the priests and all the people: 2 “Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel: I have broken the yoke of the king of Babylon. 3 Within two years I … all the exiles of Judah who went to Babylon, I will bring back to this place—oracle of the LORD—for I will break the yoke of the king of Babylon.” … 10 Thereupon Hananiah the prophet took the yoke bar from the neck of Jeremiah the prophet and broke it. 11 He said in the sight of all the people: “Thus says the LORD: Like this, within two years I will break the yoke of Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, from the neck of all the nations.” At that, the prophet Jeremiah went on his way. (Jeremiah 28, indicated verses)

And then comes our warning text, the text for our mediation:

12 After Hananiah the prophet had broken the yoke bar off the neck of the prophet Jeremiah, the word of the LORD came to Jeremiah: 13 Go tell Hananiah this: Thus says the LORD: By breaking a wooden yoke, you make an iron yoke! (Jeremiah 28, indicated verses).

That is what it meant then. Sure enough, the sufferings were intensified. The Babylonian captivity lasted for 80 years. Many Jews never returned from the diaspora.

But what does a text like this mean for us today?

By breaking a wooden yoke, you forge an iron yoke! (Jeremiah 28:13)

What is the wooden yoke if it is not the cross? Indeed the Lord says as much: Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.  Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light (Matt 11:28-30).

And thus the Lord has a paradoxical answer to us who labor and are heavenly burdened. He tells us to take the yoke and burden He has for us. The yoke is a symbol for the cross, and like most yokes, it connects us with another—in this case with the Lord! But to be sure he DOES have a yoke for us. We DO need purification and discipline. But the yoke He has for us is “easy.” The Greek word used is χρηστός (chrestos), a word which also has the connotation of being well fitting, serviceable, or adapted to its purpose. And thus the Lord’s yoke for us is productive unto the end He has in mind: our healing and salvation.

But do not turn the yoke (cross) into something abstract or think of it only in terms of big things such as cancer. The cross also has real, practical, daily dimensions such as adopting self-control and moderation. The cross (yoke) includes resisting sin, learning to forgive, and living chastely and courageously despite difficulties or persecution. These are common to all true Christians. There are also some specific crosses that we each carry, crosses that the Lord permits for our humility and purification. Perhaps it is a physical illness or infirmity; perhaps it is a spiritual emotional struggle; perhaps it is the loss of a loved one, job, or home.

These are the wooden yokes, the cross of the Lord, and He carries it with us, for we are yoked with Him (praise God). And since these burdens are from Him, they are “chrestos.” They are well suited to us; they are just what we need to avoid even worse things, including Hell itself.

But what if we break and cast aside the wooden yoke, as many do today by ridiculing the Christian moral vision and the wisdom of the Cross given to us by Jesus? As Jeremiah puts it,

By breaking a wooden yoke, you forge an iron yoke! (Jeremiah 28:13)

How is this? Well consider the toll that indulging in the moment can take. In rejecting the wooden yoke of moderation, chastity, and the limits of God’s moral law we forge the iron yoke of addiction, DUI arrests, obesity, financial trouble, sexually transmitted diseases, broken families, and all the heartache and social chaos that results. Pornography, lust, alcohol, and drugs enslave with an iron yoke. In refusing the grace to forgive, we fuel violence and conflict. Many wars in the world today are about grievances that stretch back many hundreds or even thousands of years. Our greed causes us to have an insatiable desire for more, and we begin to live beyond our means or to live lives that bring us more stress than happiness. Even just the simple neglect of our daily duties causes work to pile up and seem overwhelming.

All of these are like iron yokes; they come upon us because we break the wooden yoke of the cross. To be sure, fulfilling our daily duties, living moderately, chastely, and soberly are all crosses because they involve some degree of self-denial, at least in the moment. But the wooden yoke is a lot easier than the iron yoke that results if we cast aside the more gentle, manageable, and well fitting yoke of the cross.

Pay attention fellow Christian—Satan is a liar. He offers to lift the gentle yoke of the Lord. He expresses “outrage” that the Lord should require any suffering or discipline from us. He “takes our side” and utters a complaint on our behalf. But he is a liar and a fraud. And once we let him lift the wooden yoke he locks us in an iron yoke. Do not forsake the wooden yoke of the cross! For if you do, an iron yoke is sure to follow—soon!

It is a simple pearl of wisdom, yet it is so often ignored: By breaking a wooden yoke, you forge an iron yoke! (Jeremiah 28:13)

3 Replies to “By breaking a wooden yoke, you forge an iron yoke! – A meditation on a saying by Jeremiah”

  1. Thank-you for an excellent blog entry!

    The sad reality is that, we often need to have to learn the HARD WAY.

  2. The cross indeed that I carry to me is so heavy that bearing it is so burdensome. I know that HE has HIS reasons but at the moment I cannot understand or even see what good it will bring me. I must hold on for this is what I must do. ‘Where will I go, YOU have the Words of everlasting life.’ Just give me the courage and guidance for it does wear me down.
    Thank you, Monsi for this article.

  3. I grew up on a farm where mules pulled the plow. I know what it means to “to hold on the plow” or suffer the consequences. Keep up the Good News Monsignor Pope!

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