“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” Matthew 11:28-30
Many Christians have found comfort in these words. But me, not so much these days. I suspect I am not the only one who does not find life as a Christian “easy” and has about all the burdens I can carry, thank you very much. Not feeling much “rest” either. I also know that my little troubles pale in comparison to the burdens and struggles of others. Rest, easy yokes, light burdens? What on earth is Jesus talking about?
Or maybe this has nothing to do with earth? Is that it? May Jesus is talking about life in heaven. Could Jesus be talking about laying down the heavy burden of life and resting in the easy, light life in heaven? It can be easy for us to over-spiritualize what Jesus says, especially if the saying is difficult. We create a false separation between heaven and earth. I do think Jesus is talking about life here on earth. But an easy yoke and a light burden? Some days that’s hard to believe. The fact that these verses are difficult for me is a clue that I ought to spend some time learning and thinking about them. These verses need, as theologians say, unpacking.
“Rest” is a word we associate with a lack of activity,-sleeping, napping, lounging. But in the ancient world when kings were at rest, they were at home and not at war. When the king was at rest there was peace. Life was good. In Genesis 2:2-3, when God rests, God isn’t napping. God the King is at rest and life is good, things are right, there is peace. Shalom. When Jesus says he will give us rest, he’s not talking about idleness or naps. He is talking about life lived in the presence of God when the world has become what God intends it to be. This world of divine rest isn’t fully present yet, but we live in hope and in anticipation. And we live our lives, these days, with snatches of rest. Moments, even sometimes days, when things are right and good.
“Yoke” is something that oxen or people wear to pull or carry loads. Yoke was used as a metaphor by rabbis- the “yoke of Torah” – to speak of obedience and service. Often Christians think about these verses from Matthew as a rejection of Torah, a doing away with the “old”, “bad” law. But remember that Torah was thought of as a gift (Exodus 19-24) from God and Jesus does not reject Torah (Matt 5:17). In the Old Testament, the image of a yoke was used to describe Israel’s life under oppressive nations. (Lev 26:13; Isaiah 9:4, 10:27, etc) Israel was delivered from oppression so they could freely be God’s people, living in Torah faithfulness. Israel was delivered from one sort of yoke to another. It seems to me that Jesus’ is talking about a similar thing. The oppressive yoke of human rulers and empires is exchanged for the yoke of life when God is ruler of all and we live in God’s rest.
Thinking about “yoke” and “rest” in these ways helps make sense of verses 28 and 29. We give up the burdens placed on us by a society that yokes us to crushing expectations. We live as God’s people seeking rest – peace and life in God’s kingdom.
But still, it can be hard to live faithfully. Sometimes the burden of going along is easier than the burden of faithful living. There is nothing easy about forgiving our debtors and loving our enemies. What is easy about this yoke and light about this burden?
Some commentators think that “easy” would be better translated as “kind” or “good” and “light” better translated as “small”. “For my yoke is kind/good and my burden is small.” Now things are beginning to make some sense. It’s not that the Christian’s life is easy. Our yoke, our obedience is to goodness and kindness. Sometimes kindness is work. When I don’t feel like being good or kind, it becomes work. I shoulder the yoke and pull a plow through the hard soil of my heart, doing the work of kindness. Out of that work, that plowing, God gives growth.
The small burden? The work of salvation, of setting the world right is a very large burden and it is God’s work. Jesus carries that burden. My part of the load is small. All of us have been given some work to do, a part of the load to carry.- each of us doing are part. And you and I don’t have to carry our burdens alone. The Spirit has been sent to help and we help each other. People who pray for me and in very real, physical ways carry some of my burden. And I try to help carry some of theirs. The burden of living as if we lived in God’s kingdom, is a burden- it’s work. But compared to the burdens of oppression and sin- it is a small burden.
“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”
I’d like to know, what do you think?