Updated: Nov 1, 2019
"Come to me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, 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
Jesus said that. It sounds lovely. Definitely worth hanging on the wall or printing on the side of a mug. Maybe with snug cottage by a burbling stream, or a sunny picture of a shepherd with a little lamb. This verse has been popping up in my mind over and over again for about two weeks. I thought it was time to sit down and dig into this verse. Why?
This verse seems to stand in direct opposition to just one chapter prior in the book Matthew where Jesus is warning the disciples of the hard road ahead of them. Before he sends them out, Jesus foretells a difficult future for his disciples. Here is the prophesied suffering of Matthew 10, starting in verse 16, all gathered up into a terrible bundle.
"I send you out as sheep among wolves . Beware of men, for they will hand you over to the courts and whip you in their synagogues. Brother will betray brother to death, a father will betray his child, and a children will rise up against their parents. You will be hated by all because of my name. They call me son of a demon, they will call you the same. Whoever denies me before men, I will deny him before my Father in heaven. Do not think I come to bring peace on earth. I did come to bring peace, but a sword. A man's enemies will be the members of his own household. If you love others more than me, even your own family, you are not worthy of me. He who does take up his cross and follow after me is not worthy of me. He who has found his life will lose it."
Whoa. This sounds simply awful. I am amazed that the disciples heard this spoken right to their face, yet still went out where Jesus sent! Yes, there are blessings for those who endure (I will come back to those) but even so, this is not a rosy picture. This sounds like a hard life. So how is Jesus' burden light?
Jesus doesn't say to take his pillow for it is fluffy, he tells people to take an implement of work or servitude. A yoke is something that is shaped a little like a sideways letter 'B'. The bumps go around the necks of one or two animals, like oxen or donkeys. Then, rope or chains go through loops in the yoke, and the team of oxen is hitched to a heavy burden so they can pull it. So, whenever a yoke is involved, there's work going on. If Matthew 10 is any indication, that work can lead you straight to a cross. From what historians can gather, many of the twelve disciples were killed for their faith, and countless martyrs died while being mocked and reviled for their belief in Jesus. So I ask again, how is Jesus' burden light?
Some translations say that "for my yoke is comfortable, and my burden is light." A poor-fitting yoke gives the animals wearing it painful sores, or can cause permanent injury to their muscles over time, crippling them. Something about the people around him made Jesus perceive that their badly fitting yoke was chafing, and their burdens were more than they could bear.
Considering this declaration of Jesus' came right after he denounced unbelieving cities, and said that the "wise and intelligent" were missing out on the truth, it's pretty safe to say that Jesus saw the teachers of the day as making ill-fitting yokes for God's people. In fact, in Matthew 23:4 Jesus speaks against the Pharisees and the scribes and says, "They tie up heavy burdens and lay them on men's shoulders, but they themselves are unwilling to move them with so much as a finger." If you'd like to know more about the Pharisees, I've written a post called Who were the Pharisees and the Sadducees?
I don't think Jesus was saying the Law of Moses was a heavy burden and Jesus' Teachings were an escape from that. It wasn't "Hard Law" cleared away for an easy life of love and daisies. Jesus refers back to the law at several points and doesn't take away from it, if anything he makes it harder! Now it's not just about doing murder, hatred in your heart is enough to condemn you. (Matt 5:21-22) Now it's not just about actually committing adultery, it's thinking lustful thoughts that can get you in trouble. (Matt 5:27-28.)
I think Jesus was saying that the WAY the teachers were interpreting the Law was the heavy burden. In their quest for purity, they forgot the heart of God and bogged men down with their traditions and interpretations that distracted rather than helped.
Somehow, I think their traditions shifted the wrong responsibility onto the shoulders of the common men and women. I'd like to give you a little picture of what responsibility looks like to me. When I was a kid, I could skip away from the house, my chores unfinished, with a book, an apple and a blanket, and read for hours in a sunny spot without any thought that I should be doing something more productive. As an adult, I have a hard time sitting down to relax until I have done everything on my to-do list. I keep thinking about chores that need doing because I have responsibilities.
We sometimes convince ourselves that not being able to rest until the job is done is very grown-up, but I think we've simply forgotten how to rest amidst life. The end result is a bunch of tired people always slogging to the next to-do.
I have a sneaking suspicion, that the way the Pharisees and scribes taught the people, was a bit like me not being able to relax properly until the dishes are done. You could always be MORE pure with an extra blessing or handwashing perhaps. You could always be MORE righteous, so another hour of prayer in the synagogue is in order. You could always be a BETTER example of God's love, so get out there and give to the poor where people can see and follow your example.
There's nothing wrong with purity rituals or prayer or giving to the poor until they take away from your rest and joy in God. Life became a series of to-dos and requirements that took the focus off true worship and put it on the people instead.
Let's go back to Matthew 10:16 and see the flip side of Jesus' prophecies:
"But when they hand you over, do not worry about how or what you are to say; for it will be given to you at that hour what you are to say. For it is not you who speak, but it is the Spirit of your Father who speaks in you. The one who endures to the end will be saved. Do not fear them, for there is nothing concealed that will not be revealed, or hidden that will not be known. What I tell you in the darkness, speak in the light; and what you hear whispered in your ear, proclaim from the rooftops. Are not two sparrows sold for a cent? Yet not one falls apart from your Father. The very hairs of your head are numbered, you are far more valuable than many sparrows. Therefore, everyone who confesses Me before men, I will also confess him before my Father who is in heaven. He who has lost his life for my sake will find it."
I think Jesus can say that his burden is light because he has given responsibility to God and is telling us to do the same. He says not to worry. He says not to fear. He says we are valuable to God, that what happens to us matters to God. All the business of "fairness" in this hard life, or needing to have our ministry perfectly worked out, or needing to be eloquent at preaching, that's not our responsibility, so let it go. It's how Jesus could go off to pray and rest in God, even when his to-do list was calling. Jesus just says: Don't worry about it, just go out and tell everyone what I told you! God has the rest!
That's our mission field too, folks. Don't take on the job of "saving", that's a burden more than you can bear, and can distract you from your relationship to God. Just believe and talk about the Good News and let God handle the rest. I don't know about you, but handing God back responsibilities for being "good enough to save other people", well that just makes me sit about four inches taller.
Belief in Jesus can cost you friends, family, finances or your very life. Jesus told us so, so we shouldn't be surprised when it happens to us. Yet Jesus says his burden is light because he is not carrying more than he should. His yoke is easy, because he is allowing God to lay the burdens, and he is going where God wills.
What God asked of him led him to the cross. Yet! God rewarded him by raising him from the dead. That same reward is promised to all who believe in Jesus, you and me!
Is your yoke easy and light? If it's weighing you down, chafing and crippling you, it might be time to take a look and see if you've shouldered something that God does not expect you to carry.
God Bless, my friends.