Updated: May 1, 2020
"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. 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 children will rise up against their parents.
You will be hated by all because of my name.
They call me a 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.
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?
The importance of a proper yoke
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."