“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” (Matt 11:28-30).
These words have given comfort to many Christians throughout history: whatever the “burdens,” whatever the cause of “soul weariness,” many have heard in these words of Jesus just what they’ve needed to hear. These words are like Psalm 23: comfort food for the soul, regardless of the situation.
But I have to confess these words are not always a comfort to me. I “come to Jesus” in the midst of my world-weariness, carrying emotional or physical or psychological burdens impossible to bear—and I find no rest. I “take on Jesus’ yoke,” seeking to learn from him, to follow his teachings and example—and I find there’s nothing easy about it. And what about all those Christians through history and around the world who have endured hardship after hardship for following Jesus?
Sometimes I hear these words, and I want to say, “Really, Jesus?”
It helps to understand these words in their context. That helps because it gives us some realistic expectations of what Jesus actually promises.
The image of the “yoke,” of course, refers to the way an ox would have a yoke placed on them in order to harness them to a plough—it brings to mind submission and obedience. Later Rabbis referred to students of the Law taking up the “yoke of the Torah”—committing themselves to studying the Law of Moses, to submit to it and obey it.
This metaphor was around well before Jesus’ time, though. Two centuries earlier another Jesus, Jesus ben Sirach, called on his readers to seek wisdom through studying the Torah: “Draw near to me, you who are uneducated…Acquire wisdom for yourselves without money. Put your neck under her yoke, and let your souls receive instruction; it is to be found close by” (Sirach 51:23-26).
Jesus’ “yoke,” then, is his particular teaching of Torah, and Matthew is contrasting Jesus’ teaching with the teaching of others.
Matthew’s story continues with some of Jesus’ well-known “Sabbath controversies”: Jesus lets his disciples pick grain on the Sabbath, and then Jesus heals a man with a deformed hand on the Sabbath. This, of course, gets Jesus in trouble with the Pharisees, who have strict and precise views on what should and should not be done on the Sabbath. Jesus responds with some direct challenges to their Sabbath teaching: Jesus, the self-giving “Son of Humanity,” is the “Lord of the Sabbath,” and the Sabbath—God’s blessed rest—is about divine mercy, not human judgment (12:1-14).
Now back to Jesus’ comforting words. Jesus promises true Sabbath, God’s blessed rest, to all who take up the yoke of his teaching. This doesn’t mean that following Jesus’ teachings is easy, or that we will never have difficulties in this world—he’s just promised his disciples persecution and rejection (Matt 10:16-39), and his beatitudes have set the stage for a life of hardship and grief (Matt 5:3-12). This doesn’t even mean that we will always have “inner peace” through it all, though we can always trust in God to provide for us even through the difficulties (Matt 6:25-34; 10:26-31).
What Jesus’ promise of rest means is this: following Jesus in the way of Jesus frees you from the burdens of strict and precise ways of righteousness, and the burdens of others’ harsh judgments when you fail to meet those artificial standards.
To put this another way, it means that, like Jesus, we don’t need to dance to the world’s tune: we are free to move to the rhythms of divine mercy, receiving, and giving, God’s welcoming grace. That’s the point of a curious snippet of Jesus’ teaching earlier in the chapter:
“But to what will I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to one another, ‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn.’ For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon’; the Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ Yet wisdom is vindicated by her deeds” (Matt 11:16-19).
So take up the yoke of Jesus’ teaching—follow Jesus, in the way of Jesus, the way of love—and you will find God’s true Sabbath rest, free in God’s mercy to give and receive God’s welcoming grace along with all who need it, even those who least deserve it.