Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened,
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.
Before I dissect these beautiful words of Jesus, take a moment to simply read them, hear them addressed to you and let them sink into your soul.
* * *
Jesus made two invitations in these three verses: “come to me” and “take my yoke upon you.” Actually, the verbs are imperatives, but the tone is more inviting than demanding.
A yoke is a wooden device fixed about the neck. On an ox, it enables the animal to pull a cart or a plow under the control of the driver. On a person, it helps the wearer carry a heavy burden; the shoulder and the back can bear more weight over time than can the arms alone. A rucksack performs the same function. Or, a yoke can simply be an instrument of imprisonment. As a metaphor, it can represent a burden, an obligation, a state of oppression or a means of control.
The yoke of which Jesus spoke was his teaching. He was adapting an idiom common within his culture. It was rather common to speak of the “yoke” the Law of Moses. The law imposed certain burdens or obligations on God’s people. It directed their lives. The “yoke” metaphor was emblematic of their submission and obedience to God’s will as embodied in the Torah.
Jesus’ teaching both fulfilled and surpassed that of the Torah. It was astounding wisdom. It was true instruction in the ways of God’s kingdom.
The yoke is the way of submission to Jesus’ authority. The taking of Jesus’ yoke upon oneself corresponds with the process of becoming a disciple described in the Great Commission: baptize them into the name and teach them to observe everything I have commanded you. For Matthew, Jesus’ yoke is essentially the individual and communal way of life envisioned in the gospel. That last note is important. To take the yoke of Jesus upon oneself is, in part, to be a member of the community Jesus established.
How is Jesus yoke easy and his burden light? The word translated “easy” might better be translated as “fitting” or “pleasant.” A well-fitting yoke does make a burden easier to carry – that’s its function. Jesus’ yoke was well suited for God’s people. It is a good fit for the kingdom life. By itself, however, Jesus’ way was hardly easy.
He does not alleviate the requirements of the law (5:21- 48). He describes his way as hard and narrow (7:13- 14), as a cross that needs to be borne (10:38), and as something that will split families (10:34- 37). David Garland, Reading Matthew
The way of Jesus was no less demanding than the way of the Pharisees. Jesus’ yoke is only easy and his burden light in the presence of Jesus himself. Jesus said, “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me for (i.e. because) I am gentle and humble in heart.” Jesus’ personal qualities are what make his yoke fitting and his burden light. He does not stand at a distance or pile burdens on his disciples from a position of privilege and power. Instead, he abandoned every possession to come alongside the humble and the poor. He ate with tax collectors and sinners. He offered himself as a physician for the soul. His very presence seemed to engender repentance and restoration (or, in the opposite direction, hatred and hostility).
Jesus contrasted his teaching with that of the Pharisees who sat on Moses’ seat. Out of respect for the office, Jesus said that people should observe what the Pharisees taught. They should not, however, follow the example of self-serving or self-aggrandizing Pharisees. And they should not invest themselves in what we might call the Pharisaical system. The Pharisees whom Jesus criticized bound heavy burdens on the backs of people but did nothing to help them. They remained aloof from the plight of the people and they did not practice what they preached. The “weary” and “burdened” whom Jesus addressed were those weighed down by the Pharisees.
“Come to me” and “take my yoke” are logically two distinct imperatives. In Matthew’s gospel, it is a distinction without a difference; the two imperatives are effectively bound together. To come to Jesus is to take up his yoke. To take the yoke of Jesus upon oneself involves a commitment to a person, not just to an abstract set of principles. In Matthew 28:28, the disciples who are called to observe Jesus’ commandments are also promised Jesus’ abiding presence. A preference for the person of Jesus over the yoke he offers is the way of cheap grace. A preference for Jesus’ teachings over his person is the way of legalism. Come to me and take my yoke upon you, Jesus said. Two imperatives; one reality.
Coming to Jesus results in rest (v. 28), as does taking up the yoke of Jesus (v. 29). The first mention of rest emphasizes the divine initiative: I will give you rest. The second highlights human reception: You will find rest for your souls.
The “rest” theme’s most immediate literary connection is to the pericopes that follows in chapter 12, the first two of which relate to Jesus’ activities on the Sabbath – the day of rest. The first establishes Jesus’ authority over the Sabbath and the second demonstrates God’s compassion on the Sabbath.
The phrase “rest for your souls” harks back to Jeremiah 6:16:
The LORD said to his people:
“You are standing at the crossroads.
So consider your path.
Ask where the old, reliable paths are.
Ask where the path is that leads to blessing and follow it.
If you do, you will find rest for your souls.”
But they said, “We will not follow it!”
Jeremiah 6:16 NET
Jeremiah’s community stood at a crossroads between deliverance and destruction at the hands of the Chaldeans. Jesus’ community, too, stood at a crossroads. Jesus’ ways are the path that leads to blessings. His paths stand in continuity with the ancient paths, but they are something new.
For neither Jeremiah nor Jesus does the phrase “rest for your souls” refer solely to “inner peace.” “Soul” here simply means “life.” Jesus’ way is the path to the true Sabbath rest in all its fullness. It is the path to shalom, peace and wholeness in every aspect of life. Ultimately, the rest Jesus offers will find its fulfillment in the eschatological restoration of creation. The language we find in Mathew 11:28-30, however, suggests something more immediate.
And so we return to the beautiful words of Jesus himself. Even though my circumstances differ greatly from those of Jesus’ first audience, I find myself weary and burdened, needing rest for my soul. The prophets of the contemporary market place and the gods of modernity will be more than happy to sell me any number of supposed remedies. And a some form of yoke comes with all of them. Despite all the blaring voices and flashing neon signs that surround me, some how the quiet words of a lowly prophet make it through the noise. Come to me. Take my yoke. You will find rest. And I wonder if I can trust him enough to actually yoke my life to him and put my life in his hands.