SCRIPTURE – Matt. 11:25-30
At that time Jesus said, “I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children. Yes, Father, for this is what you were pleased to do. “All things have been committed to me by my Father. No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him. “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.”
Take A Load Off
July 3, 2011
This passage, which is unique to Matthew’s gospel, is one of the most beloved pieces of scripture. It’s crochet-worthy, meaning it’s well-known enough to make its way onto hand-sewn blankets and pillows across the globe. This is a go-to passage for funerals and memorial services, as a reminder of the Great Invitation from Jesus to find rest in him.
Why is this passage so well-loved? Simple. Because we all have burdens and we all need rest. We simply can’t go on and on and on without taking a rest like the one offered here. If you try to live life by only exhaling, you won’t make it very far. You have to take time to inhale, too. In the early days of automobiles, it was common for eating and drinking places to be built on the tops of long hills. These locations were for the convenience of people who needed to stop and let their overheated radiators cool down. That is what this passage speaks about to so many of us, a time for rest and refreshment when we can let our overheated radiators cool down. There is nothing quite like coming to the Lord and setting aside our burdens for a while, nothing quite like having our batteries recharged, our radiators cooled down and our spirits lifted. Sometimes it feels good to just get away from it all, doesn’t it?
As refreshing as that sounds, that’s actually not what Jesus is talking about here. We have to be careful in how we use a passage like this. It promises one kind of rest, but we often take it to mean something completely different. What kind of rest was Jesus offering to his original hearers?
This passage comes in the midst of Jesus’ ongoing verbal boxing match with the Pharisees, who repeatedly try to brand him as a law-breaker. In turn, he criticized them for focusing too much on obedience to the law and missing the bigger picture. They were so focused on slavish obedience and trivial transgressions that they don’t see the fulfillment of the law right in front of them.
As religious leaders, the Pharisees passed their legalistic view of faith onto their followers. For them, you had to follow the law perfectly or else you were saddled with the penalty of your transgression. In Matt. 23 Jesus says about the Pharisees: “They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others.” The people who heard Jesus’ invitation were not burdened with work or responsibilities, they were burdened by the law, burdened with a faith dictated by obligations and requiring the impossible. So Jesus offers an invitation to a different way of life, a different way of faith. Not a faith that burdens and breaks, but a faith that refreshes and renews. That is the rest Jesus offers, a rest from trying and trying and trying.
Fast-forward to today. We are no longer burdened by the obligation to perfectly obey the law. We are no longer weary from trying to follow every “thou shalt not” in the Hebrew scriptures. Lucky us, right? Then we are we still so tired? Why do we still feel like we are carrying heavy burdens? Because we are. Not necessarily burdens imposed upon us, although that is sometimes true, but more likely burdens we put upon ourselves.
There’s the burden of self-sufficiency, the belief that we don’t really need any help to get through life, that calling on others is a sign of weakness. A pastor I know has this great children’s sermon he takes a board with ropes fastened to either side and has a kid hold the ropes, stand on the board, and try to lift it. Of course, you can’t lift the board if you’re standing on it! But our desire for self-sufficiency makes us try to lift that board.
Another burden we may carry is the burden of self-centeredness, the unspoken by lived-out idea that our needs and wants take precedence. Or how about the burden of self-worth, which says that our value as a person is determined by what we do or who we try to be. Those are some heavy burdens. So if we are carrying around these burdens today, what kind of rest is Jesus offering us?
I can tell you what Jesus is NOT offering. Jesus is NOT offering the rest of inactivity. He’s not saying, “You deserve a break. Come and kick back and relax with me.” Jesus is not offering us a luxurious vacation or a day at the spa. He’s not offering us an escape from life; he’s offering us a different way of dealing with life. He’s not offering to completely relieve us from carrying burdens. Whether it’s the burden of following the law, the burden of making ends meet or the burden of being good enough, we will have burdens. Even Jesus knows there’s no such thing as a burden-free life. The issue is not if we shall be burdened, but with what we shall be burdened and how we will bear those burdens.
That gets us to the second part of Jesus’ invitation, which can seem contradictory to the first. Come and find rest…by taking up this yoke! That’s like the scene in the movie “Raising Arizona” where the bumbling bank robber says, “Freeze! Everyone get down on the floor!” and the customer says, “Well, which one is it?” Which one is it, Jesus? Do you want us to rest or do you want us to take up this yoke? Our earthly logic tells us that a burden is still a burden, no matter how much the seller tries to spin it as “light” and “easy.”
The key to understanding this part of the invitation is the concept of the yoke. A yoke was a piece of wood that joined together two oxen to make a team for pulling a plow or a wagon. The Greek word Jesus uses for “easy” also means “well-fitting.” As a carpenter, Jesus would have made a lot of yokes in his day. The ox was brought to the shop, and the measurements were taken. The yoke was then roughed out, and the ox was brought back to have the yoke tried on. The yoke was carefully adjusted so that it would fit well, and wouldn’t chafe and rub the ox’s neck. The yoke was tailor-made to fit the ox.
Jesus knows what burdens us: our anxieties and our fears, our temptations and our responsibilities, our failures and our guilt. And he offers here to lift our heavy burdens and replace them. He offers to take off the yoke of obligation that sits ill-fitting on our shoulders and instead replace it with his easy yoke. But what makes Jesus’ yoke easier than the ones we already are burdened with?
A farmer is standing on the side of the road next to his wagon, which is stuck in a ditch. The farmer hitches his tired, old horse to the wagon and says, “Hiya, Betsy!” and the horse doesn’t move. Then the farmer says, “Giddyup, Chestnut!” and the horse doesn’t move. Then the farmer yells, “C’mon, Sally!” and the horse doesn’t move. Finally the farmer says, “Let’s go, Ranger!” and the horse finally moves forward, slowing dragging the wagon out of the ditch. An observer says to the farmer, “Why did you call all those names? Did you forget your horse’s name?” The farmer says, “Nope. I know his name. Ol’ Ranger is blind, and if he thought he was the only one pulling the wagon, he wouldn’t even try.”
That’s the amazing thing: a yoke is made for two. This yoke is not one that Jesus imposes upon us, but one that he wears with us. When Jesus offers us his yoke to carry, he’s offering to become our yokemate, he’s offering for us to learn how to bear the burden by working beside him. He’s saying that the heaviness of life will seem lighter if we are willing to share it with him by worshipping him, spending time with him in prayer, reading his story.
Here’s another way to think about this. I believe that a question that drives a lot of what we do is a deep-rooted, existential one: “What do I have to do to get to Heaven? What do I have to do to be saved?” We based our decision on these questions, and when we choose wrongly, we are burdened by the guilt of not living up to them. With these questions, the burden of salvation, of our eternal destiny, is placed on us. But what Jesus is saying is, “Don’t try to be good enough. Through faith you are already good enough. You don’t have to worry about trying to earn anything. So, knowing that, how are you going to live?”
Let me put it this way. A boy with a messy room decides to clean it. I know, this is a purely hypothetical situation, but bear with me. He cleans his messy room. He can do so for two reasons: he can do it because he knows if he doesn’t, he will be punished. Cleaning his room is an obligation. Or he can do it because he loves his parents and shares the household responsibilities with them. Cleaning his room is no longer a burden, it is a response to being part of the family. We can serve God because we feel obligated, or because we want to honor our Divine Parent by participating in God’s work in this world. See the difference? The yoke of obligation is heavy and chaffing; the yoke of co-laboring for the kingdom is easy and light.
Can we do that? Can we really walk away from the burden of being who we think we should be and taken on the burden of simply being who we were created to be? If not, what opportunity are we missing? Barbara Brown Taylor says that we go through all this effort and guilt to prove we’re worthy of the gracious gift we’ve been given, while all the time Jesus is standing right there in front of us, half of a shared yoke across his own shoulders, the other half wide open and waiting for us. I believe the only time the load of life becomes overbearing is when we try to take over and do all the lifting ourselves. You are not alone on this journey. We are here with you. Christ is here with you. Christ says to us, “You are mine. I have come for you. Now come to me.”