“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.”
Matthew 11:28-30 (NRSV)
My therapist has a tendency to pray in public in such a way as to speak to the hearer(s) moreso than to God. Sometimes, he abandons all pretense and begins to refer to God in the third person in his prayer. This makes me chuckle a little. One of the benefits of prayer is how it affects the speaker, and another benefit is how it affects the hearers, so I don’t think it’s illegitimate to consider how the audience will hear your prayer, but it’s kind of funny to me to ostensibly begin by addressing God then veer off to speak directly to the other people in the room.
This seems to be what Jesus is doing, here. Either this is a continuation of the prayer he began in verse 25, or he stops the prayer abruptly to address the listeners, or maybe verse 25 isn’t even a prayer, directly, but simply Jesus continuing to address the audience.
In any case, Jesus has displayed something of a progression in this chapter, going from his appreciation of John the Baptist, to a frustration with the lack of response from Israel, to a sort of theological resolution of the problem recognizing that this is all part of God’s plan, to an appeal to his current audience to respond. A faithful response from a listener would make them one of the “infants” Jesus talked about a few verses ago, but Jesus does not think of this as an insult. In fact, he thinks of it as an act of humility and faith, recognizing one’s powerlessness and limitations, and instead placing themselves wholly in the care of God. This is, incidentally, the first three steps of 12 Step programs.
In this passage, Jesus makes an appeal to his audience inviting them to believe his message and follow his path. If we simply read Jesus’ words against the way we as modern (and for many of us, Gentile) readers would understand them, what we have is a fairly generic promotion. Jesus is a great guy, and he won’t ask for much.
Jesus may be a great guy, but we know he’s going to ask for a lot, actually. In fact, he just finished warning his followers about upcoming persecution and even death. This is our first hint that our initial, “plain reading” of the text may not be telling us everything we need to know. All this talk of easy yokes and light burdens does not seem to jive very well with Jesus’ rather intense calls to discipleship which will involve metaphors like taking up one’s own cross to follow him, or losing one’s own life for Jesus’ sake, or a narrow/difficult path that avoids destruction as opposed to a wide and easy path. So, what’s the deal?
One possible explanation is that this is a bit of source material included in Matthew that simply doesn’t jive well with the other material. This kind of thing happens in the Bible more than we’d like to admit, especially in the Old Testament. You have several source stories about a thing, and the person crafting the book wants to include truths from both, so they get sort of jammed together in the least disruptive way. While perhaps scholarship has been a little overzealous in slicing documents up into varying sources, the fact that we can take a text and construct wholly coherent, yet differing, accounts of the same event out of its component parts is one thing (among many) that suggests that multiple source and redactor theories are not just imagination.
For some, this may make one uneasy. You have differing accounts of something in the Bible, and this casts doubt on its historicity, so we have to rush to resolve the tension and come up with some coherent explanation that somehow, in some way, through some device, makes the accounts compatible (cf. every book that has ever been written on harmonizing the Gospels or dealing with the objections of contradictions). This, I would offer, is an instinct that comes from worldviews that come into play much later than the production of the Scriptures.
In the world that produced the Scriptures, however, it’s no trouble at all to include differing accounts and material if doing so helps us to understand the subject in new ways, better ways, ways that are closer to the truth than perhaps deciding on a single, authoritative account would give us. It is a way of thinking that points more East than West. Rather than challenge us to explain the contradictions away, such a maneuver invites us to ask why an author would knowingly put accounts side by side that are difficult to reconcile. What are they trying to tell us by splicing these together instead of choosing one or the other?
But, I digress, because in this particular case, I don’t think we have some other source material grafted into a larger narrative; I think we are missing the context of the original audience.
Keep in mind the contrast Jesus has been drawing. On the one hand are Temple officials, Pharisees, scribes, scholars – the authorities of the Torah who should be shepherding Israel but, instead, oppress her, and the Torah is the tool they use to do it. Paul accuses Satan of doing something very similar, actually, in Romans.
On the other hand are fishermen, farmers, peasants, the poor, the sinners – people who probably have a very casual/cultural/nominal relationship to Torah BUT are turning out to be the same crowd who are drawn to Jesus.
The prosperous authorities and the Law as a tool to keep people down on the one hand. On the other hand are the scum of the earth and the dregs of humanity. The first group has the appearance of being loyal to God and being rewarded as a result, but the reality is that their hearts are far from him, they love themselves, and this is displayed in their opposition to Jesus. The second group is seeing their God truly for the first time, and they want it and the kingdom He wants to establish, and this is displayed in their faith in Jesus.
The image Jesus draws up is that these poor and oppressed listeners are like yoked oxen under a heavy burden. This is not an image Jesus came up with off the top of his head. It has a history.
In Deuteronomy 28, Moses announces that part of the curse that will fall upon Israel if she disobeys the Law is, “you shall serve your enemies whom the Lord will send against you, in hunger and thirst, in nakedness and lack of everything. He will put an iron yoke on your neck until he has destroyed you.” (Deut. 28:48, NRSV)
In 1 Kings 12, King Rehoboam takes the wrong advice and decides that he will increase the “yoke” his father put upon the people, meaning that he will demand harder service, more taxes, and enforce stricter penalties: “Now whereas my father laid on you a heavy yoke, I will add to your yoke. My father disciplined you with whips, but I will discipline you with scorpions.” (1 Kings 12:11, NRSV)
While Rehoboam was rocking like a hurricane, the metaphor of the yoke also became a symbol for the Law – the covenant that Israel took upon herself. For example, when the prophet Jeremiah muses that poor people won’t know the Torah, but surely the rich are keeping the Law, he discovers: “But they all alike had broken the yoke, they had burst their bonds.” (Jer. 5:5, NRSV)
But the yoke is a suitable image for the Torah because it represents the rule of God over His people. The yoke still serves as an image for the rulership of oppressive kings, as we see still in Jeremiah 28, where Hananiah and Jeremiah have a prophetic dance-off, and Hananiah prophesies that God will break the “yoke” of Babylon in two years, and Jeremiah counters, “Thus says the Lord: You have broken wooden bars only to forge iron bars in place of them! For thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: I have put an iron yoke on the neck of all these nations so that they may serve King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon, and they shall indeed serve him; I have even given him the wild animals.” (Jer. 28:13-14)
So, the imagery of the yoke has these two, closely related referents in Israel’s history. All the references have at their root rulership. Someone is under an obligation of service to someone else. As we see it in the Old Testament, one common referent is an oppressive rule. Another referent is the covenant of the Torah. And as we’ve seen, in some cases, these two usages are compared and contrasted. If you throw off the yoke of the Torah, you will incur the yoke of oppressive rule.
But we also know these images can blur together when talking about the Torah as an oppressive rule. For example, Peter refers to keeping the various obligations of the Torah as “a yoke that neither we nor our ancestors have been able to bear” in Acts 15:10. Paul, referring to the covenant of circumcision, instructs the Galatians that Christ has set them free, and they should not “submit again to a yoke of slavery” in Gal. 5:1.
In rabbinic literature, the image of the yoke is also used to describe rule by the Torah and oppressive rule by others. For instance, in Avot 3:5, Nehunya b. ha-Kanah tells us: “Whoever takes upon himself the yoke of the Torah, they remove from him the yoke of government and the yoke of worldly concerns, and whoever breaks off the yoke of the Torah, they place on him the yoke of government and the yoke of worldly concerns.” The reading of the Shema is called “accepting the yoke of the kingdom of heaven,” and agreeing to perform the Commandments (the second paragraph of the Shema) is called “accepting the yoke of the Commandments.”
Against this backdrop, Jesus’ contrast becomes clearer.
The people Jesus is appealing to are Israel under the curse of the Law. They are under an oppressive, pagan rule that is grinding them into the ground. Furthermore, the very people who should give them hope are using the Torah to alienate them further from the very God who would deliver them. They are burdened oxen with a heavy yoke, and they have been laboring under it a long, long time.
By contrast, Jesus encourages the people to trade that yoke for his. Embrace Jesus as king, not Caesar or Herod. Embrace Jesus’ administration of Law, not the chief priests and Pharisees. Jesus’ yoke is light. Jesus’ yoke means deliverance. The only way out of the Law’s curses and out of the thumbs of the oppressor is to embrace a new king and a new legal administration – the Torah of love – the heart of the Torah – a return to commandments that are meant to build up, reconcile, restore, and grow instead of alienating, condemning, and ostracizing.
A new kingdom is at the doorstep and a new king is among them, and he brings a legal administration that is loving and good and seeks the good of the people who take it on. It is hope. It is deliverance. It is life. It is a stark alternative. It is a direct challenge to the powers that be of Jesus’ day.
And, wonder of wonders, how does Jesus ask for their trust? By stating that he is one of them. “I am humble in heart.” Jesus is poor. Jesus is living under their situation. Jesus is not an official, not prosperous, not a high ranking Temple official. He’s a commoner. He’s one of the unwashed masses. The second Moses identifies with humble Israel as did the first Moses. He is one of them, he will fight for them, and he will protect them even from the wrath of God Himself as Moses did for Israel so long ago.
Do you hear with the ears of those first century Israelites – shadows of their former selves ground into the dirt? Does this, perhaps, sound like gospel – good news – to you?
- Some take the position that Jesus overthrew everything about the Law. Some take the position that Jesus intended to keep the Law going more or less unchanged. What do you think? How does Jesus use the Law? How does Jesus seem to countermand the Law? Does this have any ramifications for the value we as modern readers might get from the Law or its appropriate usage in our own lives?
- The Temple and the Roman Empire are long gone. What does it mean for us, today, to take on the yoke of Jesus as king and enter the kingdom? What position does that put us in regarding all the other powers in the world?