“Come to me all you who are exhausted and overburdened . . .”
In these few verses in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus is inviting people who are tired and weary to come to him. These are people who are exhausted because they have been working hard. They are also exhausted because they have been doing things on their own, in their own strength.
Maybe they have had the wrong priorities. Maybe they have a wrong understanding of what God requires of them. Perhaps they have even been doing the wrong things. Whatever the case, their efforts have proved to be discouragingly futile.
“And I will give you rest.”
Jesus is calling these weary souls to come to him and he promises relief, rest and refreshment for their souls. Jesus does not promise a rest from work. This whole passage is about learning and working. In the very next verse Jesus invites us to take his yoke, and a yoke is a work implement.
“Take my yoke upon you . . .”
A yoke is a farming implement that joins two animals, such as oxen, together so that the animals can share the workload evenly and become more productive. Sometimes, an older, more experienced animal is yoked with a younger, less experienced animal, so that the older animal can train the younger animal while they work together.
By using the illustration of a yoke, Jesus is asking us to share and be partners with him in his work, in his ministry and service. He is also telling us that he will train us. The word “yoke” was a technical term used in the context of teaching in Judaism. Every rabbi had their own “yoke”, that is, their own interpretation of the Old Testament Scriptures. The rabbis would pass on their own brand of teaching by living in community with his students.
“And learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.”
Jesus wants us to come to him and learn from him in a continuing relationship. He will equip us, teach us, and guide us to be effective in life and service, if we allow him. If we come to Jesus and do things his way, in partnership and communion with him, he promises that we will find rest and refreshment for our souls. In the process, we will become more like our rabbi Jesus: gentle and humble in heart.
“For my yoke is easy . . .”
The yoke that Jesus gives is easy. It is easy because Jesus shares it with us. It is easy because it is productive and useful, and not vain and futile. It is easy because it is correct and life-giving. Moreover, it is easy because it fits well. The picture here is of a yoke that has been custom-fitted for us. Jesus was a builder by trade, possibly a carpenter. A carpenter in Nazareth would most likely have had personal experience in hand-carving wooden yokes. If so, Jesus would have made sure that the yokes he worked on fitted well and were shaped and suited to the individual animals.
While Jesus’ teaching and principles are the same for everyone, our various ministries and missions are different. Your ministry is probably different to mine. As Jesus’ disciples, each of us has been allocated “custom-fitted” ministries, purposes, and roles in life. We live out these ministries and roles by actively partnering with Jesus and following his teaching.
“And my burden is light.”
We do have a yoke: an interpretation of Scripture to live by. And we do have a burden: roles and responsibilities as followers and servants of Jesus. But if we fulfill our role with Jesus close to us, sharing the load, and if we do things his way, in his strength, then our work will not become tiresome or burdensome.
A Heavy Load? Or Justice, Mercy, and Faith?
The “heavy load” in this passage may be referring to the numerous stipulations that the Pharisees had added to the Old Testament Law, the Law given through Moses. These extra regulations were intended to make God’s Law more applicable in everyday life; however, the bewildering detail of the numerous regulations actually made them, on the whole, impractical (Matt. 23:2-4). Moreover, these religious regulations missed God’s intent in his Law: justice, mercy, and faith (Matt. 23:23).
John 1:17 says that “the Law was given through Moses, but Grace and Truth came through Jesus Christ.” Jesus wants us to receive and experience the fullness of his grace (John 1:16). He does not want us to be weighed down with unnecessary, religious regulations that miss God’s grace and mercy.
Some Jewish Christian believers tried to put a “yoke” on new Gentile converts to the Christian faith (Acts 15:10) Even though they were believers they did not understand Jesus’ invitation to learn from him and take up his easy yoke.