One morning while my friend Gordon and I were having coffee, he said, “Y’know, every morning I wake up feeling tired. Can’t remember the last time I woke up feeling rested. It’s not the physical side of doing the job, I can do that just fine. It’s all those expectations, trying to live up to what my boss wants, what his boss wants. Then there’s everything that’s going on at home, trying not to disappoint my wife, needing to spend time with the kids and then there’s my parents, they complain the I don’t visit often enough and of course there’s the in-laws, trying to help Dolly tend to what they want. All that performance expectation, man! I feel exhausted before I get out of bed!”
No wonder Jesus’ words to everyone who bears a burden are so compelling:
Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened.
I will give you rest.
Take my yoke upon you,
Learn from me
For I am gentle and humble in heart.
You will find rest for your souls.
My yoke is easy,
My burden is light.
His call resonates in our hearts … come to me … I will give you rest … thanks, Lord … now maybe I can get some relief.
Today, in America, we seldom see a yoke. At least, not the kind Jesus spoke of. His yoke was a solid wooden bow that fit over the necks of two oxen and is held in place by bows that go around the animal’s necks. The oxen work side by side, pulling the weight of the plow or the cart from their shoulders.
Figuratively, a yoke symbolizes a close alliance or union, a way to attach one’s self to another person or an idea or a belief. A yoke controls. It guides. It distributes the workload. It partners with another; it shares the task to be accomplished.
In that Israel was an agrarian culture, Jesus often used agricultural analogies in his teaching. A yoke of oxen pulling a plow would have been a common sight, easily understood. Israelites would have known that plowing was hard and dirty work, and that, at day’s end, the laborer would be tired. Very tire. He would want water and food. He would want to rest. So would the oxen.
Two thousand years later, most of us know what hard work can be. You know what it is to bear burdens. You know that, at the end of the day, you can expect to be tired, hungry, thirsty and in need of replenishment. It won’t be unusual to expect more of the same tomorrow.
There’s an interesting condition that applies when a farmer trains a yearling ox to the plow: he partners the yearling next to a mature ox, one with experience, one familiar to the yoke and the burden.
When training a yearling to the yoke, the farmer arranges the traces so the mature ox pulls the entire burden. The yearling easily walks alongside. After a few days, the young ox learns to match direction and pace. Paired with the ‘mentor’ ox, it learns how to bear the burden of the yoke.
By being yoked with Jesus, you move forward with him in the same direction. You walk at the same pace. He teaches you how he bears the burdens of life; he does this on your behalf. As companion and teacher, Jesus bears the spiritual and emotional weight of your life. As you walk at his side, you discover this isn’t such a bad job after all.
But there’s more to this partnership with Jesus.
The Babylonians used yokes to constrain slaves or captives; to the Jews, the yoke became a symbol of servitude or slavery.
Lamentations portrays the yoke as bondage to sin: “My sins have been bound into a yoke; by his hands they were woven together. They have come upon my neck and the Lord has sapped my strength. He has handed me over to those I cannot withstand.
Jeremiah uses the yoke to demonstrate Israel’s rebellion against God: This is what the Lord says: ‘Stand at the crossroads and look; ask for the ancient paths, ask where the good way is, and walk in it, and you will find rest for your souls.’ But you said, ‘We will not walk in it.’ Long ago you broke off your yoke and tore off your bonds; you said, ‘I will not serve you!’”
Whatever the context – enslavement, sin, or rebellion – the yoke symbolizes the bearing of a burden. As with all burdens everywhere, you can expect hardship to be part of the equation.
In another light, Paul admonishes Christians to guard against unequal yoking – a warning against alliances where Christ’s teachings might be compromised: Do not be yoked together with unbelievers, Paul writes. For what do righteousness and wickedness have in common? Or what fellowship can light have with darkness? What harmony is there between Christ and Belial? What does a believer have in common with an unbeliever? What agreement is there between the temple of God and idols? For we are the temple of the living God.
At his address to the crowd at Lystra, Paul speaks of the yoke as binding the Jews to the Law: Now then, why do you try to test God by putting on the necks of the disciples a yoke that neither we nor our fathers have been able to bear? No! We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are.
In Matthew 11, Jesus challenges the Pharisees and scribes. ‘You have misinterpreted the Law’s intent,’ he says. ‘You strain out gnats but swallow camels! You levy nit-picky obedience to unnecessary hardships. You, teachers of the law! You, Pharisees! You presume to sit in Moses’ seat. You preach to Israel, ‘Obey these Laws! Do everything they tell you! But you, hypocrites, do not do what you tell others to do, you do not practice what you preach. You tie heavy loads on men’s shoulders, but you are not willing to lift a finger to help the with their burdens. Everything you do, you do for men to see.’
Jesus brings whole issue of being yoked into focus; he compares the Pharisee’s yoke of duty-bound obedience – an affliction to Israel – to his own yoke – a bearable burden of grace.
Paul offers some clarity: all you who follow Jesus are ministers of Spirit of the new covenant that gives life. You are no longer bound to the letter of the Law that kills, but to its Spirit.
We can only imagine what an incredible relief Jesus’ perspective was to first century Israel. We can only imagine what a threat it was to the Pharisees.
Jesus’ words, Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, appeal to all our hearts, for we are all weary and burdened.
From the NT Greek, we learn that kopiontes, ‘weary,’ is understood as being ‘tired and weary from a difficult endeavor’; ‘burdened,’ phortizo, relates to being ‘caused to carry a heavy load.’
As a pair, ‘weary’ and ‘burdened’ convey the image of a person endlessly bearing a heavy pack on his back – also Jesus’ picture of a Jew being laden with the burden of Moses’ Law.
Reminiscent of God’s injunction to Adam and Eve in the Garden – Cursed is the ground because of you … through painful toil you will eat of it all the days of your life … by the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground since from it you were taken.
Everyone wants to set their burden down. Everyone wants to rest, to recuperate, to put their feet up, to sip a glass of iced tea, and to let go of their ‘I’ve have to do ___ injunction.’ Everyone wants some restoration for their souls.
That’s what Jesus’ ‘rest,’ anapanso, does. It gives you time and space for replenishment, restoration. For recuperation. For peace.
From our own experience we know that life outside the realm of the Kingdom of God is hallmarked by weariness and burdens. Life in the Kingdom of the Air, absent God’s loving care, cannot fulfill humankind’s desire for righteousness and goodness, for grace and for love. It doesn’t have what it takes; it worships the wrong gods. No wonder we’re all weary and burdened.
These weary and burdened ones are those whom Jesus calls to discipleship. Come to me, he says. Here, you may find rest … real rest.
But there’s hope … real hope.
The New Testament makes clear the distinction between the quality of life in Kingdom of God and the Kingdom of This World. In particular, I appreciate how Paul refers to this world’s realm it as the ‘Kingdom of the Air’ signifying it to be without substance. God’s reign and realm has, in part, been available to the faithful since the very creation of the world, a sort of parallel or spiritual overlap with the Kingdom of This World. Think of beauty and glory, love and grace, kindness and mercy; think of all the many partners of goodness, then ask, ‘Where did they come from?’ From the author of goodness, of course – where else?
Over and again, Jesus affirms the presence and reality of his Kingdom, proclaiming “It is near,” that it is advancing, that it is within all believers; he promises, it will be fulfilled. Throughout the Gospels, Jesus uses parables to describe the quality and character of his Father’s kingdom.
Discipleship does not exempt believers from work but does make work more manageable. Jesus equates the Christian life with spiritual rest, in that planting the seeds in the fields of the Lord is refreshing and good, bringing salvation and forgiveness and righteousness. Bearing fruit provides a comforting personal relationship with God, the Father, and with Jesus himself.
Ironically, while the standards for living the Christian life set forth in the Sermon on the Mount are no less stringent that adherence to the Law according to the Jewish teachers and Pharisees, they can be understood and achieved more readily because of the strength and wisdom provided through the Holy Spirit.
Ever since our eviction from Eden, people have used much the same devices to relieve the burdens of life: Alcohol. Drugs. Sex. The distraction of entertainment and athletic events. People have sought relief by replacing one yoke for another; if one yoke doesn’t work, let’s try another. Why not two, or three?
Feeling the discomfort in your self-made yoke? There’s relief: Jesus says, do these three things:
- Come to me.
- Take my yoke upon yourself.
- Learn from me.
Come to me. Coming to Jesus calls you to reevaluate those priorities that clamor for your attention, your hope. Attend to Jesus in the presence of the Holy Spirit … pay attention to his words … let the truth of his promises soak in.
At work, you are called to focus your attention on those things that create a sense of urgency. New deadlines and mandates and the need for the approval of others show up every day to eat your lunch. When you’re not working, your focus shifts to your other yokes, all those distractions that are supposed to ease your burdens.
Coming to Jesus needs a shift in your priorities, a decision to seek Jesus before you do anything else … to give your life over to the King of Kings, the Lord of Lords, to the one who is the Savior of the World.
Not sure that makes sense? Not clear on what is to be gained by this? Uh-uh, that’s not how business is done in the United States: work, work, work, produce, produce, produce, earn, earn, earn. That’s the formula, that’s the mantra. Isn’t it?
By realizing Jesus as your principal resource, as the provider of everything your soul needs, you are relieved from the trap of the Expectation-Performance-Acceptance syndrome – the ‘law’ of doing business. You know, the idea-yoke that if you don’t produce results, you won’t be accepted, won’t be promoted, won’t get what you want and need. Worse, you’ll crash and burn, a spectacle of failure.
Resting in Jesus’ yoke relieves you from the litany of “If I can just do these things or just please these people, I will be okay.” It reveals this ‘yoke,’ this misbelief to be an empty promise, just one more lie from the Prince of this World. By taking on Jesus’ yoke, you are freed from striving, from artificial expectations of performance-and-reward. Truth and grace prevail. His love, compassion and mercy supersede the misbeliefs you have accumulated over the years. You learn how to work by striving for excellence, relegating perfection to the back seat. Just like the yearling ox, step by step, you learn how to walk in Jesus’ yoke.
The Law of Performance can never be fully satisfied; you know this in your heart. Neither can all the people in your life. There will always be some task left undone. There will always be someone who is less than pleased with your attitude, your performance. There will always be some people who let you know how you’ve failed to live up to their expectations.
By walking side-by-side with Jesus, this criteria expectation-performance-acceptance burden no longer has a place. There’s another word for it, a better word: grace.
Take my yoke. With Jesus’ yoke across your spiritual shoulders, you learn to identify each heavy burden for the misbeliefs it contains. Set that heavy, unproductive one aside. Pick up the light burden. You identify what is difficult to carry by ask truth-seeking questions like, ‘How important is this, really?’ ‘Does this have anything to do with the Kingdom of God?’ ‘Does this have anything to do with Jesus?’ ‘Is this a big enough hill to die on?’
Is this expectation unrealistic? Untruthful? Let it go. Correct it with a realistic and achievable expectation. Set aside your need to perform to achieve acceptance – it no longer applies because you’ve been made acceptable by the Creator of the Universe. What more could you possibly need?
Learn from me. It has been more than 2000 years since Jesus taught his disciples in Israel. The lessons haven’t changed. Today, he continues to teach his disciples throughout the world. Today, there are more Christians in the world than the total of all Christians who have gone before. Millions. More come to Jesus every day.
God’s Word – the Bible, his love letter to his beloved children – has the answers to your questions and concerns about life, about faith, about everything that concerns your spirit, your well-being, your hope, and your life. It’s Jesus’ instruction book, one he wrote it for you. Ask him for wisdom. Ask him for patience. Listen for his presence and guidance in prayer and meditation. Ask him for more sensitivity to the Holy Spirit.
Come. Take. Learn. Each action asks you for a choice, a response to Jesus’ invitation. You might paraphrase Matthew 11:28-30 this way:
Come to me, everyone who courts exhaustion by trying to achieve
too many unrealistic expectations and please too many people. I
will provide you with deep, spiritual rest for your souls, not just
for today, but for all time. Instead, take my grace upon yourself,
because I am gentle and humble and I will not lord it over you.
I will free you from constant striving. My expectations are measured
precisely to your skills and abilities and gifts. I will ask only for
you to bear good fruit that I have prepared in advance for you to bear.”
Make the choice. Experience God’s blessing. Rejoice.
 Matthew 11:28-30 (NIV)
 Matthew 13:1-15; John 4:34-38
 Jeremiah 1:4
 Jeremiah 6:16; 2:20
 2 Corinthians 6:14-16
 Acts 15:10-11. It is worth noting that in response to Paul’s remarks, Jews from Antioch and Iconium incited the crowd to stone him and drag him outside the city where he was left for dead. Such was the devotion of the Jews to the Law (Acts 14:19).
 Matthew 23:24
 Matthew 23:1-5a
 2 Corinthians 3:6
 Genesis 3:17b, 19a
 Ephesians 2:2
 Genesis 1:31; John 1:1; Romans 1:20
 Matthew 10:7; Mark 1:15; Luke 17:21
 Matthew 11:11
 Luke 17:21
 Matthew 26:54; 1 Corinthians 15:24
 Deuteronomy 25:4; Luke 10:7
 Luke 10:6; John 15:1-5; Galatians 5:22
 John 6:63; 1 Corinthians 1:25; 1 Peter 4:11
 John 12:31; 14:30; 16:11
 John 3:1-16; 5:24; 2 Corinthians 5:17
 John 1:1-3; Hebrews 4:12
 1 Corinthians 2:16
 John 15:5