“My yoke is easy to bear, and my burden is light.” Matthew 11.30
That sounds comforting and reassuring. A nice, easy burden to bear; who wouldn’t sign up for that? It sounds like a great gift until I remember that it is Jesus who is speaking this.
Just a few verses earlier, Jesus talks about bringing a sword, creating divisions in families and carrying a cross. When I think of following Jesus in discipleship, light and easy are not the first words that come to mind. More often I think of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and his reminder that Christ calls us to ‘costly grace.’ I begin to wonder if this is one of those Jesus paradoxes like finding your life to lose it and losing your life to find it, or the last being first and the first last? Is this some slight of hand to trick me into taking on the yoke of Christ, only to find that this light, easy yoke is really about losing life and being last?
As a child, I had even more problems with this text. I knew very little about farming and what a yoke was. In fact, I thought Jesus was saying ‘yolk,’ as in the yellow, protein-rich and fat-rich part of the egg, the part my doctor would rather I not eat. I could not figure out what was going to be easy about walking around with egg yolk on.
Eventually, I learned about yokes, the wooden crosspieces that bind animals together to pull carts or plows. I realized this is what Jesus was asking me to put on, but it still did not sound too comfortable. A leather harness sounded more comfortable than a wood crossbeam. Are disciples of Jesus ever gonna get away from wood cross pieces, I started to wonder?
Slowly I started to understand the verse better in its context in Matthew. Jesus speaks to us as people who are struggling to carry loads on our own, working hard and often carrying more than we can bear. He offers us part of the yoke that connects us to him, “Put on my yoke, and learn from me” (11.28). The yoke reminds us that, even though Jesus calls us to hard and difficult work, he does not leave us or abandon us to carry it out on our own. “Learn from me,” he says, “and you will find rest for your souls” (11.29).
The easy yoke is a symbol of the mystery of revelation that Jesus celebrates in the prayer just before these verses (11.25-27). In his prayer, Jesus thanks the Father that understanding the mystery of who he is, what he is about, and what he calls us to is not based on our effort, our understanding, or even our ability. This is something God shares with the babes. Jesus celebrates that this yoke is carried by the lowly, the poor, the meek, even infants. And it is easy to bear because Jesus walks with us.
I guess it is a paradox. The yoke allows us to lift heavy burdens, like oxen moving heavy carts. The yoke allows us to dig deep and plant for a good harvest, like mules pulling a plow across a new field. The yoke allows us to bear more than we could have struggled through on our own; it aides heavy lifting and deep cultivation. Yet it’s so much lighter than trying to do it on our own.