“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
One day last fall I picked up Grace’s book bag and couldn’t believe how heavy it was. With its textbooks, notebooks, regular books, binder, laptop and power cord, it felt like a load of bricks. “Honey, your bag is too heavy!” I cautioned, “Do you need to carry all these books? Can’t you leave some at home or at school? “
Whether or not you have a teenager, or lugged around your own heavy bag in school, each of us knows what it’s like to feel burdened and heavy-laden. It may be concern for a person we care about. It may be the weight of grief and loss at the death of a beloved one. It may be anxiety about a situation at home, at work, at school; in our community, our nation, our world. “Be kind,” ancient and modern philosophers have said, “for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle you know nothing about.” Battle or burden, the idea is the same: part of being human is knowing what it feels like to be “heavy-laden” in some way.
Jesus knew this. So when we hear his invitation to “come and rest,” we, or at least I, hear a voice of empathy and compassion, spoken with the authority of one who knows about what he speaks from having lived it. This invitation is not simply to put our feet up and get some vacation time in; it’s an invitation to something deeper, fuller and liberating.
But how is it, exactly, that putting on a yoke (a what?) can be restful in a deep, full, liberating way?
For our spiritual ancestors, the ancient Hebrew people, “yoke” was associated with the Torah: God’s 613 “Do’s” and “Don’ts” on how to lead a righteous, holy life. A masterful teacher with laser-like focus, Jesus distills their essence for his students to digest and embody. Love your Creator. Love whom your Creator has created: those whom you encounter as your very self.
“Learn from me, the Master of Loving and Living,” Jesus adds, “not like a student in a classroom but like an apprentice in the field of life, by doing alongside and following me. And not just on clean and beautiful streets but also and especially in alleyways, soup kitchens, opioid clinics and halls of justice, loving and fighting for those who cannot fight for themselves.”
“Bind yourself to me — of your own free will — with the yoke of love, trust, obedience and faithfulness. Shadow me. Mirror me. Imitate me. Follow me. Side by side, yoked together, let me guide you. Paradoxically, you will find rest for your weary, burdened self, as we go about tilling soil for God’s Dream to grow, together.”
This is how oxen were trained, back in Jesus’ day. A young, inexperienced ox was bound to an experienced, trained one; the rookie learned from the veteran by being yoked to him and following his lead. “My yoke is easy,” Jesus says, meaning: My yoke is well-suited and well-fitted. My yoke is crafted by the Master Craftsman. My yoke fits like a piece of clothing perfectly tailored for a human being. Because I know. Because I have walked the way that you walk. Because I have lived it.
I once heard a woman tell the story of her deepest sorrow, her greatest pain, her heaviest burden, one she carried with her every day of her life. But each time she walked into a person’s home to care for him or her (she was a caregiver), for the time she spent in that person’s home, she was able to lay her own burden down. She was able to forget her deepest sorrow for a while and to focus on another human being: bathing him, dressing him, listening to him, attending to his needs.
Christianity at its best, after all, is not a theoretical religion; it is not mere talk or ideas about love. It is practical and practiced, enfleshed and embodied. It is loving through acts of kindness, doing justice, showing mercy that we are saved, not by earning salvation but by living it.
It is the Way to lighten our load and to liberate our burdened selves.