Today’s reading from Matthew’s gospel is quite a contrast to what we’ve been hearing Jesus say lately. For most of the last few weeks, Jesus has been talking about the cost of discipleship – the certainty of persecution, conflict, suffering and painful division for those who choose to follow him. “Leave it all behind, pick up your cross, give up your life for my sake.” Strong stuff like that.
Today his tone changes, and Jesus is all sweetness and light – promising rest and comfort, light burdens and easy yokes. This is more like it. Gentle masters are much more to our liking – if we must have masters at all. But Jesus’ words are a little more complex than they seem.
First of all, the primary thrust of what Jesus is saying here is not directed toward people who have just any kind of difficulty. By “all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens,” or an older translation, “who labor and are heavy laden,” Jesus doesn’t primarily mean folks with ordinary problems – such as too many bills, or being unemployed, or sick, or having ungrateful kids, a hard life, or whatever. Jesus has all sorts of things to say about stuff like that, but that’s not what he’s talking about here. Here, Jesus is talking quite specifically to and about those who are on a religious quest – those who are seeking God, and relationship with God. He is calling to himself the religiously exhausted – those who, like Paul was just saying, have tried all of the usual ways of finding some peace with the divine and have achieved only frustration.
The real clue to this is the fact that a yoke was the common symbol for the Law of Moses, especially for the details of the law and the minute, ever-expanding demands of the legalism of the Pharisees. In fact, this is the main way the rabbis used the word “yoke” allegorically.
Also, we need to remember here that here Matthew is presenting an exaggerated picture of the Pharisees – most of them were not nearly this bad; many were not bad at all; but there were enough jerks to justify this caricature.
This is why Jesus says that the wise and intelligent – that is, the religious leaders – have missed the point. He then adds that only the Son – not those leaders, and not you, and not anyone else, only the Son – knows the Father.
The yoke of the Pharisees, their demands that you have to do this and this and this exactly right in order to matter to God, in order to be a decent person, in order to be loved or counted significant – that yoke Jesus rejects, even though it was the yoke of the wise and intelligent.
That yoke, the yoke of seeking God by keeping the rules, by doing what somebody or anybody or everybody else says is the thing to do, by trying to get it right all the time and so living constantly in fear of getting it wrong, that yoke leads those who wear it to “labor and be heavy laden.” It leads to living in what Paul just called “this body of death.” It leads to a religion and a life of fearful obedience to a multitude of petty dictates where the spirit is deadened, and where some measure of success is more likely to lead you into self-righteousness than into the heart of God.
To say to your child, or a friend, or your spouse, or anyone, really, “I will only love you if you do right,” is to ensure a sick and twisted relationship. It hurts everybody involved.
To teach that God says this is not only terrible theology, it can also be devastating. Yet the yoke of the Law, at its worst, did just that. Those who, like Paul, struggled under such a yoke discovered that it didn’t fit; that it didn’t bring them to God; that it didn’t enrich their lives. Yokes like that never do.
To go scurrying about with the notion that if we could only figure out the right thing to do – the right way to act, the right words to say, the right way to do the rituals – then we would be all right, is to skate on the edge of magic, as if we could conjure up God’s acceptance. It will only ensure frustration and exhaustion. God’s presence with us and God’s love for us are never the results of our actions. He is in charge; we are not.
In response to all of this, Jesus says, “Come to me.”
Not to a new law, not to a new teaching, not to a secret interpretation or a hidden loophole, not to a book, not to a list; but “to me.” Come to Jesus himself.
In essence, Jesus is saying, “If you seek God; if you seek his love; if you seek a life that makes some sense; if you want a way of understanding the world that allows you to deal honestly with what happens and not be destroyed; if you want to be who you are created to be – if you want this, then come to me.”
It’s a call to relationship – to relationship with Jesus and to relationship with the community that continues Jesus’ life and ministry.
The alternatives, then and now, will fail. He will not. Remember today’s collect, in which we are reminded that God has taught us that all the commandments are kept by loving God and our neighbor. Such is the yoke of Christ. And since this yoke has to do with these commandments to love, the folks who seriously take that yoke upon themselves usually find that it is shaped very much like a cross.
One more thing: In many translations, Jesus calls his yoke “easy.” Now, that’s an unfortunate English word; it makes it sound like everything’s a snap, that very little effort or energy is required to do it. And as anyone who has tried to live the life of Jesus knows, that’s just not true. The New English Bible’s translation is better: It reads, “My yoke is good to bear.”
The point is not that this yoke, the Lord’s call to relationship, makes no difference or asks nothing of us – quite the contrary. The point is that it fits, it’s the right size, so it works – it leads to God, and it brings with it wholeness and a peace that can be found nowhere else.
To come to him is to discover that what can seem a frantic and desperate task – life with God – is, in fact, not an earned reward, but a free gift. To come to him is to discover, as Paul discovered, that “there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” To come to him is to discover that the task of getting it all correct is replaced by the absolute gift of God’s grace, and our grateful response to that gift.
All the strong stuff we’ve been hearing the past few weeks about the cost of discipleship is still very much there. But the yoke is good to bear. It leads to life. To put it on is to be embraced by God’s mercy – to carry it is to fulfill both God’s will and our own deepest humanity.
We are called to this new yoke, not to a law, or to a set of rules, but to a person and a community built around that person. And in this the religious quest – the greatest journey of human existence – can find its richest fulfillment, and its deepest satisfaction.
Jesus said, “Come to me if you seek God, if you seek life, I will give you rest.”