Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, 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.
Something about Jesus’ invitation to hook up with Him bothered me, the word yoke. A yoke is the heavy, cumbersome contraption designed to pair a team of oxen. Hitched together, the animals could double the power available to haul, plow and so forth. Their freedom restricted, the oxen were forced to work together. Only when the hard work was done were the animals released to rest. Yokes were symbols of drudgery. In theory I knew that Jesus was the best person to be teamed up with, but the concept of a yoke still chaffed me. It symbolized hard, grueling labor and I viewed Jesus’ offer with some skepticism.
I’ve since come to a different understanding of the yoke Jesus spoke of. Proverbs reads: “The lawless man digs up evil, as if a fire burns on his lips.” Lawless man is a conjunction of Hebrew words which mean without a yoke. It describes a person who has no fear of God. The person’s lack of association with God turns them into a loose cannon of sorts. Unrestrained, this individual doesn’t think before they act, or even think at all. Often the results are disastrous. Unbridled, they are unruly and undisciplined.
The Mishlei is the book of Proverbs that also contains the study notes and commentary of Jewish scholars through the ages. The insights bring understanding to the meanings of words and customs that are foreign to me. It provides a glimpse into the complex structure developed to prohibit one from breaking the law, even accidentally. Emphasis is placed on Torah study, acts of kindness, benevolence and obedience in even the most miniscule details of life. In other words, enough is never enough. The pressure is on to make the grade and to never miss the mark. I don’t know how anyone could keep track of it all and that’s the point Jesus addressed in Matthew 11.
His audience that day understood what He meant when He spoke of a yoke. He offered them an alternative to the crushing weight that came with their attempts to keep the law perfectly. He didn’t propose a life without restraint, but a chance to learn from Him a whole new way of living. His yoke isn’t working harder to keep the law but an opportunity to learn from the One whom the law points to. What He offered was lighter and easier than what they labored under. It’s called grace and it is available to us too. Grace isn’t sloppy agape or a license to sin, but it’s the power of God that transforms us into new creatures in Christ.