Saturday, 5 August 2017

An easy yoke? A light burden?

Jesus said… 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. Matthew 11:28

My wife and I recently received an invitation to a meal from some friends. And a good occasion it turned out to be – easy and relaxed, with plenty of laughter and banter, plus the opportunity of sharing one or two more serious things.

To receive an invitation like this is always heart-warming. It’s as if the people who gave it are saying: “We’re planning this special occasion – and we thought of you. We would like you to share it with us. Can you come?” And, of course, it’s the sort of thing you would only turn down if there was some really good reason. Of course we’ll come!

A simple point today: Jesus offers us an invitation.

It’s expressed in the most beautiful and loving way imaginable: “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.”

Jesus knew well the meaning of those words “weary and burdened”.

Everywhere he went in Galilee and beyond he saw it in people’s faces – people working hard for little reward, people experiencing physical pain and sickness, people grieving over the death of loved ones, people suffering under cruelty and injustice.

He knew it too in his own experience. In Mark 6:3 he is referred to as not only “the carpenter’s son” but as himself “the carpenter”. He knew the weariness that comes from hard physical labour; no doubt there were times when a tricky piece of work required special time and effort, or when a deadline was hard to make without extra hours in the workshop. And John invites us to picture him sitting by the well in Sychar, “tired as he was from the journey” (John 4:3), having walked several miles under the hot sun.

Not to mention his later agony in Gethsemane, and on the cross itself.

Jesus doesn’t rescue us at an aloof distance. No, he comes among us and shares every aspect of what it means to be a human being in a fallen and troubled world. So these words of invitation are words he has the right to offer.

But how do they square with those other words about “taking up” something – the invitation to take up our cross and follow him (Matthew 16:24)? The cross! That doesn’t exactly sound “easy” and “light”! Is there a contradiction here?

The clue is the word “yoke”, in verses 29-30, a word we probably have little occasion to think about. It means the wooden frame that was put over the shoulders of oxen to keep them together and enable them to haul the plough; or one that helped people to carry buckets or other heavy loads by spreading the weight.

The Jewish teachers of Jesus’ day spoke about “the yoke of the law”, that collection of do’s and don’ts which had built up over the centuries, and which faithful Jews were expected to obey.

Jesus spoke explicitly about this particular yoke when he warned against “the teachers of the law and the Pharisees”: “They tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other people’s shoulders…” (Matthew 23:4).

It is this kind of weariness and burden-carrying that Jesus has in mind in Matthew 11:28-30 – not just the daily hardships of life.

He is not inventing a new kind of “religion” to replace the Judaism that he and his people were born into. No, true religion was never meant to be so burdensome in the first place. It was always meant to be a matter of “acting justly, loving mercy and walking humbly with your God”, as Micah 6:8 beautifully puts it. The law was there to remind people of God’s holy character, and to draw them to him for forgiveness when they failed: not to crush them.

So yes, of course, the cross is indeed a heavy burden to carry. But as Jesus himself demonstrated, it is the way that leads to resurrection and true life.

When he says “I am gentle and humble in heart” that isn’t an empty boast, but a promise to be with us in our cross-carrying. Unlike the scribes and Pharisees – hard taskmasters – who loaded the yoke of the law onto people’s shoulders but “were not willing to lift a finger to move them” (Matthew 23:4 again), Jesus is with us all the way, dealing gently and lovingly with us. That’s the kind of “task-master” he is.

The Christian way is not easy, and with his invitation Jesus doesn’t mean to suggest that it is. But it leads to “rest for our souls” and to life as it is meant to be.

Well, that tender invitation – “Come to me…” – still stands after two thousand years.

Is it time you accepted it?

Father, thank you for the easy yoke and the light burden Jesus invites us to bear. Help me, in doing so, to find true life, joy and fulfilment. Amen.

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