Jesus said, ‘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.’
There is a great paradox in this famous saying of Jesus. Burdens are, by definition, burden-some: they are heavy and weighty. And as for yokes – well, I’ve never had to carry a yoke, but I can imagine the strain across your whole body and I think I would be very pleased and relieved to lay down a yoke.
And yet, Jesus invites us not only to take his yoke upon ourselves, but bizarrely tells us that his yoke is easy and his burden is light. However, there is more to these words than first meets the eye.
The idea of the yoke was – and still is – common in Judaism. Becoming an adult Jew, through what is called the Bar Mitzvah or ‘Son of the Commandment’ – this coming of age was and is all about taking on what was called the ‘yoke of the Law’ and the ‘yoke of the commandments’. It is a kind of parallel to traditional confirmation. It recognises that living under God has personal obligations and expectations. For pious Jews, this lifting on of the yoke of the Law in a Bar Mitzvah was joyful and welcome – in Psalm 119, we can sense the writer’s delight and joy in keeping God’s commandments statutes and ordinances. Keeping God’s commandments was seen as life-giving, and as such could never be thought to be a burden. Jesus would gladly have agreed to this: God’s law given to Moses, including the ten commandments and many aspects of common life: like caring for the orphan, the widow and the resident alien; was not a burden, but a source of life for God’s people.
However, alongside the written Law was something called the ‘oral law’, the tradition of the elders. Part of this was very practical: it was to explain and define what the written Law meant. For example, the Ten Commandments say that on the Sabbath Day you shall do no work. But what is work? Take walking – because walking can be strenuous, the elders asked ‘How far can you walk on the Sabbath Day without being deemed to work’? So they agreed and defined an acceptable journey as 2,000 stadia, or ¾ of a mile. Walk any further than that and you were working, and the commandment was broken. And that is just one of thousands upon thousands of rules and regulations. The point is that the Pharisees gave equal authority to both the Law of Moses and the oral law. But for Jesus, the oral law, these man-made rules as he called them, were a burden and a yoke, grievously heavy to bear. It had transformed religion from God’s good design for fullness of life to a legalistic all-encompassing rule-book. And you couldn’t see the wood for the trees.
Hence, in his invective against the Pharisees, he says,
They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and they put them on the shoulders of others.
In the Holy Gospel, Jesus recalls us to the basics – love for God and love for our neighbour. For followers of Jesus, there is no burdensome rule book, but a generous response to God, to people and to situations; a response whose motivation is love. Now, the first thing to say is that living the Christian life is not easy; because love is never easy – it requires us to will and work for the good of others, even our enemies. To love God, ourselves and our neighbours truly is costly and difficult. Jesus’ compassion, his healing power, his preaching and teaching, his practical serving, all cost him something. And his greatest act of love: the atonement and reconciliation won for us on the Cross, cost him his very life.
But in the midst of that, he was the great bringer of joy, the bringer of hope, the one who healed and restored, who said to people time and time again, ‘Do not be afraid’; for the Kingdom of God, the reign of God, is coming, indeed is here, to put things right. Our Christian lives ought to be our free and loving response to that vision of love and holiness that we see in Jesus Christ and the values of his Kingdom.
One of the most compelling phrases in our text is the idea of ‘rest for your souls’. The rest and peace Jesus brings is not superficial: right at the very heart of each one of us, the very centre of who we are, we will experience the gift and promise of rest. You’ll remember that, even in the midst of the storm, Jesus was at rest. And it is that sense of rich communion with God that flows out in the free response of our love for God and for our neighbour. That gift of rest at the very heart of being is the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. As St Paul says, ‘the love of God has been poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit he has given us’.
So many people see our faith more about keeping a list of burdensome rules: but our reading today invites us to both model and show to the world a faith that isn’t about rules and regulations, but is an easy yoke and a light burden.
And, in the end, that is work of the Holy Spirit and thus, it is about prayer.
Prayer is where we receive God’s gift; where we open ourselves to the love, light and truth of God. Prayer is communion; where we draw near to the Rock who gives us strength and have access to the very heart of all things. Yes, prayer also involves work – especially the hard work of praying for the one another and the world; but true intercession arises first out of communion. The yoke of prayer is easy, the burden of prayer is light, for we pray in and through Jesus himself and in the Spirit who prays within us.
Our worship together is the corporate expression of this truth. In the Eucharist we receive God’s renewing gift of life; we receive forgiveness; we receive God’s living word and his sacramental grace. We open ourselves anew to the indwelling Spirit as we glimpse in worship the vision of the beauty and generosity of God. The yoke of worship is easy and its burden is light.
And our prayer and worship, if it is about communion with God and receiving what he seeks to give us, will lead to hopeful, and generous Christian living.
The work of the Holy Spirit, whose temple we all are, is to draw us into relationship with God in prayer; to help us receive Christ’s gift of his own self in the Eucharist and to help us, day by day, to live as disciples of Jesus Christ and cheerfully to walk in his Way, knowing that God will provide the strength and grace to bear the cost of carrying our cross. Most of all, in this Eucharist, we are encouraged to embrace again our yoke and burden – the yoke and burden of Jesus, whose yoke is easy and whose burden is light; and who promises us the gift of rest in our souls through the indwelling Spirit. And so, today we are confronted with a vision of Christian religion which is never about rules and regulations: but about leading a responsive, generous, Spirit-led life. And this is life in all its abundance, and it’s what we offer to an often weary and heavy-burdened human race which longs for rest.