No Burdens for the Forgiven and Free!

Jul 09, 2023

    What is the heaviest thing you are carrying around today? As you trudge, or walk, or skip, or race from day to day, what burdens - physical, emotional, psychological, spiritual or combination of them all - are you carrying?  I would be surprised if there is anyone here, except, perhaps, the youngest of children, who does not feel weighed down by something. We want someone to carry it for us! That’s why, when we read Matthew 11:28-30, we transform it so that Jesus is taking our yoke upon himself. We equate the “yoke” with that which is weighing us down and controlling us and imagine Jesus removing it from our shoulders. But that’s not what the text says. Look again, Jesus says: “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me…for my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” It sounds to me as if we are being offered the opportunity take something on, rather than to give something up. Jesus is inviting us to wear a new yoke, the result of which will be rest, that is, rest for our souls. But, what exactly does that mean? In order to understand, we better look at its context.

     The passage begins with Jesus chiding people who are finding fault with his ministry and that of John the Baptist, even though they are very different. I like the way that commentator Lance Pape contrasts John the Baptist and Jesus, “They could scarcely be more different,” he writes. There’s John, the bug-eating wilderness prophet, and Jesus who is known to love a good meal with all kinds of company; John who wears scratchy shirts on purpose, and Jesus who can occasionally be persuaded to invoke the power of God to keep the wine flowing at a wedding reception.”  (1)

     Yet, as different as they are, John and Jesus do have one thing in common; they are both rejected. “This generation” listens to neither Jesus nor John; they find reason to evade the call of both,” writes commentator Elisabeth Johnson. (2)

     These observations about Jesus and John are rooted in the account told in the beginning of Matthew 11. John the Baptist, who is in prison, sends his own disciples to Jesus to ask if his cousin is the real deal. His question is, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” Afterall, John’s expectations have not been met and the corrupt Romans and their Jewish minions are still in power. Jesus tells them to share with John all they have heard and seen, including the poor receiving good news and a long list of miraculous deeds. It is proof that Jesus is the one for whom they have been waiting.

     However, Jesus’ detractors see only what they want, that which will support their criticism of him and of John. Those who reject Jesus, especially the Jewish religious leaders who consider themselves to be “wise and intelligent”, in all their self-importance fail to understand how God is at work through Jesus. On the other hand, those who are not regarded as wise, intelligent or important – the “infants” - can see what the wise cannot, that God’s power and presence are revealed in Jesus.

     It is to them that Jesus issues the invitation, “Come to me, all you that are weary and carrying heavy burned, and I will give you rest.” They carried a variety of burdens, some that specifically fit their time and place, and others that are common to humanity. In terms of the former, they were burdened by the Jewish religious law because of how it was interpreted. They could never fulfill what it required of them in terms righteousness or being “right with God.” They also were burdened by Roman occupation and the loss of freedom and their homeland. On top of those big-picture burdens, they faced day-to-day struggles of acquiring food, shelter, meaningful relationships and battling illness, disability and death. It was not easy.

     Jesus acknowledges all this when he says, “Come to me, all you that are weary and carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” Then he offers them his yoke. His yoke? We usually think of a yoke as a heavy bar placed across the shoulders of animals or prisoners to control them; it is a symbol of a heavy burden. But … this is important … in the first century, the word “yoke” was also a metaphor for a teaching or a way of life.

     So, when Jesus said, “Take my yoke upon you … for my yoke is easy and my burden is light,” he probably meant that his way of discipleship is not a burden (as was the badly interpreted Jewish law), but life-giving; to be yoked to Jesus is to be connected to the way of forgiveness, grace, hope, joy, mercy and compassion.

     Be careful, though; what is being described here is not a life of ease, but a life free of the burden of sin and the need to prove oneself. Jesus’ yoke makes it possible to rest freely in God’s grace. The of focus this passage is that forgiveness, which comes to us through Jesus, makes it possible for our souls to be at rest, both now and in eternity.

     I wonder if that’s what the sellers of Christian plaques and art have in mind when they produce the hundreds of products that are available on Amazon, priced between $20 and $100, on which Matthew 11:28-30 is printed? Is the understanding that Jesus is going to take something from us, that is, eliminate whatever physical, emotional, spiritual or psychological challenge we face, so that we can finally be happy, happy, happy all the time? If so, that’s not what is being said in this text. Instead, Jesus is saying that when we take on his yoke, that is when we are yoked to him, we are connected to the source of God’s grace, strength, mercy, compassion and justice as it breaks into our world, and are both changed by these things and empowered to share them.        

     We who wear the yoke of Jesus are the ones in whom Christ dwells, writes commentator Chelsey Harmon. She goes on to explain that when she was a pastor in a congregation she would give out business cards on which these words, from the book series Good and Beautiful by James Bryan Smith, were written:

    “Being ‘one in whom Christ dwells’ is a sign of sacredness, a reminder of how special we are. It is not a threat to do better, or a heavy obligation. We can rest in this beautiful phrase because we did nothing to earn it and, therefore, we can’t lose it. We just receive it and rejoice in it. It is WHO we are and tells us WHOSE we are.” (3) 

     Let’s consider again those burdens that we are even now carrying. Remember … to wear the yoke of Jesus is to be a loved and forgiven child of God, empowered and guided by the Holy Spirit. If the burden we carry is weighing us down, we have resources on which to draw – strength provided by God and support from our Faith family – so that we can carry it. In other words, we do not carry it alone.  Remember too, that to wear the yoke of Jesus means that in the ultimate sense, there is no burden, we are forgiven and free. AMEN

  1. “Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30” by Lance Pape, Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 3, edited by David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, 2011 Westminster John Knox Press, pgs. 213-217
  2. “Commentary of Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30” by Elisabeth Johnson,

(3) “Sermon Commentary on Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30” by Chelsey Harmon, July 9 2023,