“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.”
–Jesus, Matthew 11:28-30
A mother was allowing her little five year old daughter to help in the kitchen. Well, you know how that goes. The little girl, proud to be helping and really convinced that she was getting a lot of work done, was actually creating more work for mom. She was doing her best, but still, she is only five, and so she spills the milk on the counter, drops the spatula on the floor, asks a million questions, gets bored and chases the dog for a while, and so on. But mom doesn’t mind, because mom is actually the one doing the helping– she’s helping her daughter learn something about working in the kitchen. In the middle of all this, the mother got a phone call that took a while. The little girl continued to work, as the mother looked on cringing at still more messes she would have to clean up when she was done on the phone. But finally, the little girl, with a different view of the situation, got sick of waiting, marched over to her mother, and said firmly, “Are you going to help me, or do I have to do everything myself?”
Who was helping who? The little girl was firmly convinced that she was providing valuable assistance to her mother, but really, the mother was the one taking the extra time to help her daughter learn.
Now, a second illustration of the same thing, from the other end of life… My wife’s grandmother, Grandma Muriel, spent the last several years of her life in a care center. She had Alzheimer’s disease, and for all that time Grandma Muriel was in a slow, sad decline into the total loss of everything. Towards the end of her life, she would seldom speak. But one of the strange things about Alzheimer’s disease is that once in a while, the wires in the brain do connect, and words and sentences do come out– sometimes making no sense at all, but sometimes one is able to follow the thought, even if the entire line of thinking is not quite correct. Nancy’s mother, JoAnn, would go to the care center almost every day and spend some time with Grandma Muriel, talking to her, feeding her, showing her photographs, and just doing whatever needed to be done. When she was healthy, Grandma Muriel was the type of person that was always helping someone; and she was aware now, on those visits, that someone was there in the room with her, and somebody was doing something for somebody else. But in her confused state, she got it all turned around one day, and said to he daughter, “JoAnn, just what are you going to do when I am no longer here to help you?”
Who was helping who? Grandma Muriel was completely helpless, but in her confusion she still saw herself as the helper, the doer, the one carrying the load for someone else, even though SHE was now the one being helped and cared for.
The words of Jesus in Matthew 11:28-30 raise a similar question. When it comes to faith and religion, we might also ask, “Who is doing what for who?” Is our faith a matter of what we do for God, or is it a matter of receiving what God has done for us? Certainly, there are both in the Bible: there are commands of what we must do and there are promises of what God has done and will do for us. But where is the emphasis? What is faith for you? Is faith for you another one of life’s burdens, another obligation, another care and worry? Or, is faith in God something that makes the burden of life easier for you? Does the thought of God bring to your mind images of comfort, or of obligation?
The words of Jesus in Matthew 11 are familiar words and comforting words, but the image Jesus uses here is confusing. Verse 28 says, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.” That sounds good. It sounds there like the emphasis is on God carrying us. But what about the next verse, verse 29, where Jesus goes on to say, “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me…”– Yoke? You know what a yoke is, don’t you? A yoke is for work. The old farmers would put a yoke on team of oxen for field work. And they made yokes for people to put over their shoulders to make it easier carry water buckets and feed buckets in the days before indoor plumbing or automated feeding systems.
Yokes are for work, and that is precisely the image that many people have of religion. Many folks see religion as something we have to do for God. Being a Christian is viewed as a burden, a heavy load, and many people come to believe that they are better off and freer without it. And the image Jesus uses here seems to confirm that belief. He talks about comfort and rest for our souls, but then in the very next sentence Jesus says ‘take up your yoke.’ Who is doing what for who?
The meaning in the verse becomes clear when we look closer at the use of the yoke. Yes, the yoke reminds us of work, but the purpose of the yoke is to make work easier and to make the load lighter. The yoke itself is not heavy and it is not the cause of the work. The work is already there, and the yoke just makes the job easier. And in some cases, the yoke makes it possible to carry loads and bear burdens that one could not carry or bear without the yoke. Jesus’ reference to the yoke is not a command to do more work for God. It is an image of how Jesus helps us bear the inevitable burdens of life, the burdens that we all, already have: “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.” The yoke that Jesus is talking about is a symbol of faith in and life in Him, and that yoke lightens the burdens of life and makes them easier to bear. This then is, in fact, an image of how our relationship with God is primarily a matter of receiving what He has done for us.
How could it be any other way? What could the God who created this whole universe need from us? Before God we stand as helpless as Grandma Muriel in that care center or that little girl in the kitchen, and if anyone is going to be doing anything for anyone, it will have to be God helping us. To see our faith in any other way is to be as confused as Grandma wondering how her daughter will ever get along without her help; or like that little girl, standing there with her hands on her hips, telling her mother to get off the phone and get back to helping her. The girl could not get along without the mother’s help, but the mother could have managed very nicely without the daughter’s help. God can get along just fine without us. Faith is not a burden not something we have to do for God. Faith is a gift of God that helps us bear all the other burdens of life.
What then of the commands? (continued…)
What a friend we have in Jesus,
All our sins and griefs to bear.
What a privilege to carry,
Everything to God in prayer.
–Joseph Scriven (1819-1886)