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Is Christ's yoke really easy?

A reader wonders how the yoke and burden of Christ (Matthew 11:28-30) is to be understood as "easy" and "light". It’s a fair question in light of the truth that Christ’s call to his disciples is very demanding (take a quick look at Matthew 10:34-39 and 16:21-25 and 5:20). I suppose there are a number of useful and truthful responses to this.

Maybe we should begin with the contrast between what Christ offered and what the Pharisees offered. In Matthew 23:4 Christ said they bound heavy burdens on people, burdens that were grievous to bear and they wouldn’t move a finger to help people with them. And Peter, who was well acquainted with those of the Pharisee school, accused them of putting an unbearable yoke on the necks of the disciples (Acts 15:5,10).

You understand, a yoke was made to make things easier, not harder! It’s true that a yoke could be used in a negative way, to express slavery and hard labour (Isaiah 9:4; 14:25; 58:6 and elsewhere, illustrate this). But it doesn’t always have that negative aspect. In fact Israel’s relationship to God is described in Jeremiah 2:20 in terms of a yoke and centuries before Christ it became common for Jews to speak of taking on the yoke of wisdom or the Torah. But a yoke was not seen as a hindrance—it was supposed to make a tough job easier.

People would carry heavy water-skins with the help of a yoke. Oxen were given a yoke to help them drag a plough, and so forth. But some yokes weren’t "easy". They were rough and ill-fitting and were more of a hindrance than a help. Animals would be rubbed raw and their job made harder by what was supposed to make it easier. So it was with the yoke the Pharisees offered burdened people. Their "halakah" (legal interpretation of the Torah) was unfit and unbearable. Decisions had to me made as to "how" many of God’s commandments were to be carried out but the rules and regulations laid down by the sages had long degenerated into a system for the elite. In contrast to theirs Jesus’ was easy. [There’s a very ancient story that says that over the door of Jesus’ carpenter shop there was a sign that said, "My yoke is easy".] This isn’t the place to go into many of the ways in which the pharisaic yoke was ill-fitting, but for many reasons it wasn’t geared for the working man or woman.

Those are some considerations I think we should include. Then there is this. The yoke offered by Pharisees—however well-intentioned in the beginning—got between God and the people. The yoke they offered became a welter of regulations and Christ called them to himself. This was personal. That is not to say that he had no truths to tell or that he made no ethical demands. Indeed not! But it does mean that at the centre of these was a person! And this person imaged God. The Pharisees couldn’t compare with Christ in all kinds of ways but one of those ways was that Christ was a man of the people and a Pharisee was a man of the rules. Pharisees (as the NT reflects them—see John 9 as an illustration) cared little for the people in general and none at all for the truly wayward. What they offered was criticism and condemnation and what Christ offered was fellowship and kindness as he sought to lift them up. So when he says come to "me" he spoke out of a heart that was for the people so his yoke was easy and any burden he put on them would be light. No doubt that’s why he says, "Come to me...for (hoti) I am gentle and humble in heart..." In light of what Christ was they could be sure his yoke and burden would not be galling. There would be no arrogance or bullying here—the kind of thing they experienced with their religious taskmasters.

This all sounds right to me, still, if Christ was very demanding, in what sense is his yoke easy and his burden light? Well, I don’t think we’re to take these words as meaning his demands are less (clearly they aren’t). My suspicion is that we’re to think of the yoke and burden as suited to the needs and longings of the people. If you long for fullness of life and if someone you trust as kind shows you how you can have it and fits you out with what you need to get it then the yoke and burden have your heart’s consent! You aren't chafing, then, under the yoke and you aren’t continuously irritated by pointless weight.

I don’t say that none of us at times get peevish and somewhat resentful toward Christ. We do. And when 1 John 5:3 tells us that the Lord’s commandments aren’t burdensome, I’m not saying that every now and then some of us find them just that. But the problem lies with us—doesn’t it? When a commandment suits perfectly our needs and it has our heart’s consent, keeping it is not a problem. At least that would be our characteristic approach—wouldn’t it?

Spending Time with Jim McGuiggan