Jesus’s call for those who labor and are heavy laden to come to him is one of the most beloved verses in the Gospels (11:28-30). What did Jesus mean by his yoke? How is Jesus’s yoke light? What does it mean to be “heavy laden”?
Jesus’s extends his invitation to laborers oppressed with heavy burdens. The “ones who labor” refers to people who are tired out from some activity. For example, in John 4:6, Jesus sits at the well because he is tired from the journey. Since Jesus is drawing a contrast with Pharisees, the yoke refers to Jesus’s demands on his followers.
Jesus describes himself as gentle and lowly, in contrast to the hypocritical arrogance of the Pharisees (Matt 23:29-31). In Matthew 23:4 the Pharisees “tie up heavy burdens” (φορτίον, the noun related to Jesus’s verb in 11:28), These burdens are hard to bear, and the Pharisees “lay them on people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to move them with their finger.”
When those who come to Jesus take up his yoke, they will find rest.
Nolland (Matthew, 478) suggests this is an allusion to Jeremiah 6:16, “Stand by the roads, and look, and ask for the ancient paths, where the good way is; and walk in it and find rest for your souls.” The response to this call to follow the good way of the Lord in Jeremiah is “we will not walk in it.” Similar to the call of Jesus here in Matthew 11. The Pharisees will not take up Jesus’s yoke nor will they follow Jesus as “the way.”
There is another intriguing parallel in Sirach 51:20: “Draw near to me, you who are uneducated, and lodge in the house of instruction” and in verse 26, “Put your neck under [wisdom’s] yoke, and let your souls receive instruction; it is to be found close by” (NRSV). Rather than inviting the weary who need rest, Sirach calls the uneducated to put on the yoke of wisdom. Presumably he means attending classes at Sirach’s house of instruction. Similar to Sirach, Jesus is calling people to enter into a discipleship relationship with him and to take up his yoke.
Jesus promised those who follow the way rest and and he invites them to “take up my yoke.” What is the Jesus’s easy yoke and light burden? Although a yoke links two animals together, this is not the point of the metaphor. In second Temple literature a yoke is always a metaphor for a burden, obedience or subordination.
It is unusual to think of an animal taking up a yoke itself and placing on its neck, but in the world of the metaphor a person voluntarily takes up Jesus’s yoke and submits themselves to him. In contrast, the Pharisees refuse that yoke, preferring their own interpretation of the Law. This will lead to the decisive break with the Pharisees in the next chapter.
What is the yoke Jesus’s disciples are to take on?
Acts 15:10 used a yoke as a metaphor for the Law. There Peter calls the Law a burden. But Jesus is drawing a contrast between the heavy yoke of the Pharisees and his own. Later in Matthew 23:4 Jesus condemns the Pharisees because they tie up heavy cumbersome loads and put them on people’s shoulders. This refers to the various traditions the Pharisees developed as a fence around the Law.
There is some irony here, since Jesus says his burden is light and easy to bear. Yet in Matthew 10 he told his disciples they will face oppression, persecution, beatings and death on account of their testimony.
In many ways Jesus’s yoke is light, but it is not easy.