“…for my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”
Preaching to seminarians give me the rare opportunity to go off-roading a bit, and the image of a yoke will be helpful to keep us from going too far astray, so let’s start there: a yoke is, of course, a kind of harness fastened over the necks of a pair of draft animals, usually oxen, binding them together so that their combined strength can pull a plow or a cart. Hebrew and Christian scriptures both make several references to them and the yoke would certainly be a recognizable image to the crowd Jesus is addressing here in Matthew. But they would also know something about using a yoke that may not occur to most 21st century urban and suburban Americans who may be visualizing Jesus as the farmer and Christians being yoked together. Most of the 1st century Palestinian crowd would know the practice of paring a young ox with a more experienced ox who would pull the majority of load while the younger one walked alongside and learned from the more experienced ox. And so when Jesus says “…take my yoke upon your shoulders and learn from me” and “my yoke is easy,” we can visualize ourselves in the harness next to Jesus who will be beside us, taking the heavier part of the load and teaching us.
So what is the load Jesus is teaching us to carry with him? What is the burden? Here’s where I’m breaking a few homiletic rules, so lock your axles. Jesus says “my burden is light” and the Greek word actually does refer to weight, especially in contrast to the “heavy load” he mentions earlier in the passage. There’s no exegetically correct way to read the Greek in any other way, but I think I’m still in keeping with the Gospel message here. (See what you think!) I can’t read this passage without thinking of the alternative translation in English. That is to say, I always hear not an adjective describing the burden, but a noun—“light”—that actually names the burden. “My burden is light!” Maybe I hear it this way because earlier in this chapter, Jesus has been talking about John the Baptizer—John, who is described in the Prologue to the Gospel of John as the one who was not the light, but who came to testify to the light that enlightens everyone.” What if Jesus is asking us to strap on a harness like John’s—to get into a yoke through which we learn to participate in bearing witness to the true light of Christ?
Since we’ve jumped Gospels already, there is another example from John: the Samaritan woman at the well. In the longest conversation with a single person that Jesus has in our canonical scripture, Jesus reveals his Divine nature to a woman, a Samaritan at that, and asks her to get him a drink of water, which would have made him ritually unclean from using her jar—three ways that Jesus has left the approved road. As they talk, she accepts the “living water” that Jesus the Christ offers and she goes home to invite the people of her town to come and meet Jesus. For this, she is recognized by some parts of the church as the first to proclaim the Gospel of Christ. Our Orthodox brothers and sisters have even named her: St. Photini, which means “the enlightened one” because she was the bearer of the light of Christ to her family and to her community. She and John the Baptizer were invited to carry similar but specific burdens of light beside Jesus—each had something that was theirs to do. What specific burden of light is Jesus inviting each one of us to accept alongside him? His yoke is easy and his burden—with ours—is light.
Current Master of Divinity Student
Seattle University, School of Theology and Ministry