There are 613 commandments in the Jewish tradition. 613. That’s a lot of commandments. Of these 613 commandments, 248 of them are “positive” --meaning that they are acts to perform (for example in Exodus 23:25 “to pray every day”). The remaining 365 are “negative” --meaning things to abstain from (for example, not cooking meat and milk together from Exodus 23:19). You can also divide the commandments into categories around purity, worship, and relationships. Most scholars believe that the Torah was intended to be a guide for people living in community in relationship to God. You could think of it as a morality code for holy living.
By the time of Jesus, the Torah was still very important—Jesus was a Jew, after all, and had been taught in the synagogue and knew the commandments. Throughout the New Testament he quotes the Hebrew Scriptures, and even says that he has come to fulfil the Law. But Jesus also lived at a time when religion and politics had created an unholy union. The Romans were occupying Jewish territory and to keep the peace, Jewish authorities often had to make concessions to Roman officials. Many of the Jewish authority had also become corrupt with power and were exclusionary of those who were seen as “outsiders”. The letter of the law had become more important than the spirit of the law. And this is the heavy burden of the yoke that Jesus refers to in Matthew 11.
When Jesus says “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, 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,” he isn’t talking to the outsiders this time. Instead, he’s talking to those who have tried to maintain their Jewish identity under the corruption of the temple authority, but have found it to be more burdensome than life giving. He’s inviting those who may have questioned his authority, who have towed the party line of the temple, and found that there were more hurdles and stumbling blocks in their paths. They have become exhausted in trying to maintain righteousness in a system of ever-expanding demands of legalism, and here is Jesus welcoming them.
The legalism which corrupted religious teaching at the time set people up for failure. It had become a system of “do all these things and you will be significant before and loved by God”, which puts conditions on God’s love. This is the heavy burden of which Jesus speaks…that we have to “prove” ourselves worthy before God; that we have to somehow “earn” God’s love.
Jesus invites those who are tired of having to prove themselves worthy to a life of unconditional love and grace—a love that a parent has for a child, a love that a Creator has for the created, a love that is boundless, eternal and forgiving. The yoke that Jesus offers, the commandment that Jesus constantly calls us to observe is to love God and our neighbor. It’s not an “if/then” rewards and punishment system, it’s not a “ten steps to follow” program…it’s a call to be in relationship with God and one another.
The New English Bible translation of this passage reads that Jesus’ yoke is “good to bear” instead of my yoke is easy. I think this is an important difference. “Easy” implies that things can be taken care of simply, in a snap, without any thought. “Good to bear” implies that it shapes us, makes us intentional about our relationships and actions, and calls us to live in balance and with integrity. As Rev. James Liggett wrote it’s a yoke that “fits, it’s the right size, so it works – it leads to God, and it brings with it wholeness and a peace that can be found nowhere else.”
Being a follower of Jesus is rarely easy. For his early friends and followers, it was often scary from both a religious and political perspective because it called them to a life that was rather counter-cultural—eating with the unclean, welcoming the stranger, healing on the Sabbath. For us today, being a follower of Jesus isn’t any easier. In our context it’s still counter-cultural, sometimes at odds with the world around us, but without the same fears—welcoming the stranger, feeding the poor, respecting the dignity of every human being. What separates us from the social service agencies and other humanitarian and philanthropic efforts is that we do what we do because we are carrying the yoke of Jesus—the yoke that calls us to love God and our neighbor; the yoke that Jesus modeled for us and the Spirit empowers us to carry.
We are constantly welcomed by Jesus to carry this yoke, but it’s up to us to accept the invitation. My prayer is that we all heed the welcome and carry the yoke that is good to bear.
I don't know what the future of the church is, but I know that we will continue to be a place of sanctuary and hope, working towards healing in the world.