Easy Yoke and Light Burdens

I’ve been thinking a lot about Matthew 11:28-30 lately.  Here’s what it says:

28 “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. 29 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. 30 For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”

I’ve noticed for a long time now that many people (here in the US, for sure) wear “I’m so busy” almost as a badge of honor.  We’ve become so accustomed to seeing our value and worth and identity in – not only what we do, but – how productive we are.  Part of this goes way back to the “Protestant work ethic” which is something I’ve heard about since I was a kid.  Pardon a quick history lesson…*

In the 18th century the world was becoming less enchanted (no longer ascribing the events of life to fairies, sprites, and gremlins; or even angels, demons, and God) and the internalized expressions of faith made preeminent by the Protestant Reformation (faith is about personal piety, devotion, and a relationship directly with God, as opposed to faith being the participation in rituals, holy objects – be it the Eucharist or a holy relic – and obedience to a Pope) had firmly taken root culturally. 

When these two are combined, we get a more “secular” society even if it is still Christian.  What I mean is, even those who believe in Jesus and God the Father still view most of life through the lens of “cause and effect” and science, as opposed to the direct agency and action of God in the world.  We see that Christians today are often less expectant of a miracle than they are of the power of science and technology to solve our problems.  And in the 18th century, this meant that the pastoral call began to shift to encouraging people to be diligent in their work (focus on the how) more so than what type of work they were doing (focus on the what) in order to be faithful to God.  When faithfulness isn’t about taking communion or going to confession, and the belief that God is highly active to meet you in your personal spiritual walk, there’s not much left but the natural outworking of faith in your actions.

Some of this we welcome.  The Reformers reminded us that we’re all priests, a priestly kingdom.  Part of that teaching included the idea that it is not more sacred of a calling to be a priest than to be a farmer or a mother who changes diapers.  As long as you do it “unto the Lord” the work is equally valued.  By the time of Jonathan Edwards, the great 18th century American pastor/theologian, that meant that the pastoral call was to guide people in diligence and productivity as a way to show their devotion to God.  This resulted in great wealth creation, and in some important ways fueled the rise of Capitalism in the Western world.  This is the Protestant work ethic.

Okay, all that to say that now we have lost the spiritual element that was ubiquitous in the 18th century (no sprites, but God is real vs. today’s atheism) but we still try to “justify” ourselves by our efficiency and effort.   Justification was once a religious term; now it just means to prove our worth to the world rather than God.  It’s the modern version of “works righteousness” in a world that has abandoned the belief in God but can’t shake its need to be holy.  And we’re all caught in this hamster wheel of needing to do more every day, even if it’s killing us, to prove that we deserve to exist. 

Here in the US that has been exacerbated by a work environment that has demanded that fewer employees produce more than ever before.  It began in the 2008 financial crisis when everyone was afraid of losing their jobs so they worked crazy amounts of hours, and then increased since the pandemic as employers sometimes legitimately cannot hire enough employees to do the amount of work that’s requires (and yes, this is an oversimplification).

As a pastor, I’m susceptible to all of this, but on top of it my job can trick me into thinking of the situation in even more drastic terms.  Not only do I need to justify myself (even though I know that theologically that’s a bunch of nonsense, I’m still wrapped up in this culture), but I also think that my work has eternal significance for others.  I want to see as many of my neighbors enter the Kingdom of Heaven as possible and be saved from an eternal damnation.  I’m also called to help shoulder the burdens of an entire community; a community of people who, among other things, are also desperately striving to justify their own existence by working themselves to the bone (to death?).  I like the idea that all vocations are equal (be it farmer, or computer programmer, or pastor), but I can’t shake the nagging suspicion that a religious vocation is somehow a “higher calling,” which requires greater sacrifice and “laying down one’s life.”

And then I read Matthew 11:28-30.  I read the invitation from Jesus to come to him if I’m weary and burdened.  And trust me, I am weary and burdened.  I want that rest.  I want to find rest for my soul, because the tiredness I feel does reach the very depths of me.  I’m not sleepy.  I’m not tired (well yes, I am those things).  I’m fatigued in ways that sleep and inactivity cannot address.  I’m soul weary.  I’m weary from sadness, stress, burden bearing/concern for others, conflict/resistance, as well as the general angst that permeates our societies – whether from the need to justify ourselves or the massive global political upheaval we’re all in the midst of right now.

And before you read too much into this, this post is not a cry for help.  I love my work.  I love being a pastor.  I’m not hopeless.

I just want to live out of the yoke of Jesus Christ instead of whatever this 21st century, Western chain is that’s been wrapped around our necks.  I want you to live out of that yoke, as well.  Because the yoke we’re so often feeling is not easy and this burden is not light.

My caveats are as follows:

– Yes, I know that Jesus doesn’t mean we won’t have to work or get tired.  He was writing to a people who lived in abject poverty, primarily as subsistence farmers under an oppressive Roman overlord.  Compared to them, our physical output is marginal.  Working hard can be very good for us.

– Yes, I know that Jesus doesn’t mean we won’t have to make sacrifices in this life.  He modelled and called us to live a life of sacrifice.  Sometimes that sacrifice means dying, while at other times it means putting others before yourself.  Living out of faith means putting some values above your own life or death, and that’s good for us, too.

But what I also know is that Jesus meant something by these words, and they still apply today.  I think part of what Jesus meant is that coming to him should not be seen as taking on an unbearable burden before a holy God.  Matthew records his judgment on Chorazin and Bethsaida for their unbelief in the passage before this one.  Jesus’ judgment is not for their lack of work.  Not for their failures to be pious.  It’s for not believing.  Believing is not a heavy burden.  So, part of this is Jesus letting us know that our faith should not be seen as a heavy yoke requiring us to go through life dragging a massive plow behind us in an attempt to make ourselves useful.

But I also think Jesus is telling us that when we walk with him, the work that is needed, the work we do have to complete, will be so aided and empowered by him that what should be hard will become easy.  Remember, there’s an “easy button” and being in fellowship with Jesus is the process by which we push that button.  

I truly believe that if we are experiencing this overtiredness, we’ve put on the wrong yoke and are carrying the wrong burden.  Sometimes that means that we’re literally doing things that Jesus doesn’t want us to do.  Sometimes that means that we’re doing the right things but not out of the right source – not out of our relationship with Jesus.

This is already longer than I expected, so more to come.  Still, there’s fodder here for conversation, but also – I think – cause for rethinking how we live.

*This history inspired by Andrew Root’s The Pastor In a Secular Age.

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