'The Easy Yoke'

For the Week of August 17, 2015
by Rubel Shelly

The late Dallas Willard used to make a point of teaching about “the easy yoke” of Jesus of Nazareth. The text from which he worked was this quotation from the Gospel of Matthew: “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” (11:28-30).

Indeed, preachers sometimes stress how difficult it is to be a Christian. Yes, in a culture that seems increasingly hostile to faith, there are certainly challenges to faith – ranging from church wrangling to obsession with wealth, from drugs and alcohol to pornography, from confusion about marriage to high divorce rates.

Willard’s point never was to discount the challenges. It was, as I understood him, to stress a critical point about Christian discipleship. Church division, moral challenges, family tensions – all have a common solution. And that solution is not church membership, personal fulfillment seminars, or more laws. The simple solution is to yoke ourselves to Jesus as his student-imitators.

You know what a yoke is, right? It is a wooden crosspiece that fastens across the necks of two animals and lets them pull a cart or plow with their combined strength. Ah, combined strength. That seems to be the point here.

The loads a person bears over a lifetime are too heavy! They sap all one’s strength. They wear her out. They leave him exhausted and collapsed in failure. But what if that load is shared? What if Jesus is the one to whom I am yoked? Do you think he is strong enough to make up for my weakness?

Ironically, it appears the burdensome load Jesus had in mind in Matthew 11 was religion. Yes, religion! Jesus did not come to found a religion. It would be more correct, in fact, to say that he came to release people from the unbearable weights religion had strapped to their backs. Thus he was always in conflict with the rule-mongers who faulted him for touching sick people, helping people on the Sabbath, releasing people from loads of guilt, and telling everyone of a God who was more Father than Judge – and eager to have his wayward kids come home.

Don’t get me wrong, and don’t let me mislead you about Willard. We both think churches are good things, if they preach good news rather than bad news. The good news of Christ’s message is that God is in the accepting, healing, and nurturing business. The bad news some churches preach is that God won’t love you until you get your life straightened out on the basis of their restrictive rules.

Does the Jesus you read about in the Gospels look sad? Weighed down by guilt and obligation? Doubting the purpose for his life? Confused about what he should do next? He obeyed his Father, affirmed the dignity and worth of every person he met, and told the sad-faced legalists to take a hike.

If you were to walk in that yoke with Jesus, would your load be lighter?