Matthew 11.28-30 (My translation):
Come to me, all you that are working hard and heavily loaded, and I will give you relief. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me because I am gentle and humble in my heart, and you will find relief for your lives. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”
Often times in translating this passage, many versions will translate the first verse in terms of internal states of feelings and emotions. You will use see something like “weary and burdened” and “I will give you rest.” These translations are not deeply mistaken, as the words of Jesus do connect to the idea of being tired and the sense of rest that people can give, but these translations mask the metaphor that Jesus is conveying: an ox working the ground who is heavily burdened not just by the work they are having to do, but they also have a heavy yoke on them that is used to direct and control them. The image being cast here is a person who is doubly burdened, both by life and, as the metaphor will show, by those who are teaching and leading.
Jesus’ yoke imagery was originally used by ben Sira in Sirach 51.23-26 to describe the way undisciplined people could learn discipline for their lives. Then, in verse 27, ben Sira puts himself up as a demonstration that this process of learning discipline has made it such that he does not have to work hard and that he has had much opportunity for rest.
So, when we read Jesus’ words, we have an image that fundamentally contrasts with ben Sira. Jesus is giving people relief amidst the time of instruction, whereas ben Sira promises relief after the time of instruction.
I don’t think, however, that this contrast is because Jesus fundamentally disagrees with ben Sira. My intuition is that the way the Pharisees may have used this promise of rest after following their instruction was never really delivered, but, instead, the way the Pharisees treated the people actually produced a double burden one people’s lives. While it is common to think Jesus’ problem with the Pharisees is their “legalism,” Jesus’ criticism is not against their teaching as it is more precisely directed towards the way they burden people with instructions, but yet they fail to actually help with burdens (Matthew 23.1-4). Rather than helping people to learn wisdom and grow in life, they have seen their role as the teachers who give the instruction in discipline that ben Sira refers to but they are doubly burdening the people, unsympathetic to the plights people are in. Much as can be heard from communist regimes promising relief and prosperity after going through a difficult and hard time that never comes, the Pharisees would be promising rest at the end of the journey, but never delivering any relief of burdens in the midst of it. They promise, but they do not deliver, because they actually further burden people who are already burdened by the difficulty of the task before them.
The Pharisaical teachers are like a harsh taskmaster, like Pharoah’s men who took away the straw but still expecting the Israelites to complete their slave tasks, putting heavy burdens on people who already have a heavy work to take care of. This sets the people up to fail, as their ‘students’ have neither the strength or energy to reach the expected goal, leaving them to either be perpetually dependent upon the Pharisees or to be discarded as worthless sinners.
So, when Jesus calls himself gentle and humble and will give relief, he is setting Himself up as a teacher who will take off the unnecessary burdens upon the people so that they can deal with the hard work ahead of them. Jesus is not a harsh taskmaster. Following Jesus isn’t easy as it has a road that goes through the cross, but that isn’t because Jesus’s instructions and way of relating to his disciples puts unnecessary burdens on people’s life. Jesus’ instruction is ‘designed’ to help people achieves the tasks of life set before them, not to make it harder for them to work through it all.
This leaves us as Christian leaders and teachers with a particular focus on ourselves. Much is made about people being able to own responsibility for what is theirs to bear. Indeed, this is very true. However, the question that is set before us as Christian leaders and teachers: are we helping or hindering people to work through the hard tasks of life? We aren’t called to be heroes who dash in to fix any and every difficult battle in people’s lives (we have to know the difference between what is a real emergency and what isn’t), but in the concern to let people be work through their own trials, we have to be careful we are not the type of people who perpetually put further burdens along the way.
For instance, if as a leader, we ask someone under our authority to do something, do we give them the sufficient permissions, freedom, expectations, and information to achieve the task set before them? Or, do we expect them to just get it right and either harshly criticize or distance from them when they fall to meet expectations?
Let us liken the Pharisees and Jesus to two different football coaches. One football coach is as mean as a junk yard dog, thinking that the harder they are on their players, the harder they will work, thinking that means the more likely they are to win. They curse, they yell angrily, they focus incessantly on the players failures to make them get it right. Under the heat of two a days, the angry coach thinks that he is the reason that the players will win and succeed, that he is key to victory, but when they lose it is everyone else’s fault. Meanwhile, they think the failure of the players is due to the lack of effort and not caring, perhaps because, in truth, they don’t care themselves and they simply project their laziness onto others and get angry at them as a result. Their players end up learning only how to do what the coach wants, but then they will slack off when the coach isn’t around to fear. This coach puts a heaven burden on people that makes success highly dependent upon how much they can manipulate and control their players and how much skill the players already have, but they do not help the players to really advance in the long run. In fact, they may task whatever sense of autonomy and sense of self-control the players have and cause them to learn to be helpless and entirely dependent upon the coach’s every angry and harsh criticism and judgment.
The other football coach certainly expects their players to work hard and to contribute in practice, but they recognize that it is the players internal drive to work hard through the difficulties that will lead them to success. They win as a team and they lose as a team. The coach will sometimes have to challenge the players and they will grow tired and worn out, but they don’t want to put any further burden in their path. They give guidance and direction actively throughout practice, recognizing that when one is tired one does not always think straight and forgets. They know that the players need to be given feedback that they are learning and getting it right, even if it isn’t exactly where it needs to be, but it is incumbent upon the players to reach the goal. Their players end up learning what it is to strive and work hard, learning how sports is also a tool for instruction about life. This coach puts a light burden onto people that makes success dependent on what people will contribute to the hard tasks that are before them, giving them what the coach can to aid the players through the hard work set before them. The players learn what is mean to have control, the right sort of control, over how they direct themselves to meet the challenges before them thanks to a coach who help demonstrate the way to do it.
The way of life of God’s Kingdom is received and successfully taught through those who, in following Jesus, do not doubly burden those under them. We ourselves become teachers like this when we ourselves worship God’s Servant in Jesus Christ through the Spirit who shows us where we fall short of the glory seen in Christ and leads us to put to death those old practices so that we can have new practices that bring life, hope, and thriving to those set under us.