By Tish Harrison Warren
Saint Isaac the Syrian said, “Blessed is the man who knows his own weakness, because awareness of this become the foundation and the beginning of all that is good and beautiful.” Our strength falters, and we grow weary. This experience of vulnerability can be painful, but if we embrace it, it is also salvific. Or rather, it can be the raw material God uses to bring us to the truth about who we are and who he is.
Oddly, when Jesus calls the weary to rest, he also calls them to a yoke—an instrument of work, not rest. It would have made more sense if Jesus had said, “I will give you rest. Take my warm blanket upon you.” Or perhaps a pillow, or a bubble bath, or a day off. But Jesus offers the weary rest—and a yoke.
In the ancient Near East, it wasn’t only animals who had yokes. Certain people would also carry yokes on their shoulders to bear heavy loads, their hands grasping chains or ropes to help them pull. But only the poorest people did this kind of work. Jesus is invoking a graphic image—a laborer sweating under the sun, neck muscles straining, their body nearly breaking under the load. Jesus doesn’t say he’ll exchange their yoke for a luxury condo or a vacation package. He offers his followers a different yoke—his. And he says that his yoke is easy and light.
A yoke represented rule or authority. To take on a yoke meant to submit to someone. In this passage, Jesus invites us to submit to his authority and “learn from him.” In our weariness, we are called to rest, but we are also called to learn, to be taught by one in authority. If we learn from the one who is “gentle and lowly,” we will find rest for our souls.
There is no yokeless option. It seems to me the weary should be unyoked altogether, but instead Jesus suggests that all people are under a yoke, that it’s impossible to not be yoked to someone or something. It may be the yoke of religious law and scrupulous spirituality. It may be the yoke of our desires and passions, as raucous and exhausting as a newborn baby. It may be the yoke of cultural norms and assumptions, the water we swim in.
Jesus calls the weary not to follow their own way—that would be a heavy yoke indeed—but to submit to him and learn from him, to take on his yoke.
But why is Jesus’ yoke light? Is it light because he promises that things will go well for us? That if we keep our side of the deal—if we’re good boys and girls—he’ll make our dreams come true and our life work out? That we’ll have happy marriages? That we’ll have children? That we’ll find a vocation we enjoy? That we’ll be healthy? That we’ll be remembered when we die?
No. He calls us to an easy yoke, but he also calls us to take up our cross. How can the same person call us to both an easy yoke and a cross?
Jesus’ yoke is light not because he promises ease or success, but because he promises to bear our burdens with us. He promises to shoulder our load….
Jesus promises nothing more or less than himself. He will yoke himself to us and never leave our side. He won’t take away the weight we bear, but he will bear it with us. God owes us nothing. Any happiness, success, or desire fulfilled is a gift to be received gratefully. It’s gravy.
God promises us simply himself. He refuses to be an end to any other means. By his mercy we can taste eternal life, which is defined by Scripture not as making it to heaven or seeing our dreams coming true or nothing bad ever happening, but as knowing the true God and the one he has sent (John 17:3). That’s the promise: we can know God. Take it or leave it.
Taken from Prayer in the Night: For Those Who Work or Watch or Sleep by Tish Harrison Warren. ©2021 by Tish Harrison Warren. Used by permission of InterVarsity Press. www.ivpress.com. Purchase the book here.