Come to me, all who labor and are heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me ; for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light. Matthew 11: 29-30
The universality of human sorrow and need is one of the reasons for the great attractiveness of the words of Jesus which appear at the end of the eleventh chapter of Matthew. When Jesus says, "Come unto me, all ye who labor and are heavy laden," He is really speaking to all. Every life has some serious burdens and most persons have, at one time or another, been overworked. We have tasks to perform, responsibilities to bear, problems to solve, promises to keep. Millions on the earth are bound so firmly to the economic wheel, with children to support, debts to pay, and living costs to meet, that they have no prospect of freedom as long as they live. The truth is that most people are poor! There is always the possibility of great joy in work accomplished, but for millions, work is nothing but a series of painful burdens. Great numbers, even in advanced civilizations, admit freely that they would stop work in a minute, were it not for the necessity of earning the means of survival for themselves and for those dependent upon them. Christ's words strike a responsive note because, for the most part, life is hard. Almost everyone feels that the words of this particular passage are addressed directly to Him.
Another reason for the attractiveness of these sentences is the fact that they include Christ's clearest call to commitment that can be found in all the Gospels. Insofar as our religious mood has shifted from dogma to concern, and from correctness of theological affirmation to the urgency of commitment, these are the words which speak directly to our age. The central call to Christian commitment is phrased in the words, "Take my yoke upon you." The terms are the terms of recruitment.
Once we face, with honesty, the burdened character of human life, we are bound to seek an answer to the problem that is involved. The fact that we live in a rich and comfortable land does not by any means absolve us. Indeed life can be exceedingly painful even to those who are materially fortunate. The inventions of modern civilization, while they may have altered the proportions of misfortune, have certainly not eliminated it and will not eliminate it. Inventions do not change in any thorough way the human situation, because they are neither the cause nor the cure of man's troubles. If insecurity arose merely from external conditions, these conditions might eventually be altered, but this is not how our worst troubles arise. The worst troubles arise from the thoughts and decisions and emotions of men, including ourselves.
It is in the light of such facts that the religious answer to the demand for comfort is made. Thus we have the beginning of a great passage in Isaiah: "Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith our God." The broken, the refugees, the desolate, the defeated, and the desperate have a right to know that in the love of God there is ultimate solace and indeed the only such solace which they will ever find.
Only a person of very hard heart will ever minimize this aspect of religious experience. There are the blind; there are the deaf; there are the dumb; there are the lame; and all of them are entitled to know that the hand of God is reaching out tenderly to them. Charles Wesley was working at the main theme of all great faith when he taught men to sing:
Hear Him, ye deaf; his praise, ye dumb, Your loosened tongues employ; Ye blind, behold your Saviour come; And leap, ye lame, for joy!
Important and necessary as the theme of comfort is, it can never be the only theme if our religious vitality is to be maintained. There is another theme found strongly in the cumulative message of the prophets of Israel, which seems to be at the complete variance with the theme of comfort. By it people are aroused from their complacency, they are disturbed by new ideas, they are driven out of all safe nests and sometimes sent long distances on arduous tasks which they would never willingly choose for themselves.
John the Baptist belonged to this prophetic tradition in that his message was one calculated to arouse rather than to comfort. Instead of overcoming people's fears, he added to their fears and, to the conventionally pious who listened to him, he said, "You brood of vipers." He reminded them that the chaff would be burned with unquenchable fire. If John gave any word of comfort to the bereaved and the perplexed we do not know what it was.
We sometimes forget that in the teaching of Christ Himself there was this strain which seems to be absolutely anti-thetical to the gospel of comfort. A gospel it undoubtedly is, but it does not sound like good news. The same sort of people who were called a brood of vipers by John were called the same by Christ. He also called them "Whited sepulchers." They were told that they appeared outwardly righteous, while in reality they were full of hypocrisy and iniquity. They claimed to be teachers of others, but Christ called them blind guides. He was not drying their tears, allaying their fears, or giving them courage for the day.
The strongest passage in which Christ proclaims the theme of anti-comfort is that in which He develops the figure of the sword. "Do not think, " He says, "that I have come to bring peace on earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword." In order to make His meaning utterly clear, and to show that His reference to the sword is purely figurative, He goes on to show how disturbing the gospel can be. It can drive people out of all earthly security; it can arouse, it can shake; it can pull asunder.
This phase of Christ's teaching is today utterly shocking to many people. Indeed it is so shocking that there are Christian circles in which it is never mentioned at all. Some persons, who think of themselves as familiar with the Christian faith, actually express surprise when they hear, as for the first time, Christ's words, "Do not think that I came to bring peace on earth." They wonder if something is wrong or if this is a misquotation. "How can this be made consistent," they ask, "with the familiar picture of the lowly Nazarene, healing the sick, comforting the lonely, speaking tenderly to little children?"
However shocking the theme of the Christian sword may be, a little thought will convince us that it is a valid theme. There are many ways in which the gospel, far from making life easier, makes it harder. This may be seen, for example, in the matter of money. To enter Christ's cause does not ordinarily lead to making more money. Indeed it frequently leads to a life in which the disciple makes less, because he cares about many other things as a consequence of his new devotion and not just about making money. Frequently he comes to value much in life that takes away his power of making money. And even when he gets money, his love of the gospel drives him to give away a great deal of it. He knows that a man's true life does not consist in the things that he possesses. He is no longer as free as he was and he is especially not free to use all his own resources to satisfy his own selfish interests or for his own comfort. The person who gives money to the church because he thinks that as a consequence more will come back to him, and in the end he will be richer, has not even begun to understand what the gospel means.
In a similar way the gospel may disturb family life. However deeply we may believe in the recovery of the family and in the wonder and joy which it can represent, it is nevertheless true that a real Christian commitment is frequently a divisive element in family life. There are persons who are drawn to discipleship, but who hold back because of what the family might think. Often the family would be ashamed of such apparent fanaticism. A good many young men, who choose the Christian ministry, enter it against the desires of their fathers and mothers, who wish their sons to be successful men in a secular society. Jesus seemed to understand all this perfectly when He warned those who would follow Him against the supposition that the path would be easy, by saying that a man's foes might be those of his own household.
The most striking area in which a vital Christianity fails to give comfort is in peace of mind and this, no doubt, is what Jesus meant when He said: "Do not suppose that I came to bring peace." Certainly He was not talking about peace between nations. The easy way to have peace of mind is to feel virtuous and righteous. Then there is a notable sense of peace. Such an assumption of righteousness is commonly found in pagan circles, whether ancient or modern. The natural man tends to believe that he is doing pretty well, that he is loving and kind, and that he is fulfilling his responsibilities as well as could reasonably be expected.
Even a small dose of vital Christianity is enough to shake people out of their complacency. When they begin to measure themselves by the standard of Christ, they know that their own personal goodness is poor and shoddy by comparison. Jesus taught all who would learn to pray, not to be satisfied with their moral self-improvement, but to ask forgiveness of sins. A Christian is one who, among other things, admits daily that he has done those things which he ought to have done. Instead of thanking God that he is not as others, he cries out in sincerity, "God be merciful to me, a sinner."
In many areas the gospel, instead of taking away people's burdens, actually adds to them. John Woolman's burdens were multiplied when his deep religious experience brought him to the realization that slavery was evil and contrary to the will of God. After that he could not rest throughout the remainder of his life. In an essentially similar, though less dramatic way, modest lives are every day made more complex by accepting the lordship of Christ. Men are forced to find new forms of ministry and to promote new causes. Occasionally we talk of our Christianity as something that solves problems, and there is a sense in which it does. Long before it does so, however, it increases both the number and the intensity of the problems. Even our intellectual questions are increased by the acceptance of a strong religious faith. The unbeliever is not, for example, bothered by what we call the problem of evil. He is not disturbed by the existence of unmerited suffering in the world, because he has no faith with which this suffering appears to be incompatible. His philosophy may be far more superficial than that of the Christian, but, just because it is usually simpler, it is more easily held without a sense of tragic tension. If a man wishes to avoid the disturbing effect of paradoxes, the best advice is for him to leave the Christian faith alone.
Here then is what appears to be real conflict within the classic religious heritage, steeped as it is in Biblical faith. On the one hand there is the call for comfort, while, on the other, there is the call for disturbance. How can the two be combined, without contradiction, in a valid system of life and faith? Only the surface of this looks impossible, since the two moods appear to be wholly incompatible. It is in the solution of this problem that much of the true glory of the gospel appears, for Christ is able to take us to a deeper level in which both of the valid, yet radically opposed, demands are met simultaneously. The method which Christ uses to accomplish this end involves the marvelous figure of the yoke.
The great yoke passage, which is found at the end of the eleventh chapter of Matthew, begins with the recognition of the validity of the demand for comfort. We see how tender Christ was with all the broken and the needy when He began the great pronouncement by saying, "Come unto me all ye who labor and are heavy laden and I will give you rest." This appears to be the theme of comfort, pure and simple, so we naturally expect Christ to go on and say that the heavy-laden must lay down their burdens, but this is precisely what He does not say. In a really shocking paradox Christ offers rest to the burdened by asking them to share His burden. His solution of the problem of those who are tired with toil is to offer them the world's greatest symbol of toil; namely, the yoke. The yoke means, in some places, that by which a man can, through a device on his shoulders, carry more than he could otherwise carry. In other places it means the harness which animals, either oxen or asses, wear, by which they are able to pull a plow. In any case, the striking fact is that Christ's offer of peace was through the acceptance of new responsiblities and that His offer of rest was through the voluntary sharing of new toil. He did not say that He Himself would remove burdens. What He did say was that, because His yoke was perfectly fitted, His own burden seemed light.
Here we come to the very heart of the paradox of the Christian gospel. The preaching of rest alone is a heresy, and the preaching of disturbance alone is heresy. There is something better than the Second Isaiah and likewise there is something better than John the Baptist. What we seek is a life in which both rest and disturbance come, and come in a way which is not contradictory, because both arise from the deep commitment to Christ and His Kingdom. It make take all our lives to find out what this means, and no doubt we shall never know fully, but, in the idea of Christ's yoke, we have our fundamental clue which can lead to the practical solution of our problem. Comfort comes, but it comes neither lightly nor easily nor quickly. It comes at long last and often after much tragedy and pain. Disturbance we must have, but it is never mere disturbance, because we know that underneath there are everlasting arms. New burdens we must carry, but they can be carried with a triumphant and overcoming joy. We are well on the road toward the fullness of the Christian life when we realize that the paradox of the yoke is the paradox of the gospel.
There may be ways in which references to the simple gospel are accurate, but the paradox of the yoke is not one of them. The answer of the secular psychiatrist, who tries to eliminate a man's sense of guilt instead of seeking to have it both recognized and transcended by reference to the divine forgiveness, is really a far simpler gospel than is the gospel of Christ, and its very simplicity is a mark of its inadequacy. The yoke is a more complex symbol than is the couch. The Christian answer lies, not in the achievement of the easy conscience, but in the achievement of new life.
Because we are accustomed to the phrase "Take my yoke upon you," having heard it often in Handel's Messiah if nowhere else, the great words are no longer shocking to us, but they must have been terribly shocking to those who first heard them. Even our acceptance of the words does not mean acceptance of the idea. Perhaps this is why the symbol of the yoke has been so much less common in Christian history than have the other symbols suggested by Christ's own words. The yoke appears, it is true, in a somewhat disguised form in the clergyman's stole, and during the last few years it has begun to be used as a lapel pin, but for the most part it has been neglected. In contrast, the cross and cup have been used abundantly in nearly all the groups of Christians. A yoke appears in one window of the Seminary Chapel at Gettysburg, but such use is rare.
The neglect of the yoke is understandable when we realize the degree to which it is an affront to our ordinary wishes. Christ does not give us the answer which we naturally desire to have. We want to escape responsibility, but Christ will not let us do so. In both the yoke and the cross He took ideas which must have been revolting to many of His hearers, and transformed them by adding new meaning. In using the word, Christ undoubtedly had something of the rabbinical tradition in mind, according to which a student symbolically accepted the teacher's yoke; however, the major Old Testment connotation of yoke was evil, referring to bondage. In any case, Christ picked up the figure and gave it a new and liberating significance.
The heart of the transvaluation comes in the note of joy. Real freedom, Christ says, is not the absence of limitations on our actions, but the joyous acceptance of the limitations inherent in the new loyalty. As a result there comes a liberation greater than any merely empty or irresponsible freedom can ever bring. The yoke, instead of being a galling instrument, is consequently a harness which is easy to wear. We do not seek peace directly, but it comes ultimately as a by-product of the act of giving ourselves unreservedly to Christ's cause.
We are made to be spent. This is inherent in the very nature of the human situation. The revolting symbol of the yoke, feared and rejected by many Christians even to this day, comes to stand for the chief meaning of the Christian life. What is a Christian? A Christian is one who seeks, in spite of his failures, to wear Christ's yoke with Him. This is not the conclusion of the gospel, but it is a big step on the way. It takes a great deal of thinking to understand in detail what the wearing of the yoke must mean, but at least we know where to start. There is something better than comfort, and there is something better than disturbance. As we try to wear Christ's yoke with Him, we begin to learn what it is.
This sermon is taken from Elton Trueblood's book, 'The Yoke Of Christ And Other Sermons' in its entirity.