These are among the most beloved and quoted verses in the Bible, because all of us feel burdened and in need of rest.
Jesus is addressing the crowds who are following Him, “harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd” (Matthew 9:36): “Come to Me”. The Pharisees weighed them down with an endless series of petty regulations (cf. Acts 15:10), yet they brought no peace to their souls.
In their original context, these verses spoke specifically to those burdened by the Jewish law. Rabbis often spoke of the yoke of the law (Aboth 3:5) or of the commandments (Berakoth 2:2), but always in praise. To accept this yoke, they said, is to put off the yoke of earthly monarchies and worldly care” (Johnson, 390). They have a point. We cannot choose to serve no master at all, but can choose only which master we will serve. The yoke of the law is better than the yoke of the world, because the yoke of the law is God-inspired. In the hands of the scribes and Pharisees, however, the yoke of the law became almost as burdensome as the yoke of the world.
Jesus does not propose that we go yoke-less, but that we accept his yoke, which is chrestos — “manageable, i.e., mild, pleasant (as opposed to harsh, hard, sharp)” (Thayer, 671). A well-made yoke distributes the load evenly, making the task easier. A well-fitted yoke follows the contours of the oxen’s neck so that it does not rub or chaff. “At certain points (Jesus’) interpretation [of the law] will be more lenient (Sabbath observance), at others more stringent (divorce) than that of the Pharisees, but law observance as a whole will be simplified by his emphasis on ‘the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness’ (23:23) and on the double commandment of love (22:37-40) (Hare, 128-129).
While the original context referred to the burden of the Jewish law, there is nothing in these words to suggest that they should not also extend to our weariness and burdens today. We are weary today, even though we do not observe the Jewish law. We are burdened by many things:
- concerns about jobs — marriage — money — health — children — security — old age
- tough choices
- criticism or opposition
- loneliness and emptiness
- and a thousand other things
- If you feel life is burdensome and tiresome “Jesus says now and always, `Come to Me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.’ His attitude towards us is one of invitation, knowledge and compassion; indeed, it is one of offering, promise, friendship, goodness, remedy of our ailments; He is our comforter; indeed, our nourishment, our bread, giving us energy and life” (Pope Paul VI, “Homily on Corpus Christi”, 13 June 1974). Therefore, “All you who go about tormented, afflicted and burdened with the burden of your cares and desires, go forth from them, come to Me and I will refresh you and you shall find for your souls the rest which your desires take from you” (St. John of the Cross, “Ascent of Mount Carmel”, Book 1, Chapter 7, 4).
Jesus’ concern for our burdens is as real as his concern for law-burdened Jews of his day. His promise is also as real. “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest” (Mt 11:28) Jesus still does that! Jesus still gives us rest