THE ACCENT OF COMPASSION
“Come to me, all you who are exhausted and weighted down beneath your burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn of 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.”
Jesus spoke to men desperately trying to find God and desperately trying to be good, who were finding the tasks impossible and who were driven to weariness and to despair.
He says, “Come unto me all you who are exhausted.” His invitation is to those who are exhausted with the search for the truth. The Greeks had said, “It is very difficult to find God, and, when you have found him, it is impossible to tell anyone else about him.” Zophar demanded of Job: “Can you find out the deep things of God?” (Jb.11:7). It is Jesus’ claim that the weary search for God ends in himself. W. B. Yeats, the great Irish poet and mystic, wrote: “Can one reach God by toil? He gives himself to the pure in heart. He asks nothing but our attention.” The way to know God is not by mental search, but by giving attention to Jesus Christ, for in him we see what God is like.
He says, “Come unto me all you who are weighted down beneath your burdens.” For the orthodox Jew religion was a thing of burdens. Jesus said of the Scribes and Pharisees: “They bind heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on men’s shoulders” (Matt. 23:4). To the Jew religion was a thing of endless rules. A man lived his life in a forest of regulations which dictated every action of his life. He must listen for ever to a voice which said, “Thou shalt not.”
Even the Rabbis saw this. There is a kind of rueful parable put into the mouth of Korah, which shows just how binding and constricting and burdensome and impossible the demands of the Law could be. “There was a poor widow in my neighbourhood who had two daughters and a field. When she began to plough, Moses (i.e. the Law of Moses) said, `You must not plough with an ox and an ass together.’ When she began to sow, he said, `You must not sow your field with mingled seed.’ When she began to reap and to make stacks of corn, he said, `When you reap your harvest in your field, and have forgotten a sheaf in the field, you shall not go back to get it’ (Deut.24:19), and `you shall not reap your field to its very border’ (Lev.19:9). She began to thresh, and he said, `Give me the heave-offering, and the first and second tithe.’ She accepted the ordinance and gave them all to him.
What did the poor woman then do? She sold her field, and bought two sheep, to clothe herself from their fleece, and to have profit from their young. When they bore their young, Aaron (i.e. the demands of the priesthood) came and said, `Give me the first-born.’ So she accepted the decision, and gave them to him. When the shearing time came, and she sheared them, Aaron came and said, `Give me the first of the fleece of the sheep’ (Deut.18:4). Then she thought: `I cannot stand up against this man. I will slaughter the sheep and eat them.’ Then Aaron came and said, `Give me the shoulder and the two cheeks and the stomach’ (Deut.18:3). Then she said, `Even when I have killed them I am not safe from you. Behold they shall be devoted.’ Then Aaron said, `In that case they belong entirely to me’ (Num.18:14). He took them and went away and left her weeping with her two daughters.” The story is a parable of the continuous demands that the Law made upon men in every action and activity of life.
These demands were indeed a burden.
Jesus invites us to take his yoke upon our shoulders. The Jews used the phrase the yoke for entering into submission to. They spoke of the yoke of the Law, the yoke of the commandments, the yoke of the Kingdom, the yoke of God. But it may well be that Jesus took the words of his invitation from something much nearer home than that.
He says, “My yoke is easy.” The word “easy” is in Greek chrestos (GSN5543), which can mean well-fitting. In Palestine ox-yokes were made of wood; the ox was brought, and the measurements were taken. The yoke was then roughed out, and the ox wigs brought back to have the yoke tried on. The yoke was carefully adjusted, so that it would fit well, and not gall the neck of the patient beast. The yoke was tailor-made to fit the ox.
There is a legend that Jesus made the best ox-yokes in all Galilee, and that from all over the country men came to him to buy the best yokes that skill could make. In those days, as now, shops had their signs above the door; and it has been suggested that the sign above the door of the carpenter’s shop in Nazareth may well have been: “My yokes fit well.” It may well be that Jesus is here using a picture from the carpenter’s shop in Nazareth where he had worked throughout the silent years.
Jesus says, “My yoke fits well.” What he means is: “The life I give you is not a burden to gall you; your task is made to measure to fit you.” Whatever God sends us is made to fit our needs and our abilities exactly.
Jesus says, “My burden is light.” As a Rabbi had it: “My burden is become my song.” It is not that the burden is easy to carry; but it is laid on us in love; it is meant to be carried in love; and love makes even the heaviest burden light. When we remember the love of God, when we know that our burden is to love God and to love men, then the burden becomes a song. There is an old story which tells how a man came upon a little boy carrying a still smaller boy, who was lame, upon his back. “That’s a heavy burden for you to carry,” said the man. “That’s no’ a burden,” came the answer. “That’s my wee brother.” The burden which is given in love and carried in love is always light.
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