This Saturday, I watched OU defeat Tulane in NCAA football (barely), UT defeat Louisiana (handily), Georgia defeat Clemson (suspensefully), and Alabama defeat Miami (of course). Along the way, I monitored the third round of the PGA Tour Championship and watched the Texas Rangers play baseball (sort of).
In other words, it was a typical Labor Day holiday. Watching sports has become synonymous with the symbolic last weekend of summer, as have barbecues, family outings, blockbuster movies, and anything else we can do to create a few days of rest and retreat.
But the world is waiting for our return tomorrow, of course.
As the death toll from flooding in the Northeast climbs above fifty people, the Washington Post reports that nearly one in three Americans experienced a weather disaster this summer. Meanwhile, the hiring slowdown in August shows Delta’s impact as the coronavirus pandemic continues to affect every part of our lives. Here’s a surprising consequence of the pandemic: auto thefts have spiked as people have left their cars unattended for longer than usual.
The Labor Day holiday offers us a respite from all of this. But wouldn’t it be wonderful to find a source of rest and peace that sustains and empowers us not just for a weekend, but for every day of the year?
An amazing invitation
In Matthew 11, Jesus issues this amazing and encouraging invitation: “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” (vv. 28–30). Each word repays study and reflection.
Let’s begin with verse 28:
- “Come” is better translated as hurry or come hither.
- “To me” is Jesus’ invitation to hurry to him—not to the church, or religion, or other people, or ourselves. Go to Jesus now. Don’t wait until tomorrow or the end of this day.
- “All” means all. No person on our planet is excluded, including you.
- “Labor” translates the Greek word for working. This is active—those who are working hard to advance their careers, help their families, and serve God and his church.
- “Heavy laden,” by contrast, is passive, referring to burdens placed on us by other people. The original context was the Jewish law (cf. Acts 15:10) in which the people were given 613 laws to keep, but it refers to any expectations or requirements placed on us by someone else.
- “I will give you rest” could be translated, “I will rest you.” Note the word will—this is Jesus’ guarantee to us.
- “Yoke” refers to the typical means of guiding working animals in Jesus’ day. The farmer used the yoke to tell the ox where to go, what to do, and how fast, far, and long to do it. The yoke guided every part of the ox every moment that it was worn.
- “Take my yoke upon you” thus means to submit to Jesus’ will completely. We are to bear no yoke but his. To take his yoke, we refuse the yoke of our own pride and ambitions, the yoke of others’ expectations, the yoke of cultural definitions of success. We can wear only one yoke at a time—we are to wear his.
- “Learn from me” repeats this invitation in a different way. The phrase could be rendered, “Enroll in my school.” In Jesus’ day, a student gave his life to his teacher, following him twenty-four hours a day. Students were not just learners but holistic disciples.
- “I am gentle” shows why we should enroll in Jesus’ school. “Gentle” translates praus, which describes the person who always does the right thing. Because Jesus’ will for us is “perfect” (Romans 12:2), we can trust him with every dimension of our lives and days.
- “Lowly in heart” points to his humility, the fact that he came to serve (Mark 10:45), and that he only and always wants our best.
- “I will give you rest” repeats Jesus’ promise of verse 28 for emphasis.
- “My yoke is easy”—easy means that his yoke fits well. An ancient tradition says that Jesus the carpenter made the best yokes in all of Galilee, and that over his carpenter’s shop there was the sign, “My yokes fit well.” If the yoke is well-fitted to the animal, it is “easy” to bear. Jesus alone knows what purpose best fits our gifts, abilities, shortcomings, experiences, education, and future. His yoke alone fits well.
- “My burden is light”—if the strap fits well, the backpack is light. If the yoke fits well, the burden attached to it is light. If your burden is heavy today, check your yoke.
What happens when we wear Jesus’ yoke
You are wearing someone’s yoke today. If you are wearing any yoke but the one Jesus intends for you, you can find rest only by taking it off for a while, getting away for a holiday weekend, or finding other ways to distract from your stress and retreat from your pressures. But your yoke is always waiting for your return.
However, Jesus’ yoke will bring you rest every moment of every day. It will bring you rest in the midst of your work and the burdens you bear. It will lead you to a life of eternal significance and present fulfillment. It will produce the “fruit of the Spirit” in your life—the love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control you will find nowhere else (Galatians 5:22).
Henri Nouwen expressed well the difference Jesus makes when we wear his yoke by trusting our lives completely to his leadership and care:
“Today I thought of the words of Vincent van Gogh: ‘It is true there is an ebb and flow, but the sea remains the sea.’ You are the sea. Although I experience many ups and downs in my emotions and often feel great shifts and changes in my inner life, you remain the same. Your sameness is not the sameness of a rock, but the sameness of a faithful lover.
“Out of your love I came to life, by your love I am sustained, and to your love I am always called back. There are days of sadness and days of joy; there are feelings of guilt and feelings of gratitude; there are moments of failure and moments of success; but all of them are embraced by your unwavering love. . . . O Lord, sea of love and goodness, let me not fear too much the storms and winds of my daily life, and let me know there is ebb and flow but the sea remains the sea.”
Whose yoke are you wearing today?