The disciple is not bereft of consolation from Christ in the midst of the fierce battle against evil that precedes the full coming of the kingdom. There is joy in the forgiveness of sins that comes from Him, and Him alone. There is joy in serving Him accoring to His will.
In Matthew, and only in Matthew, are “the comfortable words” (Book of Common Prayer, 1928, p.76) of Jesus: “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” (Matthew 11: 28 ESV) These words are employed in a hymn written by Horatio Bonar, set to a tune by sixteenth century English composer, Thomas Tallis, “I Heard The Voice of Jesus Say.”
At the center of the maelstrom that is the world the disciple finds comfort in His relationship with Christ. The heavy laden disciple is invited to rest in Christ. Then Jesus continues: “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.” (Mattrhew 11: 29 ESV) The disciple is heavy laden, but Christ gives rest; Christ places a yoke on us, but despite the yoke the disciple will yet find rest.
How can this be? Matthew 23 may give us more insight. The Greek word for burden in its nominal and verbal forms is rarely used in the New Testament In Matthew it occurs in Chapters 11 and 23. In Matthew 23 Jesus delivers sharp criticism of the scribes and Pharisees. He instructs the disciples and the crowd to follow what the leaders say but not what they do. The Lord finds in them a contradiction in what they preach and practice. One must practice what he preaches. It is in this chapter that Jesus again uses the word for burden. The Jewish leaders burden the people with heavy burdens, but they do not burden themselves. They do their deeds to be seen. Thus far, we find three criticisms of the Jewish elite. They burden others but not themselves; they do not practice what they preach; and they do good deeds to be seen by others for their commendation. Jesus calls the people to humble, not exalt themselves.
Then follow woes, rather than blessings, against the scribes and Pharisees. Jesus accuses them of shutting people out of the kingdom of heaven; corrupting new believers, called proselytes; teaching a moral casuistry (reasoning) that does not lead to righteousness; failing to teach “the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others.” (Matthew 23: 23b ESV) The scribes are accused of taking care to follow rules of cleanliness, but are full of greed and self-indulgence. The leaders are clean on the outside but unclean on the inside. They are hypocrites and lawless, not righteous. The leaders assert that they would have not killed prophets and wisemen of the past, yet they persecute those of their time. Ironically, Jesus’ death would occur in a few days at the hands of the Roman governor and the Jewish leadership in Jerusalem.
Jesus calls the leaders hypocrites, blind guides, whitewashed tombs, lawless, serpents, and a brood of vipers. He follows His criticism with a lament that the people of Jerusalem have rejected His protection. Judgment will take place. Jesus does not follow the rules of engagement concerning not calling people names. But, He explains why He calls them what He does. The names are accurate descriptions. May we also use accurate descriptions in debate and use them sparingly, if at all? Finally, Jesus is pronouncing judgment as the Son of God. We are sons and daughters of God, but not the Son of God. He is the Son by nature, we by grace. We do not consign people to heaven or hell. Only God does.
Jesus is the opposite of these false leaders. He practices what He preaches and calls HIs disciples to righteousness. In the Sermon on the Mount, where He also criticizes the leaders of the time, He calls on His disciples to bear fruit, practice righteousness, and put the kingdom of heaven first. But, how can we live sup to the standards of the kingdom? Is not Christ’s yoke a heavy burden also?
The yoke which Christ places on us is for righteousness and the kingdom; that of the leaders is for hell. There is the enormous difference. Christ gives us the rest and the easy burden that is associated with the kingdom that He announces has come and is coming.
The disciple of Christ finds rest in Christ and knows the joys of serving Him. The way of discipleship is difficult, but it is not measured by its difficulty but by the joy one knows in service of Christ. Through difficult times, the witness and apologist of Christ will find rest in Christ and His burden light.
Michael G. Tavella
December 1, 2019