Is there a more heart-warming passage than the verses we are considering this morning? Let me read Jesus’ invitation:
Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. 29 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. 30 For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”
Here is the gentle, mild Jesus calling upon the weary to find rest in him. It is the voice of the Lamb calling out to his little lambs. Now I know the problem is with me, but I need to express my unsettled feelings about this image of Jesus, even what Jesus says about himself.
To be honest, gentle is not the first characteristic that comes to my mind when I think of Jesus. No doubt, there are times like in this passage, when he speaks in a gentle manner, but there are too many other instances in which, quite frankly, he scares me. Just look at the passage before this one.
“Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the mighty works done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. 22 But I tell you, it will be more bearable on the day of judgment for Tyre and Sidon than for you. 23 And you, Capernaum, will you be exalted to heaven? You will be brought down to Hades. For if the mighty works done in you had been done in Sodom, it would have remained until this day. 24 But I tell you that it will be more tolerable on the day of judgment for the land of Sodom than for you” (11:21-24).
Or take this example as he wraps up his famous Sermon on the Mount:
“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. 22 On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ 23 And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness’” (7:21-23).
I could go on, but you get the picture. So when I hear Jesus referring to himself as gentle, I’m not cynical, just a bit timid about assuming that he will be gentle with me.
The other part of this call by Jesus that unsettles me is what he says about his yoke: 30 For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”
Really? Let me read some more from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount:
“But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire…
“But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart. 29 If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell…39 …Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also…44 …Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you…48 You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (5:22, 28, 29, 39; 44, 48).
Or one more example of the many that express the hardship of discipleship:
Then Jesus told his disciples, "If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. 25For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (16:23-25).
So again, I am a bit timid responding to this gentle, warm call to find rest. But let’s proceed. There are three aspects to Jesus’ call. There is the caller Jesus; there is the called, the heavy laden; and there is the call itself, to come to Jesus.
Despite my misgivings, Jesus gives a mild description of himself: “I am gentle and lowly in heart.” Did you know that only in the Gospel of Matthew is Jesus referred to in terms like these? I did a word search of “gentle,” “lowly,” “meek,” and “humble.” Nothing. The only other reference in Matthew is from a quote in Zechariah 9:9 explaining Jesus’ mode of entrance into Jerusalem: “Behold your king is coming to you humble and mounted on a donkey” (Matthew 21:5).
Maybe I wasn’t wrong to be thrown off with these adjectives of mildness. Maybe mildness is not what Jesus was getting at about himself. Perhaps it has more to do with his perspective of his ministry. Follow along with me. I’ve already shown that Jesus was not hesitant to warn people of judgment and to make clear the cost of discipleship. But when it came to what he actually did, mercy is what best describes his ministry.
John the Baptist, sitting in prison and evidently having some doubt about Jesus doing what he expected of a Messiah, sent his own disciples to ask bluntly if he was the “one.” Jesus replied this way: “Go and tell John what you hear and see: 5 the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them. 6 And blessed is the one who is not offended by me” (11:4-6).
Do you remember John’s depiction of the Messiah? “He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire” (3:11-12)
There will be a time for judgment. Jesus speaks of himself being the judge who will separate the sheep from the goats. He himself will cast out from his presence “workers of lawlessness.” But not now. Now is the time for mercy. Now is the time to save sinners from judgment. Look at 9:10-12:
And as Jesus reclined at table in the house, behold, many tax collectors and sinners came and were reclining with Jesus and his disciples. 11 And when the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” 12 But when he heard it, he said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. 13 Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.’ For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.”
He is going to say those same words about mercy in the next passage in chapter 12. His disciples are being criticized for eating a snack on the Sabbath. They are plucking heads of grain (which is allowed by law), rubbing the grains in their hands, and then eating. That looks too much like work for the Pharisees, and nobody is suppose to be working on the Sabbath! Jesus closes his response with these words: “And if you had known what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the guiltless” (12:7).
“I am merciful.” That is what Jesus is saying. His coming down to earth; his taking on the flesh of man; his living the life of a peasant; his healing and preaching of the good news – all of these gentle, lowly acts are done that he might show mercy. This is the caller.
Consider now who the called are. Jesus calls them those “who labor and are heavy laden.” What is weighing them down? In Matthew 23:4, Jesus makes this criticism of the scribes and the Pharisees: “They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people’s shoulders…” He is referring to the traditions added on to the Law to make sure the Law was not violated. Perhaps the problem is the Law itself. In the early church, the big debate was whether or not Gentiles should have to obey the Law of Moses. At one council meeting, Peter made this argument: “Now, therefore, why are you putting God to the test by placing a yoke on the neck of the disciples that neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear? But we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will” (Acts 15:10-11).
Remember what the Law and the traditions were for – they were the means by which one could be accepted by God. They either helped people avoid sin or, once sin was committed, then to atone for sin. One only felt the yoke of the Law and its traditions if one felt the guilt of sin. Two types of people had no problem with such guilt. One – with whom Jesus was the harshest – were the religious types who were quite satisfied with their righteousness. They liked the Law. Going through all the rituals and keeping the rules gave them a sense of achievement. “See what I can do!” It also gave them a sense of moral superiority. The other type simply didn’t concern themselves about sin, at least not about how they stood before God. They liked sin! Greed, lust, drunkenness – what’s the problem? The Apostle Paul adds a third type in Romans – the morally good person, but that’s because he is addressing Gentiles who did not have the same view of the Law as Jews.
Jesus has no words to say to any of these persons – the religious self-righteous, the care-less sinner, or the “I’m morally good” person. As he had earlier said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick” (9:12).
And who recognize they are sick. Such persons labor under the heavy burden of trying to achieve acceptance with God. They know their sinfulness, and it troubles them. They try to reform and are disheartened by their failure. They try to obey all the laws and meet all the requirements, and they are wearied by their failing efforts. Trying to earn acceptance by God is a heavy burden.
To such persons Jesus calls out, “Come to me.”
That then leaves the matter of what he calls them to. This is two-fold – there is what he calls them to do and what they will receive as a result. First of all, what they are to do: “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me…”
Now I’ve already expressed my wariness about that yoke. But Jesus says his yoke is easy and his burden is light. How can that be? In the Sermon on the Mount, his response to the Law is to make it more difficult to follow than any of the traditions of the religious leaders. That doesn’t sound like an easy yoke or a light burden.
The key to understanding might be in the phrase “learn from me.” We take this as meaning learn from what Jesus teaches. But the Greek preposition can also be translated “of,” which is how the King James Version records it. We will let the scholars debate the linguistics arguments, but however one decides, what every Christian understands is that the message of Jesus is himself. He is not a mere teacher pointing to the way; he is the way.
Remember Jesus’ last sentence to John’s disciples? “And blessed is the one who is not offended by me.” Jesus’ anger against the cities of Chorazin and Bethsaida comes from them rejecting him. He had displayed works that qualify him as the Messiah and they ignore him. After he talks about mercy in response to the Pharisees about working on the Sabbath, he concludes, “For the Son of Man is lord of the Sabbath.” “I determine what is the right and the wrong way to observe my Sabbath.”
Jesus is saying to the weary and heavy laden, “Come to me. Learn me.” He is the Messiah. He is the Anointed One come to save his people. What does he require of them? To believe him. To believe in him. To take on the yoke of faith. Faith is what Jesus wants from us. You can see how much faith means to him in his reaction to a Gentile centurion who expressed faith in Jesus as one of authority.
When Jesus heard this, he marveled and said to those who followed him, “Truly, I tell you, with no one in Israel have I found such faith. 11 I tell you, many will come from east and west and recline at table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven, 12 while the sons of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (8:10-12).
Faith in Jesus is what determines who will be accepted by God, who will recline at the table and who will be cast out. It is in response to Jesus in faith that he will give you rest. Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. 29 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. 30 For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”
See how it works out? Come to Jesus and he will give you rest. Take the yoke of faith in him and you will find rest for your souls. You will find rest from your labor of trying to be good enough and of trying to make enough amends for your sins. The Lord of the Sabbath will give you Sabbath rest.
What about those tough sayings of Jesus about how to live? They are good teachings that reveal to us what a real life of goodness is. They show how trivial our own ideas and efforts are at a righteous life, indeed how impossible it is to truly please a holy God. But what they are no longer to us is to be yet another yoke to bear as we labor toward God’s acceptance.
The work is over. No more figuring out the rules; no more keeping check lists; no more adding enough good credits to outweigh your bad debits. Just resting in your Savior. That is a rather light yoke, isn’t it?
Come, come now to this gentle Savior who has humbled himself so he can save you. Come, acknowledge who you really are – a sinner, one who needs the healing touch of this good physician. Come, take the yoke of faith. Believe in this Anointed One who labored mightily on your behalf that you might have rest.
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