A mother, with a child balanced on one hip and a huge sack atop her head filled with items to sell in the market, carefully makes her way through the crowded streets of La Paz, Bolivia. In addition to this physical load, she carries other burdens: economic stress, poor education, health challenges, racial discrimination. Like her sisters the world over, her daily life is characterized by valiant struggle against unimaginable obstacles.
When Jesus promises rest and an easy yoke in today’s Gospel, it is as if he knows precisely how such burdens feel. In this section of Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus takes on the persona of Woman Wisdom, speaking with words and images attributed to her in Proverbs, Wisdom, Sirach and Baruch. In the verses preceding today’s Gospel, the witness of both Jesus and of John the Baptist is rejected, just as was that of Woman Wisdom (Sir 15:7-8; Wis 10:3; Bar 3:12). Jesus, identifying himself as Wisdom incarnate, concludes with the assertion, “Wisdom is vindicated by her deeds” (Mt 11:19). This is followed by Jesus’ denunciation of those towns that have rejected him (vs. 11:20-24). Today’s Gospel is the final section of this chapter, where Jesus, like Woman Wisdom, is a sage who reveals mysteries, interprets Torah and calls disciples.
Jesus, like Wisdom (Sir 51:26), invites disciples to take up his yoke, that is, his instruction. In other places in Scripture, yoke signifies an oppressive burden unwillingly placed on the people’s shoulders, like enslavement in Egypt (Lv 26:13) or exile in Babylon (Is 47:6). God breaks such weighty bonds (Jer 2:20) and replaces them with the yoke of obedience to Torah. Similarly, to take up Jesus’ yoke is to live by his interpretation of Torah. The lightness of Jesus’ yoke is not a lax interpretation of Torah—quite the contrary. He teaches his disciples that merely keeping the law is not good enough; they must go further (Mt 5:21-48). If the law allows “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” (Lv 24:20), Jesus’ disciples must instead try to short-circuit cycles of violence by taking nonviolent action that confronts evildoers, while praying for and loving such enemies (Mt 5:38-48).
Instead of being a restrictive and burdensome way to live, this teaching is freeing; it lightens burdens of oppression. This is the opposite of what some of the other religious leaders of Jesus’ day do: “They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others, but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them” (Mt 23:4). By contrast, disciples of Jesus are yoked with him and with one another, intent on lifting the weight born of injustice from the backs of the downtrodden.
The rest that is promised by Jesus echoes that bestowed on those who let themselves be yoked to Woman Wisdom’s teaching (Sir 6:28). It also echoes that of the Creator (Gn 2:1-3), who rested in order to delight in the goodness of all that had been made while setting creation free to flourish. Woman Wisdom, also present at creation (Prv 8:23-31), shares in this unbounded joy.
When believing communities gather to share Sabbath rest, we celebrate the divine delight in creation (Ex 20:8-11) and our participation in the recreative and liberating work of the Holy One, embodied in Jesus, who is Wisdom incarnate, intent on teaching the way that lifts heavy yokes.