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The Yoke of Discipleship

Unpacking the wisdom of Christ in Matthew 11:25-30

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There are few passages in all four Gospels that people find more inspirational than Matthew 11:25-30. Here we encounter Jesus portrayed as a wisdom teacher revealing hidden mysteries about God, the kingdom of God and the divine mutuality that exists between himself and the Father. What is most surprising in all this is not only the content of the revelation, but most especially its intended recipients — the childlike. The Greek word used here is nepios, which means a very young child or infant. The passage closes with a remarkable invitation by Jesus extended to all “who labor and are burdened” (Mt 11:28) and in need of rest.

The very positive tone of these verses is in sharp contrast to the context within which they appear. Matthew 11:2-24 emphasizes the growing opposition Jesus has received from Israel. He has just excoriated the towns of Chorazin, Bethsaida, Tyre, Sidon and even Capernaum, his home away from home. These places represent the strong and expanding rejection Jesus has experienced from people he believes should have accepted him and his message. However, it is right in the midst of all this negativity that the tone of Jesus’ teaching changes dramatically. It moves from the language of condemnation to that of praise and thanksgiving. In order to appreciate the spiritual richness Jesus is offering here, we need first to look carefully at its content.
 

Sayings of Revelation: What They Reveal

Matthew 11:25-30 consists of three sayings that originally were separate and independent. Each saying, however, reveals something about Jesus; thus they generally can be categorized as “sayings of revelation.”

“At that time Jesus said in reply, ‘I give praise to you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, for although you have hidden these things from the wise and the learned you have revealed them to the childlike. Yes, Father, such has been your gracious will’” (vv. 11:25-26).

‘With the Help of Christ
“Let us trust in him who has
placed this burden upon us.
What we ourselves cannot
bear let us bear with
the help
of Christ. For he is all-powerful
and he tells us: My yoke is easy
and my burden is light.”
— St. Boniface

The first saying is a prayer of thanksgiving or praise that calls to mind a very similar kind of Jewish prayer such as found in Sirach 51:1-12. Jesus is thanking the Father for hiding “these things” from the wise and the learned and revealing them to the childlike. This necessarily leads us to ask what is meant by the phrase “these things.” These things constitute the significance of Jesus’ words and deeds, along with the secret of God’s kingdom. In all this, Jesus acknowledges the sovereignty, wisdom and grace of the hidden God, echoing the prophet Isaiah: “Truly with you God is hidden, the God of Israel, the savior!” (Is 45:15). The “wise and the learned” in Matthew’s context seems to point primarily to the scribes and the Pharisees who consistently reject Jesus. Whoever they are, they seem to be separate from ordinary people. On the other hand, the “childlike” seem to be the disciples of Jesus (see Mt 13:11). They respond positively to his teaching, thus becoming like children who totally are dependent on and trust in their parents (Mt 18:2-4). They clearly are not the religious elite. All of this is understood to be part of the Father’s gracious will.

“All things have been handed over to me by my Father. No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son wishes to reveal him” (v. 11:27).

The second saying in this passage is referred to by one commentator as “the thunderbolt from the Johannine heaven.” The reason for this is that the language of the saying is very similar to what one finds throughout the Gospel of John. In this verse, Jesus describes his special relationship with the Father in terms of divine mutuality. Most scholars attribute this verse to the theological reflection of the early Church and not to Jesus himself. It is understood as a commentary on Matthew 11:25-26. It explains how the revelation that is hidden from the wise and learned takes place with the childlike. At the heart of divine mutuality is the special relationship that exists between the Father and the Son. Not only does the Son know the Father, but the Son has also received from the Father “all things.” The remarkable aspect of all this is that the Son is willing and eager to share that entire relationship and all it implies with others.

Verse 27 played an important role in the early Church’s development and defense of the doctrine of the Trinity. Most of the patristic commentators considered this verse to be the actual words of the historical Jesus. It was understood to be a declaration by Christ himself of his own divinity. The Son, as here described, was the Second Person of the Trinity. The verse was used to oppose Arianism, which was a significant Christological controversy of the fourth century of the common era. However, in the modern era of biblical studies, Verse 27 is no longer considered to be the very words of Jesus himself. Today, the emphasis is on the human Jesus who, by the fact of the Incarnation, shares a special and unique relationship with the Father. In the Son and his revelation, God is at work. Without Jesus, God’s divinity is not conceivable. Without the Father, there is no way to Jesus. Both belong together. God becomes understandable only as the gift of the Son, and only by revelation. What this one verse calls us all to understand is that one cannot comprehend God apart from Jesus.

The ceiling fresco of The Holy Trinity in the Chiesa di Santa Croce by Giovanni Maria Conti della Camera (1614-70).
Renata Sedmakova / Shutterstock.com

“Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart; and you will find rest for yourselves. For my yoke is easy, and my burden light” (vv. 11:28-30).

The third and final saying of this passage is an invitation from Jesus extended to all those who find themselves burdened. The burden implied here is not an overabundance of work nor the never-ending presence of sin. Here the burden Jesus refers to is the weight of the law laid upon common people in and through the interpretations given it by the scribes and the Pharisees. Once again, Jesus assumes the role of a wisdom teacher. Wisdom is to be found in the teaching and person of Jesus. The background from which he speaks and acts can be found articulated in Sirach 24:19-22; 51:23-29; and Proverbs 8:1-21, 32-36. What Jesus offers and invites people to share in is rest. This rest can be found in wisdom. Life with wisdom brings joy, fulfillment, freedom, clarity and power. This rest that Jesus promises is not the same as inactivity or a lifelong vacation from the law. Remember, Jesus came to fulfill the law and the prophets. The key here is that the way Jesus proposes to fulfill the law and the prophets will not be burdensome. Jesus will always be concerned with the law’s emphasis on justice, mercy, faithfulness and loving God and one’s neighbor. Yet Jesus’ approach to all this will be very different from that of the scribes and Pharisees. Jesus likens his approach to a “yoke.”

The Greek word translated as “yoke” is zygos. It was a wooden frame carefully constructed to control working animals and evenly balance between them the load being carried. It allowed the work animals (mostly oxen) to become a team sharing a common task. In effect, it lightened their load. When used metaphorically in relation to humans, a yoke was something to expedite the bearing of burdens. Jesus’ yoke is the yoke of wisdom, and it is a benevolent yoke. This is the yoke that Jesus himself wears. He does not simply impose his yoke on his followers. Jesus himself shares the burden that, in effect, lightens it. Those who labor and are burdened become partners with Jesus by taking his yoke and learning from him. As partners with Jesus, our yoke becomes easy and our burden light.
 

Jesus and the Teaching of Wisdom

The message of Jesus by no means is reserved for the wise and the learned. In fact, it is purposely shaped for the childlike. The Gospel is not about advanced elitism. The Gospel is about the Son who graciously reveals all he knows about the Father to those who are open to him and accept him in faith. These are referred to as the “childlike” because they have no power, prestige or special status. What they do have is faith in who Jesus is and what he does.

‘His Yoke is Freedom’
“It’s because we love freedom that
we tie ourselves down. Only pride
sees such bonds as a heavy chain.
True humility, which is taught us
by the One who is meek and humble
of heart, shows that his yoke is easy
and his burden light: his yoke is
freedom and love and unity; his
yoke is the life which he won for
us on the cross.”
— St. Josemaría Escriva

The childlike do not learn from those such as the scribes and Pharisees. They learn by paying careful attention to two very important qualities of Jesus. He is gentle and humble of heart, and he invites all of us to participate in his rest.

Jesus himself is the one who shows us the good way, where the restless can find rest for their souls. As St. Augustine is quoted as saying, “Whatever is hard in what is demanded of us, love makes easy.”

I would like to carry these thoughts even further and propose that the sayings of Matthew 11:25-30 have special meaning and challenge for those called to exercise priestly ministry in our Church today. The demands of the priesthood seem to be increasing almost day by day. Many priests feel incompetent to deal with the administrative demands that characterize so much of what contemporary pastoral ministry has become. Pope Francis has seemed to be a breath of fresh air for many priests as he continues to promote a less frenzied and more personalized approach to ministry. He continues to emphasis the joy of the Gospel. In many ways, Pope Francis reflects the values that we have seen expressed in the sayings of Matthew 11:25-30. Thus I would like to suggest that priests could read this passage as a paradigm for their own contemporary pastoral ministry.
 

Lessons for Priests

A good place to begin is to remind ourselves that much of what goes on in priestly ministry today comes hidden in mystery. The intelligent and the learned are not always the best sources for uncovering this mystery. Jesus comments that he is glad such things have been revealed to the childlike. In the Gospel text, this probably refers to the disciples of Jesus. Today it could be applied to all priests who carry out their ministry without striving for status, prestige or special power. For most of the challenges of priestly ministry, there are no answers in the back of the book. At the heart of everything a priest is and does is the person of Christ. All priestly ministry is by nature Christocentric. It is Jesus the Son who reveals all these things to us. What we know about the Father comes to us through the Son. And priestly ministry extends that revelation to all those to whom priests are called to serve.

St. John Chrysostom
on Matthew 11
“Since then so great are its benefits,
so great its security, so great its
gladness, let us with all our soul, with
all our diligence, draw this yoke; that
we may both here find rest unto our
souls, and attain unto the good things
to come, by the grace and love toward
man of our Lord Jesus Christ, to whom
be glory and might, now and ever, and
world without end. Amen.”
— Homily 38 on Matthew

A second point focuses on the call Jesus extends to all who labor and are burdened. What priest would not consider himself a member of this group? What is interesting here is that the object of the call is not to embrace some form of workaholism, but rather to rest. Jesus promises us a ministry that is not burdensome, precisely because Jesus himself is our partner. It is a shared ministry wherein we are yoked with Jesus. Jesus himself provides the needed balance. This intimate connection with Jesus is the means whereby we learn from him. And what we learn is the necessity of our ministry being rooted in meekness and humility of heart. Here meekness implies not being overly impressed by a sense of one’s self-importance. Humble of heart means being unpretentious. It is precisely this meekness and being humble of heart that supplies the environment of rest that Jesus calls us to embrace. This rest is not idleness but rather the peace, contentment and fullness of life that comes with knowing and doing the truth as revealed by God’s Son. Jesus declares his yoke to be easy and his burden light. This is the yoke Jesus himself wears, and his call to follow him in ministry is an invitation to share with Jesus this very same yoke.
 

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Finally, pay attention to the context within which this passage is found. Prior to Matthew 11:25-30, Jesus is surrounded by negativity expressed in terms of opposition, division and rejection — mostly from his own people. He does not respond in kind. He does not let all the negativity he experiences consume him, neither does he run from it. Instead, Jesus moves beyond the negativity and centers his response in wisdom. Jesus is portrayed as a teacher steeped in wisdom. A major characteristic of wisdom teachers is their approach to life. They appreciate life, love life, value it and enjoy it. Wisdom teachers know that what they have learned over time are not the same lessons as the so-called intelligent, powerful and entitled have learned. The wisdom teacher focuses on the well-being of the community and each of its members. Wisdom is not interested in accumulating power and influence. It is interested in achieving peace, wholeness and rest. Wisdom knows that our burden will be lightened if we yoke ourselves to the source and revelation of all things. It is Jesus, the teacher of wisdom, who invites us to come to him, and he will give us rest.

Obviously the teaching of Matthew 11:25-30 is not limited to the clergy. Jesus extends his invitation to find rest in his teaching to all who believe he is the Son of God and, as such, has access to special revelation that he is willing to share with all believers. Those who are willing “to yoke” themselves to Jesus will learn from him what it means to be meek and humble of heart. These are the virtues that lead to rest. And it is in this rest that one experiences the joy of the Gospel. In the words of Pope Francis’ Evangelii Gaudium: “In fidelity to the example of the Master, it is vitally important for the Church today to go forth and preach the Gospel to all: to all places, on all occasions, without hesitation, reluctance or fear. The joy of the Gospel is for all people: no one can be excluded” (No. 23).

FATHER EUGENE HENSELL, OSB, is a monk of St. Meinrad Archabbey in St. Meinrad, Indiana, and an associate professor of Scripture at St. Meinrad Seminary and School of Theology.