Why did Jesus say, “Take my yoke upon you”?

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Jesus’ words to the crowd on the Mount of Beatitudes are often quoted because they sound so “nice”, but we can miss their deeper meaning if we fail to put them into context:

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. (Mt. 11:28-30)

Do these words just make Jesus a nice guy — or is there something more?

If we looked for all the occurrences of “yoke” in the Old Testament, we’d see it closely associated with

  • a heavy burden
  • oppression
  • slavery
  • force

When an animal or a slave wore a yoke, they were controlled by a master and bore a heavy burden. They were objectified and used.

Turning back to Jesus on the Mount of Beatitudes, who has just revealed himself as the Son of God to the multitudes gathered around him, he now extends to them an invitation: “Take my yoke upon you…” Jesus’ yoke is the direct opposite of a typical yoke in every respect. He offers his listeners a choice:

  • not a heavy burden, but light
  • not oppression, but ease
  • not slavery, but rest
  • not force, but a choice

“Take my yoke upon you…” is God looking at the tortured, burdened slave, pointing to their heavy yoke, and saying, “I offer you freedom. Will you trade that yoke for mine?”

But how can freedom be had whilst wearing a yoke? This is Jesus using irony to make a point: we can only be free if we are yoked to God — if we walk side-by-side with Jesus. We can only be free from our slavery if we learn meekness and humility from Jesus.

Jesus wants us to ask ourselves: To what am I yoked? What drives my daily decisions? Have I been yoked to my fears? To an endless to-do list? To self-consciousness? To bad habits? To sins? To comfort?

We can only remove those yokes by God’s grace, when we trade them for the only yoke that frees us: the yoke of Christ.

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