It may be time to reread your Christian discipleship agreement. When you do, pay attention to the fine print. The invitation says something about an easy yoke and a light burden (Matt. 11:25-30), and if you’re feeling weary and heavy laden you might stop there.
Keep reading, and you’ll find a model for effective prayer (Matt. 6:9-13), a reference to building up treasure in heaven (Matt. 6:19), and something about freedom from worry and how God will provide (vv. 25-34). There’s a promise you’ll be given what you ask for, you’ll find what you’re looking for, and if you knock, the door will be opened (Matt. 7:7-8).
But while the promises are big, so is the cost, and you cannot be Jesus’ disciple unless you’re prepared to bear the cost now, because if you wait till later, you’ll be too late. The party will have begun, and you’ll find yourself locked out (Luke 14:15-24).
And here’s just some of the cost. You’ll have to put your relationship with Christ in every way above your relationship with your closest family (Luke 14:26). You’ll have to give up your house and siblings and parents and children for the sake of the gospel (Mark 10:29).
You’ll have to start carrying your own cross (Luke 14:27) and give up your life itself – psuche is the original Greek word – your psyche, the particular constellation of self images, values, preferences, and allegiances that surround and protect your ego and reinforce the way of life you’ve accommodated yourself to in the world (Matt. 16:25). So before you sign up as a disciple of Jesus, count the cost, and if you’re not willing to pay it, don’t bother to start (Luke 14:28-33).
So how can Jesus say he will give us rest for our souls? How can he say his yoke is easy and his burden light? Maybe I’ve misunderstood him. So I went to one of my favorite Bible study books, the dictionary, to do a little word study. And I found that if I translate this passage very carefully, here’s what I come up with, roughly paraphrased:
If you’re tired of trying to live the way the world teaches you to live, with its conflicts, disappointments, and soul-deep emptiness – if you have spent a lot of money but don’t have much to show for it; if you keep filling your plate but are never satisfied, if you clothe yourself but can’t warm your heart, if your money drains away like you have holes in your pockets (Hag. 1:5-6) – come along with me, Jesus says, and let me show you how to live. You’ll find an abundant life, perfectly fitting for the person God has made you to be. You’ll find a vocation in life that you can carry to the end, to your last breath.
One of the most important and influential books in Western Christianity is The Imitation of Christ, written in the fourteenth century. The author may have been thinking of the easy yoke and light burden of Jesus when he wrote, “When Jesus is present, all is well, and nothing seems hard, but when Jesus is absent, everything is hard” (Thomas à Kempis, The Imitation of Christ, ed. James N. Watkins, book II, chap. 8, “On the Intimate Love of Jesus” [Franklin, Tenn.: Worthy Inspired, 2013], 33). Our burden is light when Jesus is present, when we are yoked closely with Jesus in the work he is doing.
And where is Jesus present? What is the work he is doing? He’s present where he said he would be: with the hungry, the foreigner and refugee, the vulnerable poor, the sick, the prisoner (Matt. 25:31-46). And the work we are yoked with Jesus to do, the work for which God makes us, is to feed the hungry, to show hospitality to the refugee, to provide sufficient life resources to the poor, to provide adequate health care to the sick, and to keep the prisoner in vital relationship with society.
Operating an effective food pantry for the hungry yokes us with Jesus; so does correcting the social, economic, and political systems that create widespread hunger. Offering hospitality to strangers yokes us with Jesus; so does creating national systems to support and integrate refugees into our society. Caring for the sick yokes us with Jesus; so does providing a public healthcare system that leaves no one out because of their social status or economic resources. Providing life resources for the poor yokes us with Jesus; so does reforming the social, economic, and political systems that institutionalize poverty.
All of these works, acts of personal kindness and acts of social justice, are ministries to which the church is called. They are our vocation, works fitting for us as disciples of Jesus. They are the yoke that binds us to Christ in the ministry of reconciliation God has entrusted to us.