How shall we translate and then understand Matthew 11:30? This is no small matter, since many scholars and interpreters regard this verse as the interpretive key for the entire Matthean account! In addition, Matthew 11:28-30 is a beloved devotional passage which has brought encouragement and comfort over the past two millennia to myriad Jesus followers. This text is worth taking the time for both wrestling and meditation. And it will be the focus of my proclamation this weekend.
Here’s the NRSV rendering of Matthew 11:28-30. “‘Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.’”
I am puzzled by the translation of “chrestos” in Matthew 11:30. This word catches my eye, in part, because it shows up prominently in Philemon 11. Philemon is a particular interest of mine.
Now, it is true that we don’t have an identical usage in that verse. However, the forms are certainly close enough for comparison. Paul includes the words “euchrestos” and “achrestos” as possible descriptions for Onesimus. These words can be translated as “useful” and “useless” respectively.
I mention this because I think this sense of “utility” is part of the basic meaning of the word. The word can mean useful, suitable, good, pleasant, kindly, and “easy to wear.” That last sense is connected in BAGD to our passage in Matthew. I find a certain amount of translation circularity in that reference. We sort of know that Jesus’ yoke is supposed to be “easy,” therefore, that must be how the term is to be translated in this instance.
I’m not so sure that’s the best solution. The function of a real yoke, one “worn” by beasts of burden, is to make the load-bearing more efficient. The load is spread out across the body of the load-bearer. It may also be shared by more than one load-bearer in a team. The goal of providing the yoke is to make the load-bearing more eff” icient. That happens by making the task more comfortable and less taxing for the load-bearer. But the yoke improves working conditions. It does not remove the need for the work.
As I preach this week, I will keep this sense of the verse in mind. I think the sense of Matthew 11:30 goes something like this: “For my yoke makes the work easier, and so my load is light by comparison” (my translation). One of the points I want to make this week is that the rest Jesus offers is vocation, not vacation. Jesus doesn’t invite disciples to abandon the work of The Kingdom. Rather, Jesus invites disciples into the good, life-giving work of The Kingdom. This good, life-giving work is part of the full human flourishing that the Matthean Jesus describes in this gospel account.
This is a paradoxical assertion, but that’s the deal with discipleship. “The relationship of discipleship requires absolute trust, demands obedience and whole-hearted commitment, and as the same time offers as gift,” writes Patricia Sharbaugh, “the rest that comes with dwelling in the presence of God” (page 46). Sharbaugh argues that Matthew 11:28-30 uses two converging symbols to make explore this discipleship paradox. These verses, she contends, bring together two important symbols in the Matthean account: Jesus as the new Moses and Jesus as personified Wisdom.
These verses appear only in the Matthean account. In verses 25-27, we get some of the “New Moses” description as the Matthean author takes listeners back to several Torah passages. In Numbers 12, Moses is described as meek. In Deuteronomy 34, Moses is described as the one who was intimate with God and brought that intimacy to Israel. And in Exodus 33, we can see Moses in a deep sense as the “savior” of Israel.
This image of Jesus as the New Moses permeates the Matthean account, but with a profound difference. “Jesus isn’t promised that God will be with him,” Sharbaugh notes, “but is himself the presence of God with the people, a presence that saves from the slavery of sin” (page 51). Our current text highlights that Mosaic connection. Jesus has an intimate and face to face relationship with God. This intimate relationship means that Jesus knows the Father’s heart. And most important, Jesus does not obey Torah. Rather, Jesus is Torah incarnate (page 52).
Sharbaugh notes that in Exodus 33:14, God promises to give Moses “rest.” This will immediately remind readers of the Sabbath. In the first and second centuries CE, both Jewish and Christian writes, according to Sharbaugh, connected “rest” both with the Sabbath and the messianic age. In both cases, the connection was eschatological. In other words, Sabbath rest was not a vacation. It was, rather, a sign of the promised age to come. It was “vocation” in the sense of a call from that blessed future into the present. So, Sabbath rest was a way to embody and prefigure the messianic age.
“Sabbath rest, which is associated with creation,” Sharbaugh writes, “will be restored when the messianic age dawns” (page 52). She notes that our text stands between a bunch of eschatological blessings and woes in chapter 11 and the Sabbath controversies in chapter 12. It’s no accident, I would add, that Jesus identifies himself in chapter 12 as “Lord of the Sabbath.”
“Jesus, promise of rest in Matthew is clearly associated with eschatology and the restoration of the Sabbath,” Sharbaugh argues, “Jesus is the herald of the messianic age, the beginning of the new creation” (page 52). That rest, in Exodus 33, means entry into and flourishing life in the land of promise. God will be with the people on that journey. “In Exodus God promises the rest that comes with his accompanying presence. In Matthew,” Sharbaugh concludes, “Jesus is that presence” (page 53).
As Sharbaugh notes, this “rest” is not merely a gift passively received. It comes as disciples take on the yoke of Jesus’ teaching and learn from him. “Within that invitation,” Sharbaugh observes, “is a proposal for a way of life that is paradoxically both gift and demand” (page 53). This language is familiar to Jewish listeners to the text. They know well the phrase, “the yoke of the Torah.” This yoke is not a burden. Rather, for Jews, accepting that yoke is regarded as the key to deep and full life with God.
“In Matthew 11, when Jesus urges his disciples to take up his yoke, he is in continuity with other Jewish teachers who use yoke to refer to the revelation of God and God’s will for human beings,” Sharbaugh writes. “He does not, however, refer to the yoke of Torah, but to his yoke. He does not ask his disciples to learn Torah, but to learn Jesus” (page 54).
The Matthean Jesus makes claims for himself and his teaching by describing himself as the New Moses. Sharbaugh winds up this section of her article with the following summary. “When the invitation is read through a Mosaic lens, the Christology revealed emphasizes the revelation of God’s presence and will for human beings in the person and teaching of Jesus Christ. Jesus doesn’t merely promise rest, he is rest. He doesn’t merely bring a new law but is the new law” (page 56).
Sharbaugh then turns to Jesus as Wisdom personified. “Wisdom literature claims that the pursuit of Wisdom is the pursuit of life. Life is meant to be more than mere existence. Wisdom themes in Matthew deepen the Christological invitation to a relationship with Jesus as the source of life lived in communion with God” (page 57). The rest Jesus promises is not mere vocation. It is vocation — the vocation to live as fully flourishing human beings in the Creation as God made it to be. Disciples begin to live into that renewed and restored vocation. Sharbaugh examines a number of Wisdom sources that undergird this contention. I refer you to her article for the details.
Sharbaugh finishes her article by describing some “implications for discipleship.” Disciples of Jesus respond to his invitation by teaching and embodying meekness and humility in their relationships with God and others. Disciples are invited to imitate the whole life of Jesus and thus to fulfill the Torah. “These personal characteristics” [and the full list included in the Beatitudes “reveal attitudes toward God and others,” Sharbaugh writes, “that draw one into communion with God and lead toward eschatological rest” (page 61).
But how does that fit with the verbal violence of verses 20-24? “the challenge of imitating Jesus is that disciples, like Jesus, are asked to embody these qualities in a world that is hostile to God,” Sharbaugh writes. “Persecution, mourning, and hunger and thirst for righteousness can all be expected, and yet those who follow Jesus are assured blessings the world cannot give. This is the difficult task of discipleship in Matthew. As the invitation indicates,” Sharbaugh continues, “disciples are not merely invited to learn a set of principles Jesus teaches, they are invited to walk the same way Jesus walked in the world” (pages 61-62).
Indeed, violence looks different when one is on the receiving end and powerless to respond in kind. Perhaps the Matthean invective is verbal protest when no action is permitted or possible. But that challenges us who have power to read very carefully as we engage this text.