This passage follows immediately on the heels of one concerning John the Baptist. Jesus has sent his disciples out on a mission trip (ch. 10), and after they leave, some messengers come from John the Baptist, who is in prison, asking Jesus, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” (11:3). In response Jesus points to his deeds, which fulfil OT prophecy: ‘the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them’ (11:5).
As John’s messengers leave, Jesus then talks to the crowd about him. They didn’t go out into the desert to see ‘a reed shaken by the wind’ (Herod Antipas’ coins had a reed on them) or someone dressed in royal robes; if they did, they had gone to the wrong place! No, they went out to see a prophet – and more than a prophet, because John was the unique messenger foretold by Isaiah who would ‘prepare the way of the Lord’. He was the greatest among those born of women, but nonetheless, the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he, because in him, the Old Testament story has reached its appointed climax – he is the Elijah who is to come before the great and terrible day of Yahweh comes, and as Malachi says, ‘He will turn the hearts of parents to their children and the hearts of children to their parents, so that I will not come and strike the land with a curse’ (Mal. 4:5-6). ‘Let anyone with ears listen!’ Jesus says; in other words, if you understand the significance of John as Elijah, then you will understand the significance of the one who comes after him, bringing in the great and terrible day of Yahweh.
But the religious leaders are hard to please; Jesus and John are very different from each other, and yet they don’t like either of them! Jesus quotes from a song that may have been well-known in his day:
‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance;
We wailed, and you did not mourn’ (11:17)
John was an ascetic who lived out in the desert on a diet of locusts and wild honey; he came ‘neither eating not drinking’, and ‘they’ (i.e the religious establishment) said he was demon possessed (for being too fanatically religious?). Jesus, on the other hand, was completely different; he enjoyed parties and eating with people, and he wasn’t too picky about the company he kept, and ‘they’ said, “Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!” (11:19). Jesus goes on to say, “But wisdom is shown to be right by its results” (11:19 NLT) – in other words, the ministries of both Jesus and John had borne significant fruit in terms of people coming to repentance and faith, while the leaders (who doubtless felt they had nothing to repent for) refused to believe.
This leads Jesus to ‘reproach the cities in which most of his deeds of power had been done, because they did not repent’ (11:20). He pronounces woes on Chorazin, Bethsaida, and Capernaum, saying that if the same deeds done in them had been done in the Gentile cities of Tyre and Sidon, or the famous Old Testament cities of Sodom and Gomorrah (destroyed by the Lord in the book of Genesis), those cities would have repented in sackcloth and ashes long ago. Therefore on the Day of Judgement (‘the terrible Day of Yahweh’) it will be better for those cities than for Chorazib, Bethsaida, and Capernaum, because they were visited by the Son himself, God’s anointed, and yet refused to repent and turn to God.
And part of this is because the devotees of traditional Judaism, especially its leaders, pride themselves on their wisdom. And so Jesus, in words very reminiscent of the Gospel of John, says three amazing things:
“I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will” (11:25-26).
‘Infants’ in this case probably does not refer to literal infants, but to his disciples, who have been willing to become like little children: humble, teachable, trusting. They don’t start on the assumption that they know all the answers, and consequently, when God reveals himself to them, they are able to receive his revelation.
“All things have been handed over to me by my Father; and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him” (11:27).
‘Handed over’ is a technical term for the passing down of received tradition or revelation. God the Father has handed over to his Son a true revelation of himself – not just an intellectual revelation (although this is included), but a relational one as well – not just ‘no one knows about the Father’ but also ‘no one knows the Father’. If you accept Jesus’ premise that God is his Father and he is God’s Son, then this is a reasonable thing to say; people from outside the family may know a man in a more superficial way, and the man’s friends might actually know him quite well, but the ones who see him at his best and his worst are the members of his family. You can’t really claim to know the man well unless you have that kind of knowledge, and you can’t get it unless the family members are willing to share it with you. So if you really want to know God as Father, you need to go to the Son of God and ask him to reveal the Father to you. And the Son of God is more than willing to do this.
Which leads us to the third thing Jesus says:
“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” (11:28-30).
The ‘yoke’ is a common metaphor for the Law, ‘the yoke of the Torah’. A yoke, of course, is laid across the shoulders of a team of oxen, and a plough is attached to it. It can also be laid over the shoulders of a man or woman to allow them to hang buckets of water from it. At any rate, it is a burden; and anyone who had ever tried even to remember the 600-plus commands of the Torah, let alone to obey them, knew very well that it was a burden.
How to resolve that burden? The Pharisees went in the direction of embellishment: adding traditional interpretations to help people apply the commands of God to their own different life-situation today. So for instance, what precisely does it mean not to work on the Sabbath? Can you travel from your home on the Sabbath, and if so, how far? And what precisely is ‘home’, anyway? If you go out the day before and leave a bundle of your belongings three miles down the road, have you extended your ‘home’, and can you then go further? And so it went on.
Jesus went in the other direction: simplification. He pointed to the heart of the Law, the most important commandments, within which the others were to be interpreted. He did not always give the same answer to the question of which commands were most important; in Matthew 23, for instance, he says,
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill, and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the Law: justice and mercy and faith. It is these you ought to have practiced without neglecting the others” (23:23).
So Jesus is quite clear that the Law is not a level playing field; some parts of it are ‘weightier’ than others, while some parts are less important and can even be set aside (‘Thus he declared all foods clean’ – Mark 7:19). And of course, most famously of all, he summarized the Law in terms of the two greatest commandments:
“ ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind’. This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself’. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets” (Matthew 22:37-40).
Jesus teaching doesn’t always lighten the demands of the Law; anyone who reads the Sermon on the Mount knows that at times he makes even greater demands (not just an amicable divorce, but no divorce at all; not just not committing adultery, but no lust either; not just not murdering anyone, but not getting angry with them either). But always his teaching focuses on the transformation of the human being into the image of God, or what Paul called ‘the new creation’ (2 Corinthians 5:17). Ritual observances and regulations are downplayed; practical discipleship is emphasized. And the teacher does not just teach; he practices what he preaches and shows his disciples how to do it. For instance, the one who tells his disciples to love their enemies does precisely that when he himself is betrayed, tortured, and executed.
So Jesus calls to him all who are weighed down by the burden of Pharisaic religion; he has a better yoke to offer them. Some scholars say that when Jesus announced, “For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light”, it might better be translated, “For my yoke fits well, and my burden is light”. No doubt as a carpenter Jesus had made his share of yokes, and knew the difference between one that fit well and one that didn’t. His teaching, he is saying, fits our human condition; it is designed with God’s original intent for human beings in mind.
So here is the call to us: “Come to me, all you who are weary…Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me…and you will find rest for your souls”. We’re to come to him, to become his disciples, and to give our best efforts to learning from him, and when we do, we will gradually discover a way of life that ‘fits’ our humanity – not necessarily our present sinful humanity (what Paul calls ‘the flesh’), but the human nature God designed in the beginning. So in following Jesus, the image of the invisible God, we will gradually grow into the image of God ourselves.