Summary: What does it mean that Jesus imposes a light yoke and easy burden?

The short passage we just heard from St. Matthew can be interpreted on many levels, but I’d like to focus on what the original meaning probably was. The image given is of a pair of oxen, tied together with a heavy wooden yoke, and harnessed to a plow. Jesus promises a yoke that is easier, pulling a lighter burden. Claude Tresmontant says that the original Hebrew or Aramaic probably went something like this: “Receive the teaching that comes from me–that I am humble and lowly in heart. Thus you will find rest for your souls; my yoke is easy and my burden, light”

Remember that St. Matthew was writing for a community that was mostly Jewish Christians in Roman-occupied Palestine, probably in the Galilee. And a lot of evidence points to the writing being just a decade or so after the Resurrection. Matthew pictures Jesus as the new Moses, up on the mountain expounding the fulfillment of the Mosaic Law. Now the Pharisees taught that to be worthy of God’s kingdom, you had to fulfill not just the ten commandments, but all the ritual laws that bound the priests and Levites. There were over 600 such laws. That was a heavy burden that the priests couldn’t even keep as a full-time job.

Jesus brought the basic law of Moses–the Ten commandments and ancillary rules–to fulfillment by summarizing them in two ways. The first way is Love God and Love your neighbor as yourself. The second way is “love one another as I have loved you.” So it removed the ritual rules and replaced them with a more liberating rule. He even gave examples–the disciples were allowed to harvest grain on the Sabbath to give them energy to preach the Gospel. Jesus was freed from the limitations of the work rules to heal on the Sabbath. So He really does remove the heavy yoke of the Pharisees and imposes his own yoke and burden, which is light because it is focused on doing good, rather than obeying picky and meaningless regulations.

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