In Matthew 11, Jesus invites his followers to take up his yoke:
“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.”
Some exegetes have argued that this passage is one of the most revelatory Christological assertions in all of Matthew’s Gospel. Why might that be? Because Matthew the Evangelist tells us that Jesus spoke of Jewish law and tradition frequently. His comment, my yoke is easy, is in one sense, a capstone to his theological discourse found earlier in the Sermon on the Mount (Mt 5:1 – 7:29).
But first, let’s address a more obvious question. Why does Jesus refer to his yoke as being easy? Especially since, when we read the Gospels, we do not always get the impression that following Jesus (or taking up the cross, or taking the yoke) is an easy thing to do. For instance, Jesus has some challenging words for his own disciples in Luke 12:50-53. Nonetheless, it would be a mistake to proof text Matthew 11 against Luke or Paul. Let’s look at the Matthew’s understanding of Jesus’ teaching.
First, we need to understand the teaching objective of both Matthew and Jesus. In the Gospel of Matthew, there are continuous references to Jewish law and tradition. The Sermon on the Mount is Jesus’ commentary on the Torah and Jewish law. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus emphasizes forgiveness, reconciliation, and charity. His teaching is an expansion of the Deuteronomic principles articulated in the shema (Deut 6:4-5). Not only are we called to love God unequivocally, but we are called to love our neighbor, whether friend or enemy (Mt 5:38-48), as he or she is made in God’s image.
When Jesus uses the yoke analogy in Matthew 11:25-30 – Take my yoke upon you… My yoke is easy – he comments again on Jewish law. Consulting an Old Testament concordance, we find that the term yoke occurs at least 40 times. And it has both positive and negative connotations. According to Jewish tradition, to be in a right relationship with God is to accept the yoke of heaven: to accept the shema is to accept the yoke of heaven. The prophets Jeremiah and Isaiah also tell us that to be burdened with sin is to live under the heavy yoke of slavery. For first-century Jews, the yoke of the Law is a double-entendre. In a good sense, it is an acceptance of the shema. In a negative sense, it is the obligation to scrupulously obey all of the minor details of Levitic and Deutoronomic Law, as interpreted by the Pharisees.
In order to understand what Jesus means when he says my yoke is easy, consider Jesus’ complaint against the Pharisees and their interpretation of the law in Matthew 23:2-4:
The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. So you must obey them and do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach. They tie up heavy loads and put them on men’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them.
However, to suggest that Jesus is simply arguing, in Mt 11:25-30, that his approach to the faith is easier than the Pharisee’s approach is an over-simplification. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus interpreted the Law. Actually, he goes a bit further than that in Matthew 5:17:
Think not that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets; I have come not to abolish them but to fulfill them.
In Matthew 11, Jesus takes the analogy one step further. Since God is known through Law (Romans 2:17-18), when Jesus says my yoke is easy, he is saying, I am the Law, but the law that I impose is not a heavy burden. Benedict XVI argues that the Yoke of Jesus is the Law of Love: see his comment here.
If you are interested in further studying Matthew’s understanding of Jesus’ preaching, I might recommend Dr. Luke Timothy Johnson’s book, The Real Jesus. One chapter of his book is devoted to Jesus’ understanding of Rabbinic Law in Matthew’s Gospel.