In the Hebrew Bible, the image of a burden or heavy load signifies oppression and slavery. This is often paired with the metaphor of the yoke — a farm implement used to tie two animals together and amalgamate their strength toward a common purpose. However, if the two animals pull in even slightly different directions, they experience excruciating pain. Thus to be yoked is to be without any freedom of movement or choice, to be completely controlled by an external force. Your strength is harnessed to serve another’s purpose. It is a very apt metaphor for the bondage of enslavement, especially the enslavement the Hebrews experienced in Egypt as they quarried and carried the massive stones that built the pyramids. They were literally crushed beneath the weight of their oppression.
In the New Testament, Jesus uses this same language to speak of the legalism of the religious practice of his time. In Matthew 24 and Luke 11, he uses these metaphors of slavery to describe the legalistic requirements the leaders placed upon people (read Luke 11:46). The religious leaders will not carry the burdens of their brothers and sisters. They have placed the bonds of slavery on the shoulders of the people.
In the Hebrew Bible, the lifting of a burden and the breaking of the yoke are powerful metaphors for deliverance from oppression and liberation from enslavement. God has lifted the burden of oppression. Throughout the prophetic and poetic literature of the Bible, the promise of freedom is expressed in these terms. God is the liberator, the rescuer, the lifter of weights.
God has done it in the past, in the exodus (read Psalm 81:6-7a and Isaiah 9:4). God will do it in the future, he will deliver His people from oppression and occupation (read Isaiah 10:27 and 14:25-27). These are solid promises. Christians read these chapters as also a promise of Christ, the liberator and redeemer. These are the chapters of Isaiah that we sing in Handel’s Messiah at Christmastime: “for unto us a child is born . . .” These are the chapters that tell us what Jesus will be about.
And when in Matthew 11, Jesus uses this burden and yoke language, he is explicitly evoking these Hebrew prophesies about the one who will come to liberate the people from oppression. He is the very one who was promised, who will deliver God’s people.
But at the same time, Jesus says something rather strange in Matthew 11. He doesn’t actually say he is breaking the yoke and removing the burden from our shoulders. Instead, he takes the formula of the prophets and reinterprets it. He says that his yoke is easy and his burden is light; the yoke and burden are not gone, they are transformed into a mystical paradox. To be chained to Jesus is to be truly free. What a strange and exhilarating metaphor!
Paul, of course, develops this paradoxical theme of being enslaved to freedom. He was proud to call himself a slave of Christ. And, he also develops the idea of burden bearing. As Jesus makes our own burdens light, we are to become the bearers of each other’s burdens. We are to carry each other’s loads.
As Christians, we can be the shoulders, the hands, the feet, the eyes and the ears of the deliverer, for each other and for the world. We can lift the weight off each other and we can be the burden-bearer of the great liberator Jesus.
FUM Global Ministries Director Eden Grace has recently joined the Richmond staff of FUM after serving for nine years as Field Officer in the Africa Ministries Office in Kisumu. She is a member of New England Yearly Meeting, and is actively involved with the World Council of Churches.