Without reservation I can state that Matthew 11:28-30 are my favorite verses in all the Christian canon.
The King James Version (KJV) reads:
Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. 29 Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls. 30 For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.
New Revised Standard Version (NRSV):
Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. 29 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. 30 For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.
I find these verses inspiring and have, on many occasions, seen people exercise faith in the promise these verses contain. So often, their burdens have been lifted as they have found “rest for [their] souls.”
Readers of this blog know that I view metaphysics as unknowable. This is not to say that metaphysics do not exist; I personally believe that they do. However, if metaphysics do exist, it is impossible for us, as human beings limited to five senses, to discern and state that a particular metaphysical axiom is the Truth. Thus, when I say that I believe in God, for example, I am not stating, axiomatically, that God exists. I am merely stating that according to my own religious experience, I have faith that there is a God. Thus, as I cannot know there is a God, my personal belief compels me to hope there is a God; that there is a purpose to life beyond sheer randomness. I cannot know this, but I hope for it.
The reason I am drawn to these particular verses is that while they may be interpreted in terms of metaphysics, they can also be read as pragmatic.
The simple fact is that the human condition makes all of us “weary” from “carrying heavy burdens.” These burdens may be physical, financial, emotional, or spiritual but for every person they exist. Carrying these burdens is part of being a human being. Thus, these verses apply universally.
Consider verse 29. Jesus invites all to take upon themselves his yoke. The use of the word yoke, of course, refers to the mechanism attached to two animals (usually oxen) when these animals are used to pull heavy loads. Thus, Jesus is inviting individuals to join him in a partnership — to be yoked together with him in the struggle of carrying heavy burdens. This verse also makes use of a simple if/then statement. If you take upon the yoke of Jesus, you will find rest.
This is where I see the KJV and NRSV diverge slightly in their meanings. Notice that the KJV invites readers to “learn of [Jesus]” while the NRSV invitation is to “learn from [Jesus].” Through the use of the word of, the KJV implies that simply learning about Jesus, and perhaps developing faith in Jesus — through some sort of metaphysical action — will bring about the ultimate rest and lifting of burden.
Conversely, but subtly, the NRSV translation indicates that listeners/readers should learn from Jesus and implies, but does not explicitly state, that it is the things learned from Jesus that enable a person to “find rest unto their souls.” And what is it, exactly, that Jesus wants listeners to learn from him?; that he is “gentle and humble in heart.” This theme of meekness and humility fits perfectly with the Sermon on the Mount found earlier in Matthew.
I prefer the NRSV translation in this instance because it puts significant onus on the listener/reader to not only learn about Jesus, but to adopt the gentle nature, humility, and meekness of Jesus. Now, I am not saying that the KJV does not encourage the adoption of these traits. However, action on the part of listeners/readers is made a bit more explicit and requisite in the NRSV. Thus, rather than listeners/readers needing to rely on a metaphysical process to bring rest to their souls, the NRSV text requires them to adopt a certain set of traits and characteristics that will bring upon the desired rest. As a Pragmatist, I find this notion incredibly appealing because it is a proposition that can be tested and tried to see if the consequences of adopting Jesus’ qualities does in fact, bring rest to the soul.
Having said that, I cannot discount the importance of hope. When carrying heavy burdens, individuals must maintain hope that their situation can improve. I might add however, borrowing from the words of James, that hope without works is dead. When burdened with emotional, financial, and physical burdens we cannot simply hope that our situation will improve. We must also act. If unemployed, we must actively seek employment. If suffering from emotional or physical stress we must seek out the help of our families, friends, and neighbors. We cannot simply hope for our situations to improve and expect to find rest from our burdens. We must work to overcome our burdens with the encouragement and help of our family and friends.
Too often we are too proud to ask for help when it is genuinely needed. Asking for help requires first, the recognition that we cannot overcome our burdens alone and second, the humility to admit this fact to those who care about us.
Even Jesus, when suffering in the Garden of Gethsemene, asked for the help and support of his friends, the Twelve.
Thus, I believe the message of Jesus here is simple but quite profound: we should not carry our burdens alone. Instead, we should be “gentle and humble in heart” in asking for relief not only from God, but also from our friends, families, congregations, coworkers etc… It is my belief that God most often provides help, not through the miraculous, but through the kindness and charity of those around us.