Analogies & Parables in Matthew: 19. The Ploughing Team
Mt 11:28-30 “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, 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.”
Years ago in our church, we had an elderly gentleman who was a ploughman. For years and years he had gone out with a plough and team, mostly one horse I believe, but sometimes two. It is difficult to find a ploughman these days except one who drives a tractor. Horses are a thing of the past and only come out for the annual ploughing matches as a rare exhibition, and they will go soon. In Jesus’ day, the sight of two oxen drawing a plough behind them was a common one, and it is this to which Jesus now refers.
It is a very simple and obvious picture that everyone would know about and understand: two oxen linked together by a big wooden ‘yoke’ which kept them together. The context for these verses appears somewhat disjointed at first sight but careful reading makes sense of the progression.
The chapter opened with Jesus’ summary of his ministry as he explained it to John’s disciples (v.4-6) and goes on to explain that John was in fact the messenger to announce the coming of the Messiah (v.7-15). But then he turns on the religious elite from Jerusalem and chides them for never being satisfied with either John or he (v.16-19) and goes on to challenge those places who refused to believe him even when they saw his miracles (v.20-24). There was indeed a hardness around, founded in the religiosity of the nation, that often refused to accept him and yet, despite all this, he knew it was the childlike at heart who would accept him (v.25,26) and, indeed, accepting him would only come through revelation from the Father (v.27). It has all been about belief in Jesus, accepting his ministry (v.4-6), accepting John’s descriptions of him (v.7-15), not quibbling about him (v.16-19) and having childlike faith to believe (v.20-26) being open to the Father’s revelation (v.27). To those who will believe, he now makes this offer seen in our verses above.
He recognises how so many of them feel in the face of the stone-wall opposition from the religious elite of the Pharisees and the religious leaders of Jerusalem: “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened.” (v.28a) Later he was to denounce those groups who opposed him, for the burdens they laid on people with the Law: “Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples: “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.” (Mt 23:1-4) Those ‘guardians of the law’ taught the law but didn’t follow it. Instead they interpreted it in minute detail and made it ever harder to follow until life was one long wearisome adherence to negative laws, and giving and giving to the religious establishment (the priests).
To these wearied people of Israel who have had enough of this hard and harsh religiosity he says, we might imply – don’t rebel, don’t kick it all over, but instead come to me and find something completely different “and I will give you rest.” (v.28b). I have to say, I have often found the same approach in some parts of the Christian Church today: here are the rules you are to follow, and no guidance is given as to how the individual may do this and not fall to failure and guilt. It may sound too simple but it is the truth: we come to Jesus, not to rules, we come to a living Holy Spirit empowered relationship, not to a religion filled with ritual. “Come to me,” says Jesus, “and I will give you rest.” It is rest from all this struggle and striving to achieve to be good, to be religious, to be righteous, to be holy. Where those things are demanded they so often come instead of the introduction to the wonderful love of the Lord which is to now be our prime motivating force, enabled and reinforced by His blessing in our lives by his Spirit. Jesus now explains how this can be by this picture language.
“Take my yoke upon you and learn from me.” (v.29a). The yoke, as we’ve said was that timber piece made to hold the two oxen together. Jesus pictures himself as one of the oxen and we are the other. The yoke of those days was purpose made for the particular oxen so it fitted well, was comfortable and did not chaff. When he goes on to say, “For my yoke is easy,” (v.30a) the Greek word for ‘easy’ can also mean comfortable and well-fitting. When he explains. “for I am gentle and humble in heart,” (v.29b) he is portraying a picture of an oxen that is not rough, not pulling all over the place, not causing difficulties for its partner, but one who is placid and easy going, purposeful in its task, and easy to walk alongside.
Walking with Jesus is to be a pleasant experience, not a stressful burdensome experience caused by the haranguing of the religious leaders of the day. So-called religious leaders so often harangue their flock, driving them from behind to keep to the rules, instead of lovingly walking alongside, sharing the burdens of life, painting visions of the days to come which are reachable, and equipping and enabling the flock to reach their full potential in God. When we come to Jesus, and make him the central focus of our Christian experience, “you will find rest for your souls.” (v.29c) That is to be the outcome of this controlled walk with Jesus, held by his yoke, not being able to run ahead with impatience or drag behind with anxiety. We find rest for our souls. When David the psalmist wrote his famous shepherd psalm he wrote, “He makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside quiet waters, he restores my soul.” (Psa 23:2,3) It is the same beautiful picture of the life the Lord wants for us, one where we are brought to rest and are restored.
And to conclude this picture he adds, “my burden is light.” Jesus has a burden? Well, actually, I think he has two. The first, pulling the plough, is a picture of doing his Father’s business but as he taught, “the Son can do nothing by himself; he can do only what he sees his Father doing, because whatever the Father does the Son also does,” (Jn 5:19) it seems to me it is the same picture as conveyed here – the Father is working and the Son works alongside Him. In Proverbs there is that beautiful picture of wisdom personified, i.e. the Son, working with the Father in bringing about Creation (Prov 8:22-31) where he says, “I was the craftsman at his side. I was filled with delight day after day, rejoicing always in his presence.” (v.30) It’s the same picture and everything about it conveys joy and pleasure being alongside the Father in what was not an arduous task, doing His will. The emphasis is on his awareness of his Father’s presence, not the ‘work’.
Jesus’ second burden is you and me. He carries all the loads put upon us and he is strong enough to do that, so when we share with him, it feels light, because he is the one leading the way and carrying the load. It’s his strength that pulls the plough; we just walk alongside. Now isn’t that an amazing picture!