Jesus tells us to ‘shoulder his yoke’ — but what does that really mean?
Thomas D. Williams June 8, 2018
One of the most inviting and encouraging lines in the entire Bible is Jesus’ gentle invitation to come to him and learn from him.
“Come to me, all you who labor and find life burdensome,” he tells us, in words we can all identify with. “Shoulder my yoke and learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart, and you will find rest for your souls” (Matthew 11:29-30).
It is hard to read Jesus’ words without feeling lifted up and comforted. Jesus promises rest and refreshment for our souls, and who doesn’t need that? Devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus is a response to this invitation, an effort to take Jesus up on his generous offer and to draw near to his heart.
But the path to get there might not be quite so clear. What does it mean to “shoulder his yoke” and to learn to be “meek and humble”? What about people with strong “alpha” temperaments? Are they called to be meek and humble too, or is there another way?
A closer look at the life of Christ reveals that meekness and humility are not opposed to strength and resolution. In fact, they are a complement to these qualities.
It is true that Jesus never put on airs. He didn’t care what other people thought of him. He didn’t crave others’ attention, or worry about impressing them. He always spoke the truth, but he didn’t waste time arguing with people out of a need to have to be right. He just went about doing good and fulfilling the mission he was sent to carry out.
In short, it seems that Jesus didn’t spend much time thinking about himself at all. He was always either praying or teaching or helping others or healing. And he did so as a gift to others with no strings attached.
Jesus was indeed meek and humble, but he was no wimp or milksop. If anyone had a strong character, he did. He was a true leader, with clear ideals and convictions and an iron will.
Yet at the same time, he had time for the “little people,” for beggars, poor people, children, prostitutes and tax collectors. He never acted superior to the people he was with, but listened to their problems and came to their assistance.
He knew that he was Lord and yet he never “lorded” it over anyone.
Even when performing his miracles, we never see Jesus with a “look at me” attitude. He calls his miracles “signs” — indications that he is who he says he is, so that people will listen to his message of salvation.
In fact, when the people are so overwhelmed by Jesus’ multiplication of loaves that they want to carry him off to make him king, he quietly slips away to pray (John 16:15). He isn’t after their accolades. All he wants is to show them the path to salvation.
The same humility that Jesus shows toward other people we see in his dealings with God, his Father. He seems averse to taking credit for anything, and refers everything back to the Father.
Jesus once said to his apostles that when they had done everything they were supposed to do, they should say, “We are useless servants. We have done no more than our duty” (Luke 17:10). That’s exactly what Jesus does.
In similar fashion, Jesus doesn’t profess to be “original” or “innovative,” but says that all his teaching comes from what he learned from the Father (John 7:16). In a world where people scramble to claim credit for everything they do, Jesus provides a refreshing example of disinterested service.
Humility is a funny virtue because we love it in other people, but have a tough time practicing it ourselves. It hurts so much when people humiliate us, or forget about us, or don’t take our opinions into account. We like — almost need — to be appreciated.
We sometimes feel sorry for ourselves and often compare ourselves to others (sometimes feeling superior, other times envious, other times bitterly inferior).
Jesus promises that the yoke of humility is sweet, and when we embrace it we find “rest for our souls.” Moreover, it is his yoke, meaning that we team up with him to carry it.
On the feast of the Sacred Heart, that is an invitation that is too good to pass up.
Thomas D. Williams is an American theologian living in Rome and the author of 15 books, including “The Sacred Heart for Lent: Daily Meditations” (Franciscan Media, 2011).
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