The Call and the Promise
“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.”
Only in the Gospel of Matthew
In thinking of the meaning of these words, it is important to note that they are found only in the Gospel of Matthew, a Gospel generally recognized as addressed to a Christian community of Jews. Here are some evidences of that:
- Matthew traces the lineage of Jesus back through David to Abraham while Mark doesn’t mention ancestry at all, Luke (Gentile Gospel) traces it back to Adam, and John (Spiritual Gospel) traces it back to The Beginning, the Creation.
- Only in Matthew does Jesus say, Matthew 5:17 “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets. I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.” The verb “fulfill” shows up six times in Matthew, always referring to fulfillment of Hebrew Scriptures, and not at all in Mark or Luke. It shows up once in John, then referring to fulfillment of something Jesus had said.
- The phrase “Pharisees and Sadducees,” referring to the anti-Christian Jewish establishment, shows up five times in Matthew and not at all in the other Gospels. The phrase “scribes and Pharisees” shows up eight times in Matthew, twice in Luke, and not at all in Mark or John.
- Matthew is generally considered by Bible Scholars to have been written fifty to sixty years after the Resurrection to a Jewish Christian Community under threat of being thrown out of the Synagogue. That may explain why the disciplinary process described in Matthew ends with the instruction that a person who does not submit to the Church should be treated as a Gentile. ( Matthew 18:17 If he refuses to listen even to the church, then treat him as you would a Gentile or a tax collector.) This community evidently considers themselves to be completely Jewish as well as Christian. They just don’t submit to the Scribes and Pharisees.
- While Matthew holds out hope for the Gentiles (Matthew 12:21 And in his name the Gentiles will hope.) they are clearly considered outsiders. Only in Matthew does Jesus say, Matthew 15:24 “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”
- There is little if any explanation of Jewish rituals in Matthew like those in Luke (Luke 2:22-24 for example). The Matthew community needs no such explanation.
- In passages shared by Luke and Matthew, Luke’s “Kingdom of God” is generally expressed as “Kingdom of Heaven,” perhaps in deference to Jewish sensitivity to saying or writing the name if God.
The Source of the Labor and Burdening
There is probably more, even enough for a Doctoral thesis or a book, but the point in all this is to better understand the words in Matthew 11:28-30. For clear and convincing evidence that the problem, the source of the burdening, is the Jewish establishment, read these words:
Matthew 23:1-11 Then Jesus spoke to the crowds and to his disciples, 2 saying, “The scribes and the Pharisees have taken their seat on the chair of Moses. 3 Therefore, do and observe all things whatsoever they tell you, but do not follow their example. For they preach but they do not practice. 4 They tie up heavy burdens (hard to carry) and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they will not lift a finger to move them. 5 All their works are performed to be seen. They widen their phylacteries and lengthen their tassels. 6 They love places of honor at banquets, seats of honor in synagogues, 7 greetings in marketplaces, and the salutation ‘Rabbi.’ 8 As for you, do not be called ‘Rabbi.’ You have but one teacher, and you are all brothers. 9 Call no one on earth your father; you have but one Father in heaven. 10 Do not be called ‘Master’; you have but one master, the Messiah. 11 The greatest among you must be your servant.
It seems we must conclude that Jesus is saying to “do and observe all things whatsoever they tell you” only to the extent that those things are correctly understood. Jesus seems to spend much of the Gospel explaining what that ancient Law really meant.
Context Within the Gospel
That is probably enough about the Gospel. What about the context within Matthew’s Gospel of these three verses of invitation and promise? Major sections of the Gospel are:
- Genealogy and Birth of Jesus
- The wise men
- Flight to Egypt and Slaughter of the Innocents (Moses reminder)
- Return to Israel and baptism by John the Baptist
- Temptation of Jesus
- Calling of the first disciples, preaching and healing
- The Sermon on the Mount including the Beatitudes and the Our Father – Chapters 5-7 (Moses reminder again)
- Ten miracles by Jesus – Chapters 8-9
- Jesus sends out the twelve, giving them detailed instructions – Chapter 10
- Contrast of John the Baptist with those who are refusing to repent – Chapter 11
- Jesus prays and then issues the “Come to me” appeal, contrasting the “apprenticeship of love” he offers with the “list of customs, obligations, and conventions” in the Mosaic Law. (Quotes from footnotes in the “New Catholic Version, St. Joseph Edition.)
- Problems with picking grain and healing on the Sabbath, violations of “Mosaic Law.” Jesus defines his family as whoever does the will of his heavenly Father, maybe referring to those responding to his invitation to “Come to me” and rejecting those who are only sons of Abraham.
- Kingdom of Heaven parables. Conflict with scribes and Pharisees expands and intensifies
- Peter’s confession and promise of The Church
- Transfiguration showing endorsement of Moses and Elijah and link to Law and Prophets
- More instructions to his disciples and predictions of his Passion
- Entry into Jerusalem, cleansing of the temple
- The 1st and 2nd Greatest Commandments
- The “Woe to you” verses condemning the scribes and Pharisees.
- More parables and instructions to the Disciples.
- Arrest, trial, Passion and Resurrection
- The Great Commission (Final Instruction to his followers, The Church)
Focal Point of the Gospel?
So, it seems to be not too much of a stretch to argue that the “Come to me” verses, the bold red print above, are the focal point, the primary invitation, of Matthew’s Gospel. (Remember there were no verses, chapters, or punctuation in ancient Greek writing)
Jesus has preached and sent out the Twelve with the message and it has largely been rejected. So, he issues this profound invitation and promise, a challenge to the establishment, and, from that point, conflict with the establishment increases, the Passion is foreseen, and Jesus turns his attention to instructing his followers, those who responded positively to his invitation, and building the foundation for The Church which would bring that message of rest, humility, easy yoke, and light burden to all people.
After all, the Gospels are not just bunches of words randomly assembled but are divinely inspired and carefully structured and composed by talented writers who had first-hand knowledge of Jesus and whose goal was proclamation of the Gospel.