We get a bit of what seems like paradoxical counsel in the gospel reading today from Matthew 11.28-30. It reads:
“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.”
But I thought the Christian life was not supposed to be easy. Indeed, we are told elsewhere that to be followers of Jesus we must take up our own crosses. So, how do we make sense of this?
Well, for at least one answer, I looked to Augustine in his homilies on the gospels. On Matthew 11.28-30 he writes the following:
1. It seems strange to some, Brethren, when they hear the Lord say, “Come unto Me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will refresh you. 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. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light.” And they consider that they who have fearlessly bowed their necks to this yoke, and have with much submission taken this burden upon their shoulders, are tossed about and exercised by so great difficulties in the world, that they seem not to be called from labour to rest, but from rest to labour rather; since the Apostle also saith, “All who will live godly in Christ Jesus, shall suffer persecution.” So one will say, “How is the yoke easy, and the burden light,” when to bear this yoke and burden is nothing else, but to live godly in Christ? And how is it said, “Come unto Me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will refresh you”? and not rather said, “Come ye who are at ease and idle, that ye may labour.” For so he found those men idle and at ease, whom he hired into the vineyard, that they might bear the heat of the day. And we hear the Apostle under that easy yoke and light burden say, “In all things approving ourselves as the ministers of God, in much patience, in afflictions, in necessities, in distresses, in stripes,” etc., and in another place of the same Epistle, “Of the Jews five times received I forty stripes save one. Thrice was I beaten with rods, once was I stoned, thrice have I suffered shipwreck, a night and a day have I been in the deep:” and the rest of the perils, which may be enumerated indeed, but endured they cannot be but by the help of the Holy Spirit.
2. All these grievous and heavy trials which he mentioned, did he very frequently and abundantly sustain; but in very deed the Holy Spirit was with him in the wasting of the outward man, to renew the inner man from day to day, and by the taste of spiritual rest in the affluence of the delights of God to soften down by the hope of future blessedness all present hardships, and to alleviate all heavy trials. Lo, how sweet a yoke of Christ did he bear, and how light a burden; so that he could say that all those hard and grievous sufferings at the recital of which as just above every hearer shudders, were a “light tribulation;” as he beheld with the inward eyes, the eyes of faith, at how great a price of things temporal must be purchased the life to come, the escape from the everlasting pains of the ungodly, the full enjoyment, free from all anxiety, of the eternal happiness of the righteous. Men suffer themselves to be cut and burnt, that the pains not of eternity, but of some more lasting sore than usual, may be bought off at the priceof severer pain. For a languid and uncertain period of a very short repose, and that too at the end of life, the soldier is worn down by all the hard trials of war, restless it may be for more years in his labours, than he will have to enjoy his rest in ease. To what storms and tempests, to what a fearful and tremendous raging of sky and sea, do the busy merchantmen expose themselves, that they may acquire riches inconstant as the wind, and full of perils and tempests, greater even than those by which they were acquired! What heats, and colds, what perils, from horses, from ditches, from precipices, from rivers, from wild beasts, do huntsmen undergo, what pain of hunger and thirst, what straitened allowances of the cheapest and meanest meat and drink, that they may catch a beast! and sometimes after all, the flesh of the beast for which they endure all this is of no use for the table. And although a boar or a stag be caught, it is more sweet to the hunter’s mind because it has been caught, than it is to the eater’s palate because it is dressed. By what sharp corrections of almost daily stripes is the tender age of boys brought under! By what great pains even of watching and abstinence in the schools are they exercised, not to learn true wisdom, but for the sake of riches, and the honours of an empty show, that they may learn arithmetic, and other literature, and the deceits of eloquence!
3. Now in all these instances, they who do not love these things feel them as great severities; whereas they who love them endure the same, it is true, but they do not seem to feel them severe. For love makes all, the hardest and most distressing things, altogether easy, and almost nothing. How much more surely then and easily will charity do with a view to true blessedness, that which mere desire does as it can, with a view to what is but misery? How easily is any temporal adversity endured, if it be that eternal punishment may be avoided, and eternal rest procured! Not without good reason did that vessel of election say with exceeding joy, “The sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us.” See then how it is that that “yoke is easy, and that burden light.” And if it be strait to the few who choose it, yet is it easy to all who love it. The Psalmist saith, “Because of the words of Thy lips I have kept hard ways.” But the things which are hard to those who labour, lose their roughness to those same men when they love. Wherefore it has been so arranged by the dispensation of the Divine goodness, that to “the inner man who is renewed from day to day,” placed no longer under the Law but under Grace, and freed from the burdens of numberless observances which were indeed a heavy yoke, but meetly imposed on a stubborn neck, every grievous trouble which that prince who is cast forth could inflict from without on the outward man, should through the easiness of a simple faith, and a good hope, and a holy charity, become light through the joy within. For to a good will nothing is so easy, as this good will to itself, and this is enough for God. How much soever therefore this world may rage, most truly did the angels exclaim when the Lord was born in the flesh, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men of good will;” because “His yoke,” who was then born, “is easy, and His burden light.” And as the Apostle saith, “God is faithful, who will not suffer us to be tempted above that we are able to bear; but will with the temptation also make a way to escape, that we may be able to bear it.”
[Taken from Philip Schaff’s translations of the Church Fathers]