Humans are like donkeys. The Bible’s word for “donkey” is, literally, “burden-bearer” (hypo-zugion). Like donkeys, you and I are “burden-bearers.”
Our burdens are numerous. Some seem random: a freak accident, a horrible sickness, a loved one’s sudden death. Others people place upon us, like the scribes and Pharisees who, Jesus says, “bind heavy burdens (phortia) and grievous to be borne, and lay them on men’s shoulders” (Matt. 23:4). Often we are scribes and Pharisees to ourselves, for not infrequently our burdens are self-imposed: We are stubborn, making our own lives unbearable at times.
It is with good reason, then, that Jesus treats us like donkeys. “Come unto me, all ye that labor and are heavy-laden, and I will give you rest” (11:28). These are what the Anglican Prayer Book calls “comfortable words,” leading people into Eucharistic celebration.
Our God is a gracious God, who cares for donkeys—including actual donkeys. “Six days thou shalt do thy work,” God commands the Israelites in the Book of Exodus, “and on the seventh day thou shalt rest: that thine ox and thine ass (hypozygion) may rest” (Exod. 23:12). It is not just people who get Sabbath rest; donkeys get to share in it as well.
We are in need of Sabbath rest. Our burdens make us long for it. That is why we go to Mass week after week. For it is there, at the altar, that Jesus gives us rest.
But does he truly? Jesus himself seems to question it, when he says, “Take my yoke (zygon) upon you. . . . My yoke (zygos) is easy, and my burden (phortion) is light” (Matt. 11: 29–30). The yoke may be easy and the burden light, but for all that, we are burden-bearers still, far removed from enjoying comfortable rest. It is small comfort if the difference between Jesus and the Pharisees is merely one of quantitative weight—his burden just a little less oppressive than what we suffer elsewhere. Less burdensome, perhaps, but hardly the rest for which we long and which he says he’ll give.
It is true: Once a donkey, always a donkey. No matter what, we are burden-bearers world without end, even in the eternal Sabbath rest. But the difference between the burdens imposed by scribes and Pharisees and the burden placed by Jesus is not just one of degree, but of kind.
We know the burdens of the scribes and Pharisees. They are man-made rules, hard to bear (23:4). Likewise with the burdens that disasters, other people, or we ourselves put upon us. They are heavy loads that do not originate with God.
Jesus’s burden is of a different kind. He tells us two things about it. First, where it comes from—the eternal relationship of Father and Son: “All things are delivered unto me of my Father” says Jesus, “and no man knoweth the Son, but the Father; neither knoweth any man the Father, save the Son” (11:27). Jesus is talking about knowledge—eternal knowledge—between Father and Son. Surely, this is knowledge far out of reach for donkey-like creatures such as us.
But note what Jesus adds: “and he to whomsoever the Son will reveal him” (11:27). We too—no matter the burdens we bear, no matter how we have come to bear them—may know the Father, just as Jesus knows the Father. Knowledge moves from Father to Son to “babes” (11:25) such as you and me.
Second, Jesus tells us what the burden is. Here is Zechariah, shouting with joy about Jesus riding into Jerusalem: “Behold, thy King cometh unto thee: He is just, and having salvation; Lowly, and riding upon an ass (hypozygion)” (Zech 9:9). Look at the burden-bearer’s burden. Watch how gracious his demeanor. See the humility radiating from his eyes. This burden, seated on the donkey, is none other than Jesus himself. The one giving us the yoke is himself the yoke. For Jesus always and only offers us himself.
When Jesus calls to us, “Come unto me, all ye that labor and are heavy-laden,” he gives us himself. When we come to the altar, we receive Jesus himself, for the Eucharist is nothing less than the real presence of Christ. He replaces the burdens loaded upon us throughout the week with a burden that is meek and lowly in heart.
The order almost always holds true: First comes the burden, then follows the rest. First comes the work week, then follows the Sabbath. First come the hardships of life here on earth, then follows the peace of heaven. All that is true, but with a twist—for Jesus is burden and rest, at one and the same time. The reason his yoke is easy and his burden light is that Jesus himself is the burden. We are burden-bearers finding rest when we carry our Lord.
Sometimes we think of Jesus as if he were one of the scribes and Pharisees: A harsh teacher saddling us with hardships that often are simply too difficult to bear. But Jesus teaches not like the scribes (7:29). He is the perfect teacher—meek, lowly in heart. Or, as David puts it in Psalm 145, “The Lord is gracious, and full of compassion; Slow to anger, and of great mercy.”
That is the burden of Jesus, which he eternally receives from the Father and now delivers also to us. When Jesus delivers or gives tradition, when he reveals, when we learn from him—all words he highlights in Matthew 11—he delivers not just words about God, and we learn not just things about God. Jesus is God, and therefore never reveals anything less than God himself.
Jesus’s comfortable words call us to the table. Receiving the host, we eat Christ and take up our burden, the one whose lowly presence carries us into Jerusalem, the city of rest. Donkeys we are and forever will be—carrying the burden of Jesus, finding rest in the peace of our Lord.
Hans Boersma is the Saint Benedict Servants of Christ Professor in Ascetical Theology at Nashotah House Theological Seminary.
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