In Matthew 11:28–30, Jesus offers this invitation to any who would respond to his call:
“Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest [ἀναπαύσω / reficiam]. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls [ἀνάπαυσιν/ requiem]. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”
A warm and welcoming invitation to be sure. Who among us would not want rest for our weary souls? It would be difficult not to cite the most famous of Augustinian quotes here: “Our hearts are restless until they rest in you.” It is worth noting that in the ancient Latin Vulgate translation (as well as in the original Greek of Matt. 11), the word choices for “rest” include the prefix “re” (ἀνα), often translated “again,” giving rise to an interpretation that our rest is a return to our origin in God. This rest that we seek is not in some new place, but a homecoming. Like Odysseus during his twenty-year sojourn, longing to return home to his wife, son, and canine companion, the deep desire of all humans is to come home to the divine bosom from whence all life and therefore goodness come.
Jesus, however, does not explicitly indicate what his yoke is. He notes of course that it is easy and its burden is light, but the metaphor stops there. We don’t learn any further what it is that will be required of us or why his burden is lighter than the one we currently bear. When I hear only verses 28–30, I want to say to Jesus, “Sure, that sounds good, but what are you actually offering?” For those who desire rest for their weary soul in this life, it is worth considering how we might acquire it and be relieved of our burdens.
To answer the question of what Jesus is offering to us, we must consider the direction of the text that leads to Jesus presenting this invitation. In a book broadly on the Christian life, Rowan Williams presents a compelling way to bridge the gap between traditional biblical studies that look behind the text and a more theological reading that connects the Scriptures to the living church:
A [theological] reading in which the present community is made contemporary with the world in front of the text, is bound to give priority to the question that the text specifically puts and to ask how the movement, the transition, worked for within the text is to be realized in the contemporary reading community.
As with any writing of Williams, he chooses his words carefully and unpacking it can be difficult. I want to highlight, though, how he imagines that a theological reading of Scripture must take its aim from the text as it is written, specifically its own “movement” or “direction,” before being “realized” or “received” by the eucharistic community. We will attempt something similar below: first listening to the force of the text as it is written, and then exploring what it means for us in conversation with St. Augustine of Hippo.
If we want to find out how we can receive this rest and what Jesus might be offering, we need to situate ourselves and our reading within the horizon of the text. If you have followed me this far, then you are likely doing this naturally by assuming that Jesus is speaking directly to you. That said, many in the biblical studies guild get caught up in trying to uncover the world behind the text. That is, what was a “yoke” in the ancient world? Or who was Matthew’s intended audience? Although none of these, on their own, are bad questions, they can undercut the deeper theological considerations to which I believe Jesus calls his followers.
Jesus calls us to himself through these words. What we look for in our interpretations and the meaning of the text is the one Christ. This is an anagogical reading. That is one that leads us up into the divine. Think again of Christ’s call, “Come to me, all you who are weary and heavy laden.” We are called to Christ the Word in the words of the Scriptures.
We must keep this in mind as we expand our investigation to the prior context of Jesus’ summons in Matthew 11. Our question about what makes the burden of Jesus light leads us to consider the flow of the passage and some helpful considerations about what one possible true reading of the passage could be. Before his invitation, Jesus prays, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to little children.” We have an interplay between hiddenness and revelation. Those who presume to have knowledge and trust in their own wisdom cannot perceive the truths Jesus is about to communicate. Instead, Jesus tells us that the Father has revealed them to little children. We might expect what follows to be an uncomplicated truth. Already Jesus has us, his readers, outmaneuvered. Do we take ourselves to be wise? Could his truths be hidden from us because we think we already have understanding?
Personally, I have always been drawn to Augustine, in part because I identify with the judgments that he makes about himself. I too have exhibited his arrogance because I believed that only I knew the original intention of the author because I knew the languages and had been to seminary. Recall how early in his life, Augustine judged the Scriptures as too childish and uncivilized to contain the deep truths of God. Only he knew how to read them well, and they were not worth reading.
As he began to grow in his understanding of the Christian God, he found—in the God made known in Jesus Christ—a humble God.
I began to look for a way to grope towards enough solidity to enjoy you, but I did not find it until I received the mediator between God and humanity. This was the man Christ Jesus. . . . For the Word made flesh so that your Wisdom, through whom you created all things, could start to produce the spiritual milk for our infancy. I was not holding fast to Jesus as my God; I was not humble enough to cleave to him who is humble, and I did not realize what lesson his infirmity was going to teach me.
Notice the contrast between the early Augustine “groping” and grasping, trying to do it on his own, versus when he learns to receive the weakness of the incarnate Word. Augustinian spirituality rests on the principle that we have to receive rather than strive or create for ourselves. This reception includes the truth that God reveals himself to the little ones. This was lacking in Augustine’s previous struggles. In vain, he mustered his own strength to get ahead in the world, thinking human wisdom was found only within works of the great philosophers. He had to learn to become humble to receive the grace of humility modeled for him in an all-powerful God who willingly became human and took on the forma servi (“the form of the servant”). Several times in Confessions 7, Augustine uses the form of the servant language from Philippians 2:7 to help him interpret Matthew 11:25–30.
We can now look again to catch a glimpse of the depth of knowledge Christ imparts to anyone who would become humble: “You have revealed these things to little ones [νηπίοις / parvulis].” Although “little ones” likely refers immediately to children, the text says Jesus calls them “little” rather than simply “children.” Adults are to become little before the wisdom of the humble God. To whom does God unveil himself? Or to whom does he offer a vision of the mysterious things he has hidden? The little ones.
What Jesus teaches in this passage, to anyone who would hear, is that we must stop our striving and receive what the Father gives. Augustine spent most of his young adult life doggedly perfecting his own intellectual abilities to try to attain a vision of God. As a brilliant philosopher and student of Plotinus, Augustine thought that only those with the intellect to work their way through the liberal arts and comprehend works like the Enneads could have a vision of God. What he found in his own faltering attempt at union with the divine through philosophy alone was that Plato and the Neoplatonists could lead him close to the happiness of divine union, but not all the way (Confessions 7). They did not have the saving power of Christ’s humility. Without humility, they could not comprehend that God is a humble God and came to earth in humility. The Neoplatonists understood so much about the world; but without the chief cornerstone, their knowledge was nearly worthless.
Jesus says that we must become like little ones in order to see God, and this means offering a vision of God that pleases him (εὐδοκία ἔμπροσθέν σου / placitum ante te). It was God’s good pleasure to first humble the proud and the learned before they could catch a glimpse of him. At least for Augustine, this was the case because it meant that a vision of God was not dependent on his intellectual capabilities. (Just because I went to seminary or have a PhD does not mean I am more capable of receiving deep truths conveyed by the Spirit speaking in Scripture!). Ultimately, Augustine says that a desire to see God is all that is necessary for the Christian. This desire is also our prayer. The answer for Augustine to the question of how we pray continually is that we continually desire God in all that we do. More to the point, any person—literate or illiterate, philosophically or theologically trained or not—could connect and participate with God in the Scriptures. In his youth, Augustine disdained his uneducated mother because he did not believe that she had wisdom. After he encounters Christ’s humility, however, his own union with God takes place in the midst of a conversation between one of the most educated men in antiquity and his illiterate mother. Both delighted in the presence of God through the all-encompassing way of humility in Jesus Christ.
Now we can return to the question that first set us on this path. What is the easy yoke that Jesus offers and the burden that is light? What is this rest for our souls? Here is the answer: This rest he offers is the unveiling of God in Jesus Christ. Recall Jesus’ promise, “No one knows the Son, except the Father: neither does anyone know the Father except the Son, and anyone to whom the Son wills to reveal him” (Matt. 11:27). Jesus’ command “Come to me all you who are weary and heavy laden, and I will refresh you” follows immediately after he says that the Son is willing to reveal the Father. The rest for our souls is a revelation of God in Jesus Christ. Although some may pursue exclusive attempts to intellectual visions, anyone can truly see God by faith.
We can say that this whole passage centers on the question of the role of the contemplative life in the path of faith. John Maccovius, a Protestant Scholastic theologian, writes, “Theology is a discipline, partly theoretical, and partly practical, teaching the way of living well and blessedly into eternity.” To some extent, Jesus’ promise about finding rest in seeing God matches exactly what we see in this definition by Maccovius. It is easy to think that the discipline of theology is impractical or ignores the concerns of the times, or that it is only the purview of the learned. When we must deal with the realities of a worldwide pandemic, an invasion of sovereign territory by a foreign dictator, or many other forms of hell on earth, it can be easy to think that theology should take a back seat.
But remember that C. S. Lewis’s justly famous Mere Christianity was originally written and recorded as radio broadcasts during the bombing of London in World War II. How is it that a text like Mere Christianity could be spoken as a comfort to people? Why would Lewis think that amid the terrible suffering and the atrocity of the destruction of a city, the people of England would want to think more about such things as the theological distinction between being “begotten” versus “made”? For many moderns, it seems ludicrous to think that comfort could come through theology.
What Lewis knew was exactly what Christ teaches in Matthew 11: Theological speculation is the highest calling of the human. I use “speculation” advisedly, coming from the Latin word for “to behold.” Theological speculation in this sense is the task of being trained to see God. When we cast our vision at the Highest Good, as Augustine says, we can, momentarily, see the Light that shines in the darkness. We need the light of Christ, revealing God to us, to see the Goodness that is God in a world full of evil. In some sense, theological speculation is entirely practical. I think Maccovius is right to make a distinction between the practical and theoretical aspects of theology. Yet while they should be considered in their distinctiveness, we can also see them as two aspects of one singular discipline. We cannot have one without the other. In some sense, we are doing something practical in our speculation, and the practicing of our faith should lead us to a deeper speculation.
We now come full circle to Augustine’s most famous quotation about rest cited above. Augustine begins the conclusion of Confessions by saying,
O my God, my mercy, I invoke you in prayer, for you made me, and when I forgot you, you did not forget me. I invoke you to enter my soul, which you are making ready to receive you by means of the desire that you have breathed into it.
All humans long for happiness, and as Christians we know that our happiness resides in the end for which we were created. As we little ones sit in humility at the humble feet of Jesus, may the Holy Spirit breathe into us a renewed desire for a vision of the God who provides rest for our world-weary souls.
Charles G. Kim Jr. holds a PhD in historical theology which focused on St. Augustine of Hippo’s theology of preaching. He hosts the podcast A History of Christian Theology and is Assistant Professor of Theology and Classical Languages at Saint Louis University.
2. Confessions 3 (Hyde Park, NY: New City Press, 2012).
3. Confessions 7.18; trans. LCL 27:341.
4. See the Ostia Ascent of Confessions 9.
5. Johannes Maccovius, Loci Commuunes I (Franequeræ, Sumptibus Ioannis Arcerii, 1650); my translation.
6. Confessions 13.1; trans. LCL 27:337.