“Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, […] For my yoke is kind, and my burden is light.”
In this phrase, the word “yoke” is referring to what Jesus is asking people to do: the sum total of his teachings, and he said it was kind (not “easy”) and light. The word “yoke” is the figure of speech, hypocatastasis, a comparison by implication.
In the biblical culture, the literal yoke that was used to harness animals together for work was essential for survival: it was used so animals could plow, thresh grain, and pull loads such as carts. The yoke was not something animals liked to wear, because the loads they pulled were often heavy and difficult. Jesus’ statement was a strong exhortation, made with love. Christ’s “yoke” is still a yoke. Jesus did not say, “I free you from religious bondage; go do whatever you want!” Jesus wants us under his yoke, his system of grace and love. It is easy and light, but it is still a yoke, and we must have desire and self-control to live under the yoke of Christ.
The yoke Jesus asks us to take was different than a yoke of religious bondage. The people in Jesus’ time had been burdened by the yoke of the religious leaders—their system of religious requirements. In fact, something that does not show up well in English is that in 11:28 (ESV), when Jesus says, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden…,” the verb “are heavy laden” is in the passive voice. This means that the burdens had been placed upon the people.
Little has changed since the time of Christ. Many religious systems are full of man-made regulations that are a great burden, and there is as much need now as there ever was to “learn of me,” learn the truth about Christ and what he teaches, and then take his yoke.