I never fail to be amazed, although really I shouldn’t be, at how the set readings from the Bible for any set day are relevant to what is happening in the world at that moment. Two weeks ago we were led to reflect on the experience of slavery, right at the time when it was headline news. That subject has not disappeared from either our readings or the media. And here we are today, at a time when many people clearly are finding the restrictions placed upon our behaviour by the pandemic to be thoroughly irksome and a burden which can no longer be tolerated, we heard the words of Jesus which in the Book of Common Prayer are entitled, “The Comfortable Words.” The root meaning of “comfortable” here is “strengthening;” something most of us need. “Come unto me all who are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” A short sentence which so many people in this despairing and worn world must long to hear.
When Jesus spoke these words originally the weary and heavy laden were those bowed down by the requirements of the religious laws of their time. Moses had provided broad principles in the first place, but these had been added to over the years for the purposes of clarification until the detailed minutiae for behaviour in every conceivable situation became unbearable. Where we may be tempted to think we would never allow ourselves to take on such burdens, it has been noticeable in recent times how people have expressed a need for having every possible interpretation of current guidance spelled out, rather than relying on their own understanding and common sense. We like to know precisely what we are required to do, when, and how. In times of stress it is useful to have a framework to shore us up against the challenges we are facing. We need support mechanisms; we even need reminders to keep track of what day it is when our normal regular activities that occur throughout the week are interrupted.
That sort of framework in Jesus’ time was referred to by the Pharisees as, “the yoke of the Torah,” [the religious law]. Yokes, of course are supposed to make burdens easier to carry, but the yoke of the Torah seems to have had the opposite effect. Yokes do signify submission to another’s authority or rule, [the oxen who are yoked together for ploughing so that they are under the control of the farmer], and so it is understandable why this image might have been used to symbolise the connection between the Jewish people and God.
In the Scriptures the Jews would have found the image of yokes to describe the oppression they suffered under invading nations. But at the same time, Isaiah in particular points out that God will break those yokes and free his people, and expects his followers also to break the metaphorical yokes which have been placed on the poor and oppressed amongst them. Jesus picks up on that theme in his words in our reading from Matthew’s Gospel. “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly of heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” [My emphasis.] Unlike the yoke of the Torah, those who follow Jesus would find his yoke easy to bear because it represents a relationship entered into with one who is, “gentle and lowly of heart,” not a hard task master. Rather than an enormous amount of small details to be scrupulously adhered to, when he asked a lawyer what the law told him to do in order to gain eternal life, the man said, “Love God with all your heart and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbour as yourself.” This is a complete summary of the “yoke of Jesus.”
Even today, the stole which is worn by officiants in our services represents the yoke with which they have agreed to be linked to God as they serve him. Rather than a burdensome restriction of movement laid upon our backs by one who wishes to control us, this is a symbol of the willing and joyful acceptance of the guidance of God for the rest of our lives. For the call of God to his followers is to the freedom of being his adopted children through his Son, not the bondage of slavery.
In the early days of the church, the rapid spread of the Gospel beyond the synagogues of Judaea into Gentile lands raised problems for the disciples. Many Jewish converts felt that the new Gentile Christians should be required to follow at least some of the Jewish Law. The controversy became so heated that the Council of Jerusalem was convened and Peter rose to his feet to say, “Why do you make trial of God to put a yoke upon the neck of the disciples [ie new converts], which neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear? But we believe that we shall be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will.”
Of course, this new-found freedom is not one which allows us to behave in any situation whatever way we wish. We do need some gentle disciplines in our early exploration of the faith, and even later, to protect us as we grow. But as we develop in our faith our increasing love for God provides the central focus of all that we do, so that other rules and regulations become less necessary. We recognise and enjoy the freedom to be whatever God is calling us to be. For most of us, there will always be a tension between our human instincts and desires, and the higher call from God to be the person he knows we can be.
As Paul says a little later in his epistle to the Romans that we have been working our way through, “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us…….. because the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the glorious liberty of the children of God.” [Romans 8:18-21] We press on towards that goal, not with weary resignation, but with joyful expectation.