Monday, March 31, 2008

A Palace of Time

It is sometimes a remarkable thing the way God points me in a particular direction in my life. The other night I was at my friend Gord's place, with a number of other people and we found ourselves having a very meaningful conversation about how we need to 'experience the moment' more. The next day I sat down to consider the following passage of Matthew's gospel in preparation for this article and was a little taken aback because, in a manner of speaking, the passage is about the same thing.

At that time Jesus went through the grainfields on the Sabbath. And His disciples were hungry, and began to pluck heads of grain and to eat. And when the Pharisees saw it, they said to Him, “Look, Your disciples are doing what is not lawful to do on the Sabbath!” But He said to them, “Have you not read what David did when he was hungry, he and those who were with him: how he entered the house of God and ate the showbread which was not lawful for him to eat, nor for those who were with him, but only for the priests? Or have you not read in the law that on the Sabbath the priests in the temple profane the Sabbath, and are blameless? Yet I say to you that in this place there is One greater than the temple. But if you had known what this means, ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the guiltless. For the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath.” Matthew 12:1-8 NKJV

When someone mentions the Sabbath, what comes to mind? A day of prayer? A day for church? Synagogue? It is certain that these things have their place in our Sabbath observance, but to truly appreciate the depth of the relationship between Jesus and the Sabbath we need to understand that above all else, the Sabbath is - a gift!

Think about it for a moment. The first thing that God chose to declare as sacred forever, was not a piece of land for people to make pilgrimage to, not a building where one would seek His presence, or even an artifact, some carving or golden idol that would be the object of our worship. No, the first thing that God chose to make scared forever was a day (Ex. 20:8-11), a period of time, a collection of moments set aside for the purpose of being with His people. The most sacred thing to God, after ensuring we knew who He was, is to spend time with us.

The Sabbath is a gift - a gift of time. In a world that, even in Jesus' day, called upon the individual to spend every waking moment struggling to survive, God seeks foremost to ensure that we are rested. In the world of the Bible the only ones who reclined at dinner were the masters, the oppressors, the idle rich, most of whom had achieved their wealth and power on the backs of others. To His people God offers a taste of equality with the upper classes; what Jewish theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel calls, "a Palace of Time," a place where the servant and the slave, the fisherman and the carpenter, the handmaid and the midwife, come to recline at table with their Creator.

In a life of hardship and stress God gives his people the greatest gift of all - time! It was a completely foreign concept for the culture of that day. No one outside of the Jewish community could fathom it at all. Consider the words of Roman historian and orator Tacitus on the subject...

"In order to secure the allegiance of his people in the future, Moses prescribed for them a novel religion quite different from those of the rest of mankind. Among the Jews all things are profane that we hold sacred; on the other hand they regard as permissible what seems to us immoral. ... We are told that the seventh day was set aside for rest because this marked the end of their toils. In course of time the seductions of idleness made them devote every seventh year to indolence as well."

In fact most cultures considered the Jews lazy, shiftless, and undisciplined because of their habit of taking a "holiday" every seven days. It was one more thing that contributed to the general public's distrust of all things Jewish.

Of course, as usual, the Pharisees and the priests had turned it into another way to burden the backs of the people with layers and layers of legalism. In the strictest terms they were right to challenge the actions of Jesus' disciples. Picking the heads of wheat could be interpreted as work. Since there was good reason for the Sabbath laws, they had to be observed. The problem was the Pharisees had forgotten the reason.

The laws of the Sabbath were designed to slow down God's people enough so that they could enjoy God's gift. Even in the first century, life often was racing around at such a pace that people didn't see what was right in front of them. Picture it this way...

Imagine that the moments in your life are like the telephone poles at the side of the road. If you're driving down that road at 60 miles an hour then the poles are going by at about one per second. Not much time to notice either the poles themselves or the spaces between them. But if you are going from pole to pole, from moment to moment, at the pace of a Sabbath walk, then you get to enjoy it all. You can see the flowers God has planted along the road between the poles. You can hear the singing birds which God has housed in the trees - trees that need to be pruned to make room for the wires to pass from pole to pole. And yes, you can even see the pop cans and McDonald's containers that litter the way, making note to come back the next day when work resumes and clean up the highway of your life just a little bit.

The laws of the Sabbath were not designed to restrict us, as some Pharisees might think. They were designed to grant us access to the Palace of Time, where matters of the soul, the heart and the mind can be examined without the tyranny of the agenda to distract us. It's hard to love God with all your soul when your soul is so badly in need of rest.

Jesus came to take us back to that palace, to reunite us with the gift that God chose to give us first above all others - the gift of time with Himself. A time for us, as my friend Gord would say, "to carry eternity in our hearts... to dialogue freely with an inner expanding universe... and to catch the truth in a net."

How He did that we'll talk about next time.


P.S. The pic below is of an artwork that Gord created some time ago. It depicts the poem he wrote that the above quote comes from. I hope you don't mind Gord, it's too good not to share. (click to see larger version)

Thursday, March 20, 2008

The Burden of Obedience

Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. 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. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light.” Matthew 11: 27-30

You've heard me say a few times that there are passages in the gospel of Matthew that are often misunderstood, well, at least from my perspective. I'm fully willing to admit that I have likely misunderstood a great deal as well. So when I make this claim that something has been incorrectly interpreted I have to be careful. It's easy to get caught up in your own ego and start spouting human wisdom instead of God's. And so I ask you dear reader, to examine things carefully when I say such a thing and make sure that my explanations are valid. If they are not I ask you to challenge me in the comments section so we can debate these things together and by so doing come to a more perfect understanding of God's message to us.

I say this because I have always thought this was another passage that is often used incorrectly. I've heard more than a few preachers over the years use this passage to tell people how easy it is to follow Jesus because we are no longer under an obligation to obey the law. But that's not how I read it.

Jesus doesn't say he's giving us a deck chair on which we can lie back and watch the world go by; he says he's giving us a yoke. Granted, it's a different yoke from the one we've been carrying, but it is a yoke just the same.

When I first started examining the gospels from the Jewish perspective, one of the first things I looked at was the Tallit or prayer shawl. The Hebrews were commanded in the Law of Moses to wear tassels called tzitzit (shown in picture at right). These tassels must be tied in a very specific way that utilizes 613 knots and wrappings to represent the 613 tenets of the Hebrew law. Over time these tassels moved from being attached to tunics and cloaks to being worn on a shawl that was specifically for the purpose. This shawl came a symbol of the Jewish culture (the flag of the modern country of Israel is patterned after the traditional prayer shawl) and would be worn by Jewish men (and in modern times by women as well) across the shoulders and then raised over the head during times of prayer.

What has the tallit to do with this passage? Well, in Jesus time both the Pharisees and Sadducees ran schools designed to instruct people in how to go about obeying the Law of Moses. For each of the 613 tenets of the law these teachers would have an expansive commentary on what it meant to obey that particular rule. Most of these teachings have been collected in a very large document known as the Talmud. Because of the great burden placed on the people by these laws regarding the Law the prayer shawl soon became known colloquially as "the Yoke of the Law." The yoke, the device used to hitch oxen to their loads, had long been a symbol of obedience to God, but the rabbinical schools were making it a symbol of how burdensome it was to follow God.

Knowing this, it becomes very important to note that Jesus is not removing the yoke from our shoulders! He is replacing it with "His yoke." The obligation to obey is not being removed, only the burden the people had come to associate with obeying God. Jesus is trying to help us understand that obeying God should not be a strain on us. The Law of Moses was never intended to oppress the people of Israel, the Pharisees and Sadducees used it for that purpose. The Law was intended to protect the people from the consequences of sin by helping them to avoid it.

Jesus words are designed to guide the people back onto the path of righteousness. The yoke that Jesus offers us is not bound to the complexities of trying to obey 613 rules that tie us up in knots as we try to obey them. His yoke binds us to only 2 rules...

Jesus said to him, “ ‘You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.” (Matt 22:37-40 NKJV)

This is the rest we are given in Christ Jesus, rest from the burden of legalism. To obey God is not a labour of oppression, it is a labour of love. The yoke of Jesus is easy and the burden is light because it born/borne in the love of and for God. To pull this yoke effectively we need to allow Jesus to teach us gentleness and humility, for they will aid us in the task better than legalism and being judgemental. The yoke of Jesus is the way of God, and like being in love, is profoundly satisfying to the human soul.