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.

1 comment:

Betty said...

I recently came across your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I don't know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.