A Real, Good Yoke

Life gets slightly crazy, as Christmas lights glow on our fragrant tree and a fire crackles behind its tempered pane.

I hum along, wondering about Matthew 11. After church I asked Jack Crabtree what he thinks prompted Jesus to say, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.”

Jack’s answer (reworded here by me) included a review of Jesus’s reaction to the Pharisees’ teachings. Jesus came right out with it lots of places: he was pissed. His anger flamed, not because those rabbis, often referred to as scribes and Pharisees, taught The Law and the Prophets (Old Testament), since Jesus based his theology on the same scriptural books. What ate him up was understanding the real Jewish law was not the problem. From its inception, the covenant with Israel included many provisions for people’s screw-ups. Sacrifices abounded. They were rituals, yes, but for those Jews who began to get it, they became snapshots of mercy. God asked them to be righteous, while providing ways for them to answer back, “I want to be. I see I’m not. God, help me. Thanks for salvation shadows in bloody offerings.”

Apparently what happened by Jesus’s time, though, was generations of Pharisees had been working hard adding in all sorts of qualifiers and sub-rules to insure they could follow the Law flawlessly. That way, they’d be able to consider themselves worthy of eternal life. A nice idea, one lots of people have tried (me, oh, me, too). It wasn’t, however, the point of the sacrificial covenant. To make it work, adherents had to ignore aspects of reality about themselves. They proposed ways to justify divorce and dishonoring their parents, thinking they’d found loopholes, failing to see it was time for a heartfelt slaying of a pigeon or two.

So if you there in first-century Palestine followed a rabbi as his student (disciple), you likely took on a pretty hefty load, or yoke, of teachings about how to become worthy before God. Your teacher’s practical applications list was miles long. When you failed, when you sinned, the dirty looks and reprimands came down hard. You sensed inside, even when your master praised your weary toil, something was still quite wrong here. Tainted works for the righteous God? It led to confusion, despair.

Then, Jesus. He offered a different yoke. His teachings weren’t burdensome; they were real. He fulfilled the old covenant by making it deeper, truer. And so he could tell people, “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.”