Tuesday, July 18, 2023

It’s no yoke!

Matthew 29-30: Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.  Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.’  See also Exodus 3.13–20

Today’s Gospel reading is part of a text that everyone who loves the Book of Common Prayer has heard many times.  Jesus offers rest to those who are carrying heavy burdens, and then (in a verse we don’t hear so often) he invites his followers to take on his yoke.

I’m sure that you, like me, have heard many preachers over the years say that the word yoke is a metaphor for Jesus’ teachings.  But, I decided to do a little research for this sermon, and I’ve discovered that isn’t quite right.  In fact, it turns out, there are no primary sources from that time which equate the yoke with a rabbi’s teaching at all.  It seems to be one of those ‘truisms’ which get passed down from generation to generation, without anyone actually checking their facts.  In these days when the checking of truth is becoming ever more important, I thought I should do my own reality check!

First of all, let’s be clear what we are talking about.  I want to make no assumptions about what you already know, so let me be clear that we are not talking about an egg yolk!  Rather, a yolk is a kind of halter, usually made of wood, which was placed on an animal’s neck, to help them haul a cart or a plough. 

According to the Jewish Virtual Library, quoting from the authoritative Encyclopedia Judaica, the yoke was a symbol of servitude, in the Bible. Sometimes, it was described as being made of iron, to emphasize the weight of oppression.  Take Deuteronomy 28:48, for example, when the disobedient nation is warned: “Therefore shalt thou serve thine enemies which the Lord shall send against thee, in hunger, and in thirst, and in nakedness, and in want of all things: and he shall put a yoke of iron upon thy neck, until he has destroyed thee.”  

It was also a symbol of the burden of slavery or taxes upon the people.  Consider the story of King Rehoboam, in 1 Kings 12:11.  The people had complained to him that his Father, King Solomon, had taxed them too hard (not least to build his splendid palace and the temple).  But when the people asked Rehoboam for relief from those taxes, he replied: “My father laid on you a heavy yoke; I will make it even heavier. My father scourged you with whips; I will scourge you with scorpions”. Throughout ancient Scripture, freedom from oppression was described often in poetic and prophetic literature as the breaking of the yoke. 

In rabbinic writings more widely, however, a specific contrast is made between ‘the yoke of the kingdom of man’ and the ‘yoke of the kingdom of heaven’.  One celebrated Rabbi taught that “whoever takes upon himself the yoke of the Torah…” (that is, the laws of the Kingdom) “…they remove from him the yoke of government and the yoke of worldly concerns” (See Avot 3:5 of the Mishnah)

It's worth reminding ourselves that Jesus (or Yeshua as the Jews called him) was steeped in this kind of teaching.  He was, in other words, inviting his followers to take on the yoke of the Kingdom, the laws of God, and to free themselves from the yoke of the government, which was at the time the oppression of the Romans.  In other words, there’s a choice to be made between focusing on the Kingdom, and focusing on the government and worldly concerns.   

Jesus promises that those who take on the yoke of the Kingdom will find rest for their souls.  He promises that his yoke is easy, and his burden light.  What might he mean by that?  I don’t know about you, but I spend far too much time focusing on the great evils of the world, usually being brought about by powerful men.  I get caught up in worrying too much about climate change, for example, when in reality the UK is only responsible for 2% of the world’s CO2 output.  I need some balance.  I get caught up in watching what’s happening in the Ukraine, and watching politicians argue with each other about public finances and policy.  In reality, I can do very little, if anything, to change Putin’s mind, or the mind of the Chancellor of the Exchequer.  These are all examples of me taking on the yoke of government and worldly concerns.

But what if I put that yoke off, and take up instead the yoke of the Kingdom.  Well, then, my focus shifts, away from the national and international scandals (about which I can do practically nothing) and towards the immediate needs of my neighbour and my community.  This is where I really can make a difference.  This is, in fact, what the monastic movement has to teach us.  Over the centuries, many monks and nuns have withdrawn from the cares of the world, to focus exclusively on praying for the world in general, and caring for one another and neighbour as much as possible.

Ranting on the Internet about inequality or corrupt politicians might make me feel better.  The media (and it's billionaire owners) loves to distract us with tales of horror and scandal.  Just look at the fuss made recently over Huw Edward's private life!  But we can do nothing about such things.  But buying some food for the foodbank, or making a gift to the Rector’s Discretionary fund for the relief of poverty, volunteering for charity or spending some time welcoming visitors to the church, or campaigning for local issues might actually make a real difference, in a real person’s life.  

More than that, the yoke of the Kingdom includes the teaching that I should take time, every day, to practice the presence of God, whether through prayer, meditation, reading or silence.  If more of us took Jesus seriously about this teaching, surely we would all find much rest for our souls.  The prayerful life is calming and gentling process.   It involves us giving over the cares of the world into the hands of God, the great I AM, the one who acts to rescue slaves and poor, as we heard in our first reading.  Having offered our worldly cares away, we get the chance to ask ‘what can I do?’  How can I play my part in the building of the kingdom, here, in Havant, in my family, among my neighbours today?’

In a sense, the concept of the rabbi’s yoke is not altogether wrong – especially when the rabbi in question is Jesus of Nazareth.  But let us not make the mistake of thinking that when Jesus says ‘come to me to find rest for your souls’ he’s not offering to give us a great big hug.  Rather, he’s inviting us to take on a new vision of the Kingdom, in which each one of us, freed from the burden of worldly concerns, focused on the things we CAN change, finds that his burden is lighter than we ever might have thought.  Amen.

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