Jesus was a Jew, though we sometimes forget that, and he knew the Law, the Torah, in all its detail. He stated that he didn’t come to do away with the Law but to fulfill it. In order to do this he helped his followers to concentrate on the heart of the Law rather than on all the extra items which had been added as further clarification by the scribes and the Pharisees. The Torah of Jesus is summed up in loving God and loving our neighbour as ourselves.
On Thursday at the 2pm service the readings were Psalm 102:14-21, Isaiah 26:7-9, 16-19, Matthew 11:28-end. My reflection is given below:
I’ve recently been reading a history of the Anglican Church. As you may imagine, monasticism is a big part of that history. I tend to think of life in a monastery as very strict, with the days governed by the rule of the place and with little opportunity for self indulgence. It seems, however, that monasteries often became too secular due to their great success as landowners or places of hospitality. Some monasteries were actually built on the land owned by lords as a sign of worldly success. A castle and a monastery on a lord’s land spoke volumes about the success of his life. This led to the monks finding themselves dealing with business, administering estates or even going out to enjoy wine and women.
Every so often there was a move towards a more ascetic form of life. One of these moves led to the formation of the Cistercians who used the Rule of Benedict as many monasteries did, but much more strictly, taking care to include the manual labour that had dropped out of the life of many monasteries. The Carthusians were stricter still, with monks living as hermits around a cloister. These developments were taking place around the 11th and 12th centuries.
The Welsh Church at this time looked back to the time of the great heroes of the faith for their foundation, coming out of the monastic movement of the 6th Century. The monks then lived very harsh lives indeed. Some had chosen to live on bread and water, some slept standing up leaning against a wall, others stood for hours in cold water up to their necks. David, patron saint of Wales, required the communities he founded to abandon the use of animals to help plough the fields. He expected the monks to place yokes on their own shoulders in order to pull the ploughs.
I imagine most people are familiar with what a yoke is. It’s a wooden framework put over the shoulders, or occasionally across the forehead, of animals so that they can pull ploughs or carts efficiently without discomfort. Sometimes a single animal, donkey, horse, ox, would do the work but often it was a pair of animals who would work together. Jesus talks in the brief gospel passage for today about a yoke for his followers but the sense does not suggest that they would be using manpower to plough fields as St David insisted on.
Jesus is more likely to be speaking figuratively than literally. The word ‘yoke’ was a metaphor for one person being subject to the rule of another. It symbolised obedience and an acceptance of responsibility. It could also indicate that a person was oppressed or in slavery. The term could also be a metaphor for the Law. The Rabbis spoke of people taking on the yoke of the Torah (Law). When you read Psalm 119 it speaks in positive terms about the Law. The Law is there to help the people live their lives in purity. This was not a burden but a delight: ‘In the way of your testimonies I delight as much as in all riches. I will delight in your statutes.’ There is no doubt that the psalmist saw the Law as something good and wonderful.
By the time Jesus was teaching, this had changed. In an effort to keep their distinctive identity while living under occupation, and in an attempt to apply laws made for nomadic living in the wilderness to life in a settled community, the Pharisees had spent a lot of time and effort in interpreting just what the Law actually meant. As a result they had created a huge list of prohibitions to try to ensure that the Jews lived in a way that was pleasing to God. It’s apparent that Jesus did not see this as helpful. In Matthew 23 Jesus taught the crowd about the teaching of the scribes and the Pharisees: ‘They preach, but do not practise. They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to move them with their finger.’
The Law as taught by the scribes and Pharisees had become a huge burden for the people to labour under as they tried to earn their salvation. Guilt oppressed them every time they failed to live up to the impossible demands imposed upon them. In contrast, Jesus said that his yoke was easy and his burden light. He was not asking too much of people despite the fact that discipleship is not an easy option. Jesus invited his followers to take his yoke upon them and learn from him. Unlike the Pharisees who sought to impose their rules but did not help, Jesus’ words conjure up the picture of an inexperienced animal being yoked to one with experience so that it can learn. Jesus urges us to learn from him, the one who is gentle and humble in heart.
The Torah or Law of Jesus, the yoke he talks about, is love. Love sums up his Law. When asked what the greatest commandment was, Jesus said ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength. Love your neighbour as yourself.’ There is no need to remember lots of carefully crafted rules as the whole Law is summed up in love. John in his first letter said: ‘This is the love of God, that we keep his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome.’ Jesus brings us rest as we commit to him and to his law of love.
Love is not some romantic get out clause which allows us to drift dreamily through life. It is a law that takes us out of ourselves and asks us to be concerned about the needs of others. We are not given the option of waiting until we feel loving because a commandment expects obedience regardless of feelings. We have to decide to love. Life may be tough, we may not have had a good start, we may be in a difficult situation but we still are commanded to love. With Jesus yoked alongside us we are empowered by his Spirit to make this decision day after day regardless of circumstances.
Jesus commands us to love because it is in our best interests. It is the best way to live. We were made by God with the freedom to choose. As we choose to love God and love others we are allowing ourselves to learn from Jesus and become more like him. Love is not something that gets used up if we do too much of it. In fact it’s the exact opposite. As a child’s song puts it: Love is something that if you give it away you end up having more.
Helene Milena – Lay Pastor