My Yoke Is LightPosted: July 6, 2014
My Yoke Is Light
SLIDE 7: THE JESUS SEMINAR
In the 1980’s and 1990’s a group of scholars got together and called themselves “the Jesus Seminar.” Their goal was to try to establish what elements of the Gospels represented the historical words and deeds of Jesus as opposed to the words the early church later put in his mouth, and the exaggerated stories that grew up around the early church’s memories of Jesus, but were not grounded in historical fact. So how did the Jesus Seminar establish what they believed were the elements of the Gospel that were authentically Jesus? They voted! After study and discussion the participants would vote on each passage using a system of colored beads.
SLIDE 8: THE AUTHENTIC WORDS OF JESUS
A red bead indicated the voter believed Jesus did say the passage quoted, or something very much like the passage. A pink bead indicated the voter believed Jesus probably said something like the passage, but not exactly. A grey bead indicated the voter believed Jesus did not say the passage, but it contained some of Jesus’ ideas. A black bead indicated the voter believed Jesus did not say the passage — it came from later admirers or a different tradition. Of course this system of voting has been questioned and critiqued. Many critics have questioned the credentials of the voters. Others have suggested that the Seminar began with a series of liberal biases that flawed the work from the beginning. Another line of criticism has asked, how can you establish the truth by voting? And of course fundamentalists have attacked the work of the Seminar, because according to them every word of the King James translation is the inspired word of God.
Actually very few verses in the gospels received a “red rating” – the actual words of Jesus. And almost nothing in the Gospel of John was rated as authentically the words of Jesus.
SLIDE 9: MY YOKE IS EASY, AND MY BURDEN IS LIGHT
I don’t feel called upon to attack or defend the work of the Jesus Seminar but for our purpose this morning I would like to note that almost every scholar involved in the study voted with a red bead for the quotation: “For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light,” because these were the genuine words of a First Century Carpenter. One of the most important objects carved by a rural carpenter was a yoke for oxen. The yoke had to be strong enough to withstand the stresses and strains of pulling a plow through the soil, and it had to be light enough so the oxen were not exhausted by carrying the weight of the yoke. “For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light,” might have been a slogan, an advertisement for a rural carpenter.
SLIDE 10: SPIRITUAL FAITHFULNESS DOES NOT CONSIST IN OFFERING SACRIFICES
So what did Jesus mean, when he utilized this slogan in his preaching and teaching? First, Jesus was assuring his listeners that spiritual faithfulness does not consist in the offering of sacrifices. Judaism as practiced in the Temple in Jerusalem was a complicated set of offerings: burnt offerings, cereal offerings, offerings of expensive incense. The Temple Tax was another burden over and above the taxes levied by the Romans and the Herods. The peasants to whom Jesus was preaching in the countryside were being pushed off of their land by the tariffs and assessments of their overlords. The poor landless day laborers of the countryside barely had enough to eat much less a goat, or a lamb, or an ox to sacrifice.
SLIDE 11: LABORERS IN THE VINEYARD
Remember Jesus parable of the “Laborer’s in the Vineyard?” The people to whom Jesus was ministering knew the frustration of showing up in the market place and waiting all day for some land owner to hire them for a day’s labor. How getting paid or not paid at the end of the day was the difference between eating and going to bed hungry.
SLIDE 12: SKILLED BUT LANDLESS WORKERS
We know Jesus own family were poor. The prescribed offering in the Temple for a first born son was a lamb, but all Mary and Joseph could afford were two turtle doves, and even that was stretching the family resources. We think of carpenters as skilled laborers, who can make a good living. But in First Century Palestine carpenters were skilled but landless workers, who were only just above the status of day laborers.
SLIDE 13: OCCUPY THE TEMPLE
Jesus was also painfully aware that the records of debt were kept in the Temple and so the priestly families were implicated in the foreclosure on peasant holdings and the consolidation of large estates. When Jesus overturned the tables of the money changers in the Temple, he was attacking not just the exchange of secular money for Temple money, he was also targeting the lending of money that was at the heart of the movement to push small peasants off of their land. In comparison to the Priests and the money lenders Jesus’ yoke was light. There were parallels between Jesus and Occupy Wall Street.
SLIDE 14: NO MIXING MEAT AND DAIRY
Another way Jesus’ yoke was easy was in contrast to the conservative Pharisees who were multiplying rules and regulations for the “keeping of the law.” In Deuteronomy 14:21 the Torah reads: “Do not eat road kill. You may give it to the foreigner residing in any of your towns, and they may eat it, or you may sell it to the illegal alien. But you are a people holy to the Lord your God. Do not cook a young goat in its mother’s milk.” The Rabbis were in the process of concluding from that one simple phrase tacked onto the end of the verse, about not cooking a young goat in its mother’s milk, that Jews were not allowed to mix meat and dairy. Not only did that eliminate chicken fried steak with milk gravy and cheese burgers, but you weren’t allow to have meat and milk or cheese at the same meal. So there goes the milk shake with the simple hamburger. Also pretty soon the Rabbis ruled that everybody had to have two sets of dishes, one for meat meals and one for dairy meals. And the Pharisees also multiplied the regulations for keeping the Sabbath. So if you were hungry and you had no food, you didn’t dare harvest a few grains of wheat on the Sabbath to satisfy your hunger.
SLIDE 15: THE SABBATH WAS MADE FOR MAN NOT MAN FOR THE SABBATH
Mark 2:23-24 “One Sabbath day Jesus was walking through a field of ripe grain. As his disciples made a path, they pulled off heads of grain to eat. The Pharisees told on them to Jesus: “Look, your disciples are breaking Sabbath rules!”
The simple peasants to whom Jesus was ministering didn’t have enough to eat much less two sets of dishes. Many of them were so desperately poor they might even be tempted to try to eat road kill. Sayings like, “It’s not the food you put in your mouth that defiles you, it is the lying, slander, gossip and curses that come out of your mouth that defile you,” or “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath,” were intended to lighten the burden of the poor.
SLIDE 16: EVERYONE INVITED TO GOD’S TABLE
Jesus was trying to make the spiritual benefits of Judaism accessible to everyone – rich, poor, Republican, Democrat, socialite, outcaste. God loves you, and God invites you to the Sharing Table, where everyone can be fed. Jesus’ practice of open commensality, in other words he would eat with anyone, was a symbol of his way of love – do justice, love kindness, walk humbly with your God. My yoke is easy, my burden is light.
SLIDE 17: FORGIVING ENEMIES, WELCOMING STRANGERS PRETTY ONEROUS BURDEN
Of course, many of us balk at the burdens of following the way of Jesus – all of that loving and sharing stuff. Do we really have to love everyone? Even people of other races or cultures or religions or social classes? We want to be able to choose who may come to our Sharing Table, where we will be seated – or at least who is going to sit next to us! Forgiving enemies and welcoming strangers, and people we don’t like can seem like a pretty onerous burden.
SLIDE 18: I AIN’T A GOIN’
I’ve heard people told that they better get used to associating with some race of people or social group, because they are going to be in heaven. And hearing people respond, “Well if those people are going to be in heaven, then I ain’t a goin!”
A week ago in a Still Speaking Devotional entitled “Today on the Church’s Court,” John Edgerton gave us some perspective about Jesus’ admonitions about forgiveness.
SLIDE 19: PEOPLE’S COURT
Back in the ’90s, I used to watch a ton of The People’s Court with Ed Koch. I don’t know who managed to convince the former mayor of New York to take that gig but I wanted to shake their hand. Two people would come before the court and dig in their heels, fully convinced they were in the right. In the end, truth would come out and Mayor Koch would bring the hammer down—the wrongdoer would have to pay. I ate it up!
As a young man who loved The People’s Court, I would read Jesus’ words—you must forgive—and hear in them a grave injustice. “But . . . but . . . if they’re in the wrong, they should have to pay. Fair is fair!” I couldn’t stop wrestling with Jesus’ command, turning it over and over in my mind as if by abundance of thought I could wear the Word down to nothing. Which, of course, I could not.
SLIDE 20: THE CHURCH’S COURT — FORGIVE
Although I read Jesus’ words in the Bible, I learned to live them in the church. When I was in conflict with another member, I would have to see them every week. I would pray the Lord’s Prayer with my voice in unison with theirs or else I would have to stand among God’s people silent and alone. I would eat from the same bread of life as they did or else I would have to go hungry for grace. I had to forgive. “Today on The Church’s Court, right relationship is restored when two imperfect people speak honestly with one another and strive to be their best selves.” It probably wouldn’t make for good daytime TV, but it absolutely does make for a good life.
SLIDE 21: MY YOKE IS EASY, MY BURDEN IS LIGHT
Jesus does ask us to love one another, to share, to forgive. Is it really so much to ask in exchange for the love and forgiveness of God and peace with ourselves and our neighbors? “Come to me, all 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.” You want rest and peace? Come to Jesus!