A Provocation: Fifth Sunday After Pentecost: July 9, 2017: Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30

Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30
11:16 “But to what will I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to one another,

11:17 ‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn.’

11:18 For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon’;

11:19 the Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ Yet wisdom is vindicated by her deeds.”

11:25 At that time Jesus said, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants;

11:26 yes, Father, for such was your gracious will.

11:27 All things have been handed over to me by my Father; and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.

11:28 “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.

11:29 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.

11:30 For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

A Question or Two:

  • Why was Jesus a friend of the non-observant?
  • Why does that matter?

Some Longer Reflections:

The first thing to think about, and perhaps the most important, is what a yoke is used for.  My father’s generation knew about yokes from common experience.  My generation does not, for the most part, because we have no occasion to use them in daily life and work.

A yoke is what you use to make it possible for oxen to pull a heavy load.  A well-made yoke is fitted to the individual oxen, shaped so that it does not chafe and rub the skin raw, designed so that the weight is borne by the animals’ shoulders.  And it probably matters that oxen were yoked in pairs.  Pulling heavy loads was a task shared by two animals accustomed to each other using a yoke that was particularly suited to each of them.  That is what it means to say that a yoke is “easy.”  A more practical translation might be “serviceable:” a well-shaped yoke let oxen be as strong as they could possibly be, and also protected them from injuries that would weaken them.  Imagine the effect of a yoke that rubbed the skin raw and left bleeding, oozing sores just where the weight of work would be borne.  A wounded ox could pull little or no weight, and that doesn’t even consider the ethics of damaging a living being.  As I hear it, my grandfather had particularly harsh words for people who mistreated their draft animals, harsh words that, as I hear it, he never otherwise used.

The second thing to think about, also important, is that an ox yoke was a common metaphor in the ancient world (and still today) for the Torah.

The implications of this metaphor are illuminating.

For one thing, it implies that Torah observance (“taking on the yoke of Torah”) makes a person able to pull her weight.  Life requires us to pull weights heavier than we might have imagined, and Torah is pictured as a help in meeting such demands.  But notice that Jesus’ use of the image takes special note of the need for the yoke to be properly shaped to individual creatures.

This suggests two important things.

First, Torah as taught by Jesus (notice that he explicitly links yoke-bearing and learning in this scene) is serviceable and well-shaped to the human condition.  Don’t take this as a Law v. Gospel, Judaism v. Christianity contrast.  It is not that.  Jesus is Jewish, and his words about a well-shaped pattern of Torah observance fit with what other Torah-teachers have said, both in the ancient world and now.  Jesus is addressing the same question that rabbis always address: What ways of being faithful are most life-giving, most “serviceable,” most helpful in carrying out the tasks that life hands human beings?  This is the question that leads to answers like, “Do unto others…,” which is found in Jesus’ teaching and in the teaching of other rabbis of his time.  It is a question that lies parallel to another well-known question: “Who, then, is my neighbor?”  Or, “What does the LORD require of you?” (see Micah 6:8).

Second, this suggests that there are forms of religious observance that are NOT well-suited to human being.  Every community of faith that I have studied, and every form of faithfulness, has within it twisted versions of hyper-religion that are dangerous.  Jesus seems to know this.  When he says that his yoke is serviceable, he implies that others chafe, rub you raw, and injure you.

He is right.

One diagnostic sign of such forms of faithfulness shows itself in the expectation that “real” faith has to strenuous and even painful.  “No Pain, No Gain” theologies are always abusive.  They rub people the wrong way, and their practitioners are taught that the oozing sores that result are the marks of real faith, the necessary signs of “cross-bearing.”  Sometimes the sores are the result of what is called the “mortification of the flesh.”  Other times the hyper-religious are simply trying to mortify anyone who is not as hyper-religious as they are.

There are other interesting implications of Jesus’ use of the yoke metaphor.  For instance, it might imply that Torah observance (and religious practice in general) must be shaped differently for different people.  There OUGHT to be Conservative Jews in the world and there also MUST be Reform Jews.  We need Methodists AND Lutherans.  We might even need Two-Seeds-In-The-Spirit-Hardshell-Baptists.”  And we need Muslims.  And Buddhists.  And we need people who are simply DONE with religious practice, especially when what they are actually done with is religious abuse carried out by those who insist that religion has to hurt to be real.

And, this metaphor makes it clear that human life is a shared task.  We pull our load together.  And the yoke of religious observance is intended to increase human strength, to make us better able to carry the human load that the Creation needs us to carry.

That is worth thinking about.


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