Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Jesus in context: "My yoke is easy"

Many of Jesus' sayings are deeply Jewish in imagery. We miss the full implications of what he has said until we look at those images and what they meant to the people who first heard them. Consider Jesus' saying, "Take my yoke upon you and learn of me, for I am meek and lowly of heart, and you shall find rest for your souls." (Matthew 11:29).

We understand the call to rest. We are drawn to the kindness and lowliness, the compassion of the call. But the "yoke" itself had a meaning which we would do well to notice. The yoke was part of the religious imagery of Jewish culture. Consider the following quote from the Talmud, from the more ancient Mishnah section:
... one should first accept upon himself the yoke of the Kingdom of Heaven and then take upon himself the yoke of the commandments. (Berachoth 13a, Mishnah).
This is from a discussion in the Talmud of the obligation to recite the Shema. The Shema is more than a prayer -- and while it is like a creed, it is also more than a creed. It is a call to live a life following God, a life in keeping with the covenant with God, a life that honors God, praises God, and keeps his commandments. It is a call to be a part of the visible Kingdom of God on earth. The one who recites the Shema is said to take upon himself the yoke of the Kingdom of Heaven and the yoke of the commandments. He is to learn from the Lord God and follow in his ways. The yoke is something worn by beasts of burden and by servants: by those preparing for active work. To recite the Shema is to willingly enter the service of God.

When Jesus says we are to take his yoke upon us and learn of him, he quietly assumes for himself a vital place at the center of faith and religious life. He is placing himself as the origin of something that is both a creed and more than a creed. Following him and learning from him brings us into the Kingdom of Heaven. Taking his yoke upon us is putting ourselves into the harness as workers in the kingdom of God. A yoke is placed upon someone by a master or a lord or a king. Jesus invites us to take our yoke from him.

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