Sunday 5 July 2020
I suspect that when most of us think about the word “yoke”, we think of the contraption that is across the shoulders and around the necks of the bullocks. In some ways, it is not really the yoke that is so heavy, though I wouldn’t fancy having to put one on myself. The load weight is transferred through to the bullocks by the yoke from whatever it has been attached to. It could be a light plough or a heavy cart loaded with timber or something.
The word “yoke” was also used to describe the teaching of a Rabbi. As you are probably aware, the Torah in the Old Testament is very complex and needs to be applied to all sorts of different situations in daily life. The simple commandment to keep the Sabbath holy gives rise to a plethora of explanations and descriptions as to what that exactly means. Walking a certain distance on the Sabbath in the eyes of one Rabbi is permitted, while another says you can walk twice that far and another says you can only walk half that distance without breaking the Sabbath rest. The difference in interpretation from one Rabbi to another was called his “yoke”.
Rabbis taught their yoke to their disciples. Their hope was that their disciples would be true to their yoke, their interpretation, and carry it on as Rabbis themselves after the Rabbi died.
The process by which a young Jewish boy was educated and became able to be considered to be the disciple of a rabbi was strenuous. Let me explain a little of how a Jewish boy might have been educated in the Jewish faith in Galilee in the time of Jesus.
From the age of 6 to 10, he would have attended Bet Sefer, a synagogue school, five days a week. There he would have been taught the Torah – the first five books of the Bible: Genesis; Exodus, Leviticus; Numbers and Deuteronomy. By the end of those years, he would be expected to know those books off by heart.
From the age of 10 to 14 years, the boy attended the Bet Talmud where he would memorise the rest of the scriptures and learn the Jewish art of answering a question by asking a question. Jesus was already very good at this by the time he was twelve. Remember when he was left behind in Jerusalem and his parents returned to look for him. Luke’s gospel tells us, “After three days they found him in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions.”
Then, when a boy turned 13 or 14, if he had done well in his studies, he would approach a Rabbi and ask if he could follow him. The Rabbi would test him with all sorts of questions to see whether he was the best of the best. The Rabbi only wanted disciples who could become Rabbis themselves and teach the yoke of the Rabbi after he was gone. If the Rabbi was satisfied that a boy was the best of the best, he would say: “Come, take my yoke on you and follow me and be my disciple.” And the boy would go with the Rabbi wherever he travelled and devote his entire life to learn from the Rabbi his yoke – his interpretation of the scriptures. If the boy was not the best of the best, he would be told to go back to his family and learn a trade.
So Jesus’ words in today’s gospel need to be understood in this context. Thirteen times in the New Testament, Jesus is referred to as a Rabbi. He is not like other Rabbis though. His calling of his disciples was not based on selecting only the best of the best. In fact, he did exactly the opposite. Those he called were already back in village life following usual occupations. The men amongst them had already been rejected by a Rabbi because they were not the best of the best. For example, Peter, Andrew, James and John had been told by Rabbis, go back to your village and learn how to make a living out of fishing.
So the day that this Rabbi Jesus comes along and says to them, “Come follow me and I will make you fishers of men,” they leave the boats with haste as they are given a second chance by this different Rabbi – one who doesn’t call the best of the best to be his disciples, but one who calls those who have been rejected by others.
And so we have the words of this Rabbi today, calling all of those who are weary and carrying heavy burdens – those who are worn down by the cares of life – not the sort of people that the other Rabbis look for – not just males, but anyone who is struggling in life.
He utters the call of the Rabbi: “Come to me, all you who are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke (my interpretation of God’s law) upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart (and so is my father who sent me), and you will find rest for your souls (not the misery of trying to live out complex and detailed legal prescriptions). (Why?) For my yoke is easy, and my burden light.”
By saying that his yoke is easy, Jesus is not meaning that living according to his interpretation of the Law is easy to do in practice, but that it is easy to understand and learn what his teaching of the law is. Jesus is not a Rabbi who engages in all sorts of legalistic gymnastics. He preaches as one with authority we are told many times. He does not have to delve into minutiae but teaches clearly and boldly the good news of the kingdom of God.
And as we learn from his calling of the disciples and his promise that his yoke is easy, we don’t need to be anyone special to be his disciples. He calls all of us out of our burdensome lives and offers us the chance to find the way to God through faith in him and by learning from his teaching.
“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 light.”
Archdeacon Allan Paulsen