Preached 6 July 2008 at Bolton St James, Bradford.
“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.” Or as the old King James Version put it, “Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest”.
It’s a comforting verse, isn’t it? And one that those of us who have something of a Christian background silently quote to ourselves when life gets hard and the going gets tough … when we wonder how we are going to get through another day because of the troubles that are piled on our backs.
And it is, of course, perfectly OK to use this text in those circumstances and to draw strength and comfort from it; for the Lord Jesus who spoke these words is indeed always there to help and support us and to strengthen us in time of need. But that said, this verse … and the surrounding verses in the second part of our [gospel] reading this morning … have, in fact, nothing at all to do with followers of Jesus being given divine help in coping with life’s problems.
To understand what these words of Jesus are really about, let me invite you to imaging yourself in the little village of Nain, deep in the countryside of Lower Galilee, two thousand years ago.
You’re a shopkeeper, perhaps, selling clay pots, and you’ve just finished piling your wares up alongside the wall when there’s something of a commotion at the far end of the street. “A rabbi,” someone shouts; and sure enough that’s what it is. One of the dozen or so travelling, teaching rabbis that spend their time wandering the length and breadth of Palestine is paying a visit to Nain!
Here he comes with the usual bunch of students … disciples … trailing behind him, hanging on his every word, learning from him how (in his view) to fulfil the Torah … to live out God’s law in a way that is pleasing to him.
This rabbi seems to have ten, eleven … no, twelve such disciples … and they look a bit rougher, most of them, than a rabbi’s disciples usually are; but there again this rabbi is a bit different anyway from other rabbis you’ve seen. He looks happy and cheerful, for a start. And he seems interested in ordinary, everyday things. Look, he’s just stopped to watch that bunch of kids playing some silly game!
Still, he clearly is a rabbi – his clothing and his head-covering alone tell you that. And that’s great because now all sorts of issues will get settled. There’s the problem of how Jacob’s estate should be split between his two sons – one of them is a really good lad who worked hard for his father when he was still alive but the other, the older one, is a real waster. Surely it’s not right that he should get more than the younger lad? But not to worry! Now the rabbi will sort it out. That’s one of the things rabbis do.
And then there’s Miriam in the house over there … no, not that one, the one with the donkey outside it. She was struck down just two weeks ago by some awful illness. None of the usual cures have worked. But maybe this rabbi is a healing rabbi – some of them are? If so, he can have a look at Miriam and maybe get her back on her feet again.
You keep watching and as the rabbi gets near to you, you call out a greeting to him, and immediately he turns and smiles at you. “Rabbi, what’s your name?” you ask. And he replies, “Jesus, my friend … Jesus of Nazareth. And you are …?”
Well, you don’t need to answer and you can leave Galilee behind you now and come back into the twenty-first century. But come back to it, please, understanding that (whatever else Jesus was and now is) he was, when he walked this earth for those three years that ended up with him dying on the cross at Calvary, a real, live rabbi.
Fourteen times in the Gospels, Jesus is actually addressed by that title – and 36 times he is addressed as “Teacher” which is the English equivalent of the word “Rabbi” in Greek. And he was quite clearly treated as a rabbi. I haven’t made anything up in that little trip of the imagination I took us on to Galilee. People did ask Jesus to settle disputes (Luke 12.13) which was one of the roles that rabbis undertook. And he was frequently the teaching guest in synagogues, and at open dinner parties, which is something else that happened to rabbis. He was a rabbi.
Does that come as a shock? Does it surprise you? If it does it is because, throughout much of the last 2000 years of history, Jews have not been very popular, so every effort has been made in art and literature and theology and Bible commentaries to make Jesus seem as un-Jewish as possible — remember the blonde-haired, blue-eyed Jesus of the Sunday School pictures? I do — and certainly to quash any suggestion that he really was a rabbi.
But the truth is that he was. God became man in Jesus … but he chose to become a man who lived as a rabbi, acted as a rabbi, and spoke and taught as a rabbi, using all the ways of teaching that other rabbis used. And he did so, I believe, because that was the very best way of reaching the widest possible audience in the shortest possible time at that particular place and point in history.
However, although Jesus was a rabbi and taught as a rabbi, there was a world of difference between what Jesus taught and what other rabbis taught … and that is what this morning’s gospel reading is all about.
You see, the technical term for any particular rabbi’s teaching on how to fulfil the law of God was his “yoke” and it was that yoke that the rabbi’s disciples were obliged to “take upon themselves” as they learned it from the rabbi himself. Thus Rabbi Yossi (who was a Galilean like Jesus and lived in the same area at the same time as Jesus) had his yoke which his disciples carried. So had Rabbi Gamaliel down south in the Jerusalem area (St Paul, you’ll remember, was once one of Rabbi Gamaliel’s disciples and carried his particular yoke until his conversion on the Damascus Road). Then there was Rabbi Jochanan ben Zakkai and his yoke; Rabbi Eleazar ben Asaria and his yoke; and several others – all contemporaries of Rabbi Yeshua ben Yosef … Jesus son of Joseph … the person we know and love as our Lord Jesus Christ.
And the point about the yokes that these rabbis who were contemporaries of Jesus imposed upon their followers was that they were very heavy and very burdensome and they made you very, very weary.
According to the experts, the law of Moses, you see, contained 613 commandments — forget about a mere ten! — but how were you to obey them in a way that was pleasing to God? Well, a rabbi could tell you. He could explain what any commandment meant, and he could give you a dozen or more little rules which, if you were to follow them, would ensure that you never broke the commandment that the little rules had “built a hedge around”. Which was fine except that, by the time you’d had every commandment hedged around with a dozen more, you got up every morning with over 7,000 rules to obey, and that turned life into a mere existence of joyless drudgery.
And it was to such people that Jesus said, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, 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 is light.”
It was a striking thing to say. In the Old Testament (which was the Bible of those to whom Jesus was speaking) it was only God who said “I will give you rest” (Exodus 33.14), but now Jesus offered it — not in any arrogant way … just because it was his to give.
Many rabbis were haughty and proud and given to self-promotion and self-aggrandisement – much like some of the white-suited international “evangelists” that can be seen on cable TV. “But,” says Jesus, “I am not like that and you know it. I’m not in the rabbi business for what I can get out of it. I don’t give myself airs and graces. I’m gentle and humble in heart, so you can trust me. And you can trust what I offer.”
Which is what, Jesus? What do you offer? Answer – An easy yoke and a light burden.
I said earlier that a rabbi’s yoke was his teaching on how to live out and fulfil God’s law. But the picture behind it was (as I was explaining to the kids earlier, at the first service) the picture of a pair of oxen in a field, drawing a plough. The yoke was the beam with two hollowed out bits that sat on the necks of the two oxen. Ropes went from the beam round the necks of the oxen and back to the beam to hold it in place; and from the centre of the beam ran a long pole with a handle that was held by the ploughman and the pole had a ploughshare at its end.
Yokes could not only be very heavy, they could be very ill-fitting. If the hollowed-out bits had been done roughly and without much care, they could be the wrong shape for the oxen’s neck and they could chafe. But a well-fitting yoke would not do that. And the Greek word for well-fitting is chrestos which is the word that is here translated as “easy”. So … “My yoke is well-fitting” says Jesus.
William Barclay suggests (a little fancifully I think) that the sign over the carpenter’s workshop in which Jesus had worked with Joseph for much of his life might have read “My yokes are easy”! But, true or not, that is certainly the claim that Jesus is now making for his teaching on how to live in a way that is pleasing to God. It won’t weigh you down, he says. It won’t chafe. It won’t be exhausting or painful. Rather, he says, it’ll be something of a breeze.
Something of a breeze! But God is very demanding. God is holy. How can living a life that pleases God ever be “something of a breeze”? How can it possibly be something that Jesus can describe as “rest”?
Well, I think the answer lies in the verse that comes immediately before the well-known verses I’ve been quoting today. It’s the bit where Jesus says: “All things have been committed to me by my Father. No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.”
Father-son, son-father. In those words, Jesus seems to be stressing that his God-pleasing life springs from the father-son relationship he enjoys with God. God is his father, Jesus is God’s son — and that’s what makes the yoke so easy. Because Jesus loves his father and is like him, he quite naturally, by default, without having to have an inward battle about it, does the stuff that pleases his father and doesn’t do the stuff that would displease him. He listens to his father, is constantly in his father’s company, wants to be about his father’s business, and wants to do everything in the father’s way. So he just does.
And, says Jesus, do not think that that is a relationship that only I can enjoy. Not at all. The Father has said I can share it. He has given me the privilege of revealing him as Father to anyone I choose. I can bring others too into the sonship of God that I myself enjoy.
And it is the yoke of sonship that is the easy yoke. Being a child of God is the well-fitting yoke that sits lightly on the shoulders of all who wear it. It still is a yoke … let’s not lose sight of that. There are still fields to be ploughed and the oxen must still go where the farmer wants them to go. Obedience is still required. But the obedience that springs from sonship is, says Jesus, a breeze compared with the obedience exacted from a slave.
Yes, you say. That’s all well and good; but even if I am now a child of God, I just don’t have that unclouded knowledge of the Father that Jesus had, nor do I have his undivided heart, nor his complete and utterly unswerving love and devotion to the Father. So how can I possibly pull the plough as he pulled it?
Answer. By pulling it with him. Remember, a yoke is built to accommodate two oxen. It only works properly with two oxen. And often, in those days, a farmer would place an experienced ox alongside an inexperienced ox so that the one could teach the other. And that, I am sure, was the practice which Jesus knew about and which he had in mind when he said “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me”.
The yoke he spoke of as “my yoke” was his in the sense of “the yoke I already have my neck under as an ox” … not in the sense of “the yoke that I, as farmer, am about to place on you”.
His invitation is for you and me to join him under the yoke of sonship; to ensure that Father’s will is done, that the Father’s kingdom comes, on earth as it is heaven, by our living our lives in partnership with him, and letting him show us the way.
Let me end by reading you today’s verses from The Message version of the Bible – a brilliant and very accurate paraphrase by Eugene Peterson …
“No one knows the Son the way the Father does, nor the Father the way the Son does. But I’m not keeping it to myself; I’m ready to go over it line by line with anyone willing to listen. Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me – watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.”
Want your life to be full of the “unforced rhythms of grace”? Come to Jesus. Join him under his well-fitting yoke. And let him show you the way. Amen.