Monday, July 7, 2014

Heavy Yokes

Jesus said, “My yoke is easy and my burden is light.”

How was your Fourth of July?  Did you get to cook out or cook in?  Did you have any friends over?  Did you have a few drinks?  Did you maybe overdo it a little bit?  If so, you are in good company.  There is someone else I know who always enjoyed having a good time and knew how to celebrate with friends on special occasions.  Jesus of Nazareth.  Yes, that is right, Jesus!  In today’s Gospel reading he acknowledges that his critics think he is a glutton and a drunkard.  His critics also don’t care much for his choice of company, complaining that he is friends with tax collectors and sinners.

This highlights something we see woven throughout the gospels: Jesus approached religion very differently than did the religious leaders of his day.  For them, religion was a duty, an obligation, perhaps even a burden.  It was laden with rules and requirements that spelled out in exacting detail what one must do in order to be clean and holy and right in the eyes of the Lord.

Jesus takes a different approach.  For him religion is life-giving and life-affirming, rather than life-restricting and life-denying.  “We humans were not made so that there would be someone to keep the Sabbath laws,” he taught, “rather, the Sabbath was made for us so that we might have a day of rest from our work.”  “All of the laws come down to this,” he said, “Love the Lord your God with all you heart, soul, mind, and strength and love your neighbor as yourself.”

In the Christian tradition an ox’s yoke is an image of discipleship.  It suggests that we are bound to something that guides and directs our actions in life.  Jesus notices that those who understand religion to be nothing more than rules and obligations are weary and carrying heavy loads.  He invites them to change yokes, to take on his yoke in order to be guided by him.  When Jesus says “My yoke is easy and my burden is light” he is saying that his approach to religion gives life.  It does not take it away.

The burden of a heavy yoke runs deep in the Hebrew tradition.  When the Israelites came into the Promised Land they assimilated into a region already inhabited by numerous clans and tribes.  These varied groups practiced all manner of different things.  The Lord God gave Moses The Kedoshim, or Holiness Code, along with a healthy dose of ‘do’ and ‘don’t’ laws to follow in order that God’s priests and God’s people would be holy (literally ‘set apart’) from the culture around them.  God’s people were not to blend in, but to stand out by standing for something very different.

In preparation for the program at our Wednesday evening pot-lucks I have had the wonderful opportunity to reread the Book of Leviticus.  It contains of plethora of directions.  Here are some of the laws about what can and cannot be eaten:

·   All animals with divided hoofs that eat cud are acceptable with the exception of camels, badgers, hares, and pigs (I’m thinking our cookout after the service could be a code breaker).

·   All water or sea creatures with fins and scales, but none without fins and scales (so much for shrimp cocktail and crab cakes).

·   No eagles, vultures, osprey, buzzards, kites, ravens, owls, cormonrant, water hen, stork, heron, hoopee or bat (well, God didn’t have to tell me I can’t eat bats because I was already on board with that one).

·   No winged insects except locust, crickets, and grasshoppers.

After these dietary laws follow copious instructions about what a person who touches a carcass must do in order to be clean again.  Women are unclean and impure after childbirth.  Unclean for seven days and impure for 33 days after giving birth to a boy, 14 days and 66 days after giving birth to a girl.  There is an entire chapter set aside for how to deal with this.

Perhaps the most unappealing section of Leviticus is the one that describes various skin diseases and how the priest is to examine people for them.  A lengthy process is laid out for declaring a person clean from leprosy and the kinds of offerings that person is to make over a period of time.  Priests were charged with going into a leper’s home to make an inspection.  I am glad none of this is in my job description! 

The Lord God is concerned with balding.  Here is what is said to Moses:  “If anyone loses the hair from his head, he is bald but he is clean.  If he loses the hair from his forehead and temples, he has baldness of the forehead but he is clean.  But if there is on the bald head or the bald forehead a reddish-white diseased spot, it is a leprous disease… and he is unclean.” (13:40-42).  I think I make the cut!

Here is a list of other subjects covered in Leviticus:

·   Bringing sacrifices to the tent of meeting.

·   Prohibitions against eating blood.

·   Prohibitions against uncovering the nakedness of kin.

·   Prohibitions against certain sexual practices, especially when linked to pagan rituals and worship.

·   Prohibitions against eating sacrificed food after it is two days old.

·   Commands not to reap an entire harvest or to pick up fallen grapes.  These are for the poor.

·   Commands on how to treat the disadvantaged.

·   No cross-breeding, cross planting, or clothing of mixed material (19:19).

·   No witchcraft, haircuts, beard trimming, or tatoos commemorating the dead.

·   Do not make your daughter a prostitute.

·   Treat aliens well.

·   Do not cheat other people.

·   No child sacrifices.

·   No mediums or wizards.

·   Special instructions for priests (with special emphasis on not accepting animals for sacrifice that are less than perfect).

·   The appointment of festivals – Passover, Unleavened Bread, first fruits, atonement, harvest (booths).

You cannot begin to imagine the complexity that emerges around making sacrifices.  First, there are several different kinds of sacrifices and while they may involve the same things to be sacrificed, different things must be done depending on the purpose.  Sometimes the priests eat the meat that has been sacrificed and sometimes they don’t.  Two of Aaron’s sons make a mistake and throw out what they are to eat and the results are, well, not pretty.

And speaking of things that are not pretty, let me introduce you to a little tradition known as The Ordeal of Bitter Water from the 5th chapter of the Book of Numbers.  It provides the Lord’s direction for a husband who suspects his wife has been unfaithful.  If a husband is overcome with a “spirit of jealousy”, i.e., thinks his wife has strayed, he is to take her to the priest.  He presents to the priest a grain offering to which the priest adds holy water and dust from the floor.  This mixture becomes known as the Curse of Bitter Water.  The wife in question drinks the potion.  If it makes her violently sick then she is guilty.  If it does not she is innocent. 

And as if all these religious decrees were not burdensome enough, centuries of commentary gets added to them the way more and more laws get tacked on to the US tax code.  Eventually no one understands them and everyone lives in fear of being wrong.  No one wants to be audited either by the IRS or by God.

The initial value of all these laws was to keep the Israelites as a people set apart from the culture around them.  Some of this related to distinctiveness – they do this, but we do that.  Some of it related to practicality and common sense – they eat whatever, but we won’t eat things that may make us sick.  Some of it represented an advance in civilization – you sell your daughters into prostitution but we will not.  And some of it – like the Bitter Waters – is ripe for reform. 

Whatever purpose it served, by Jesus’ day it had become oppressive.  It is against this backdrop that he says, “My yoke is easy and my burden is light.”  C.S. Lewis once said that Christians don’t think God loves us because we are good, but that God makes us good because God loves us.  I think that is a wonderful yoke to carry.

I’ll leave you with a blessing from the Methodist writer William Arthur Ward, whose thinking inspired many over the course of the last century:

   The adventure of life is to learn.
   The purpose of life is to grow.
   The nature of life is to change.
   The challenge of life is to overcome.
   The essence of life is to care.
   The opportunity of life is to serve.
   The secret of life is to dare.
   The spice of life is to befriend.
   The beauty of life is to give.

Now there is a yoke I would like to bear.  Jesus said, “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me for my yoke is easy and my burden is light.