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. Matt 11:28-30
I used to read Jesus’ statement as directed to those who are burdened with sin, but as I’ve learned more of the Hebrew context of this passage, I’ve come to learn that the “burdened” Jesus is referring to are those who are struggling with understanding how to follow Torah – the Law given by God through Moses. It is the heart of learning how to bring order to creation instead of creating chaos.
First, we need to understand that Torah is often translated as “law” in English. This is rather harsh and holds a negative connotation in American culture, and a better translation would probably be “guidance”. In the same way an archer tries to “guide” an arrow to the center of a target, Torah tries to “guide” us how to hit the “center” of what our Creator desires of us.
In the Pentateuch, there are recognized 613 commandments which comprise Torah, so it was no easy task to understand how to balance them if they appeared to conflict in a particular situation. In the first century, the primary goal of the rabbinical system – apart from education – was to help people understand Torah and how to best follow it. The way many Pharisees dealt with this was by placing “hedges” around the Torah – rules to follow that would prevent you from breaking Torah. Then, they would build more hedges around those hedges.
Jesus says to the Pharisees, they tie up heavy loads and put them on men’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them. Instead of having to deal with the 613 written commandments, the people now had to understand both the written law and the oral traditions along with their rules & regulations. It is no wonder Jesus sees the people as being weary and heavy laden!
The Yoke’s on You
In the first century, rabbis (”respected teachers”) sought to teach their disciples how to follow Torah through what was referred to as the rabbi’s yoke. The yoke was the method of scriptural interpretation used by the rabbi, and if you wanted to know a rabbi’s yoke, you would ask him what is the greatest commandment? or teach me how to pray.
My Rabbi, Yeshua, was asked the question what is the greatest commandment, and He answered it this way:
“The most important [commandment] is this: ‘Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.” Mark 12:29-31
When you look at yokes of other rabbi’s, you will see that in its statement, Jesus’ yoke is by far the simplest (love God, love others), but its application still requires knowing the written law, and the wisdom to balance it, using the yoke as the scale.
So, when confronted with the balance between compassion for a sick person vs. keeping Sabbath, Jesus chooses to heal the sick man. Why? Because the Sabbath was created by God for man (as a time of rest and renewal), when faced with the choice of helping someone or keeping Sabbath, the choice was obvious because healing the sick person (loving others) was more important than resting (loving self).
In learning & following the Rabbi’s yoke, there are two basic requirements – knowledge and wisdom.
Knowledge is all about knowing scripture. In the first century, most religious Jews had the Torah memorized! Rabbis typically had the entire Tanakh (the Christian Old Testament) memorized. When the gospel spread to the goyim (the gentiles), this level of scholarship was absent, so the early apostles created a system of eldership, where the primary requirement for elders was that they were “apt to teach” – implying a deep understanding of scripture and its application.
The second requirement is wisdom, which is knowing how to apply the knowledge. This wisdom comes through experience and through questioning. In the first century, the primary teaching method was one of questioning, and it is by far the most effective at imparting wisdom. When Jesus was 12 and stayed back in Jerusalem, his mother found him with the teachers of the Law, who were amazed at His questions. In the rabbinical teaching style, the rabbi almost always answers a question with another question – which will ultimately lead to an answer.
The thought process is this – if you ask me a question and I give you my answer, it is my answer. If you hear another answer from someone else that you like better, there is no pain involved because their answer seems better than my answer. However, if you ask me a question and I, in turn ask you questions that lead you to an answer, it is then your answer, and you are much more likely to retain that when faced with alternatives.
I saw this in action in Sefat, Israel (for which I’ve been praying during the current crisis), in a small photography shop run by an elderly rabbi. The artwork in this shop was literally amazing, and one of the men in our group asked the rabbi which of the pieces was his favorite. The conversation then went like this:
Rabbi: May I ask you a question?
Rabbi: Are you married?
Jon: Yes, why?
Rabbi: Do you have children?
Jon: Yes. (pause) Why?
Rabbi: Which of them is your favorite?
This answer (via questioning) was far more powerful than if the rabbi had just answered “I can’t really pick a favorite – I like them all”.
My reasons for the foray in to the rabbinical system relates to the overall discussion of the Kingdom of God in this way:
First, it is highly important that we, as followers of Yeshua, know the text, and even more important that our leaders (the eldership) are true scholars of the text – not just wise guys. Secondly, it is critical that we re-learn the art of asking good questions, so that we can test our own actions (Galatians 6:4) and view them through the lens of our Rabbi’s yoke. Finally, we need to be willing to engage in healthy scriptural debate with each other so that, as iron sharpens iron, we may sharpen each other.
These elements of knowledge, wisdom and debate, all of which were givens at the birth of Christianity (which we should never forget is STILL a sect of Judiasm, a grafted branch in God’s olive tree – NOT a different tree…), are necessary for helping our communities (churches) best manage the creation and chaos in bringing about the Kingdom of Heaven.
These three elements are the building blocks of the final blog in this series, dealing with binding and loosing…