In the early 1970s I was living in London. Jim, my boyfriend of the time had two cars – a beaten up mini that we used around town and an equally battered campervan that we used for trips to Europe. One weekend we went up to my parents. For various reasons we travelled separately and Jim arrived very late. The next morning when I came down to breakfast there was stony silence from my parents. When I went outside I saw why. Jim has come up in the campervan. It was much decorated as was the fashion then and some of the paintings were somewhat suggestive. The final straw for my Father had been the sticker on the back which read “don’t laugh your daughter may be in here”. Like most Fathers, mine was pretty protective and had warned me of men that “wanted one thing only”. He was now convinced that Jim was one such.
Parents wanting their children to do the right thing is something all cultures have in common. In ancient Israel there were very strict rules to keep young people on the straight and narrow. In Deuteronomy we read:
If someone has a stubborn and rebellious son who will not obey his father and mother, who does not heed them when they discipline him,  then his father and his mother shall take hold of him and bring him out to the elders of his town at the gate of that place.  They shall say to the elders of his town, “This son of ours is stubborn and rebellious. He will not obey us. He is a glutton and a drunkard.”  Then all the men of the town shall stone him to death. So you shall purge the evil from your midst; and all Israel will hear, and be afraid.
The words “a glutton and the drunkard” should ring bells as we heard in our New Testament reading those words being used to describe Jesus. People had complained that John the Baptist could not have been a man of God because his life style was so austere. He lived an exceptionally simple life constantly fasting and living in the desert. Then along comes Jesus who clearly enjoys being one of the people. He get pleasure from a drink and a good meal. He is happy to be with anyone who welcomes him irrespective of their social status. Again the critics raise their voices accusing him not being a man of God but being a glutton and a drunkard. By using those words Jesus’ critics were saying that Jesus was a rebellious son who should be stoned to death.
So it seems that neither John and nor Jesus are men of God? If they are not then who can be? The answer is no one because these critics wanted to ignore Jesus and his message so they were just looking for excuses. Jesus knows this, hence his criticism of “the wise”. Jesus is not actually criticising people who are wise per se. What he is criticising are people who are proud of their wisdom and think that they know everything. The wise men of Judaism spent all their lives studying the detail of the law laid down in the Torah – our OT. They believed that the only way to get close to God was to live by the minutiae of the law. Jesus knows that only those who are humble enough to know that they don’t know everything will be open to seeing Jesus for who he really is.
Several centuries before Jesus the prophet Zechariah knew that humility central to the personality of the Messiah. We heard in our OT reading that the Messiah would be humble riding not on a grand horse but on a donkey. Just as Jesus was himself humble so it is that only those who are humble will be open enough to see new possibilities. It is in Jesus that the greatest new possibility of all is revealed. Jesus tells the humble that it is only through him that they can truly find out what God is. He says that only he knows the Father and the Father only knows him. The only way that the Father will be revealed is through Jesus. Later on Jesus will say that the Father and he are one. In other words anyone who is humble enough to be open and really look at Jesus will see God and there is no other way of truly knowing God. Of course there are other ways of worshipping God as our brothers and sisters in Judaism and moderate Islam know. But it is only through Jesus that we can have a direct and personal relationship with God.
Through that personal relationship with God Jesus promises us that life will be easier. Through Jesus the yoke of the law is lifted. The rabbis of the 1st century themselves described trying to live in line with all the detailed laws of the torah as a yoke – the penalty they bore because they were God’s chosen people. I did a quick scan through Leviticus and Deuteronomy and came up with the following rules out of the hundreds listed: do not plant two crops in one field; do not wear clothes made from more than one type of material; do not charge interest on loans to friends; you may eat your neighbour’s grapes but not carry them away; a man is exempt military service for the 1st year of his marriage; if you grab a man’s genitals in a fight your hand must be cut off; a man’s promises always stand but a man can override a woman’s promises; you must not muzzle an oxen; and as for the rules around sex well it is a miracle that any children were conceived!
No wonder following the law was described as a yoke. A yoke it used to guide horses and oxen in the fields. But the yoke of the Torah is heavy, chaffing weighing people down rather than guiding them. Although we are not weighed down by the Torah there are though many possible worldly yokes that weigh us down chaffing our souls. Most of us probably suffer from several of them.
Competing demands is a common one. Do we give our time to politics to campaign for a better world or do we give our time to charity for the same reason. Do we push our time to the limit following our favourite sport? I know that for some people this fortnight has a real stress as they determinedly follow Wimbledon whilst knowing there is so much else they ought to be doing. Stress added to by Andy Murray’s sad departure in the quarter finals. Do we spend the weekend with the daughter who needs help in the garden or with the other one who is struggling with her toddler?
Finance and work are often heavy yokes. We enjoy the freedom to spend that a mortgage or credit card gives us until the interest becomes a chaffing yoke. We value our work and the opportunities to learn and progress it offers until the demands of a 12-hour day becomes a chaffing yoke. Jesus’ message to all of us bearing these chaffing yokes, these heavy burdens, is to turn to him and we will find rest. It is a comforting promise and one that I hope we all rely on.
However, Jesus is not promising us relief from our responsibilities. He is saying that there is a better way of living our lives. Instead of carrying the rough, chaffing yokes that we have taken on, it is Jesus’ yoke that will give us lives worth living. Jesus’ yoke is a lovely image particularly when we remember that Jesus was a carpenter. Jesus would have known the difference between a well-fitting yoke that guides and the poorly made one that would chaff. The spiritual yoke that Jesus is offering us will be well fitting. Under the guidance of this light, well-fitted yoke, we will have the understanding to take on the right responsibilities and to fulfil them with deep inner peace.
So in those few short verses we have the whole gospel shown to us. Jesus is the revelation of God to us and through Jesus we are offered a personal relationship with God that will show us the way to a life lived as God wants, rooted in the deep peace of God’s love. That surely is only the yoke worth wearing.