9 July 2017

St. Benedict

“Come to Me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am meek and humble of Heart; and you will find rest for yourselves. For My yoke is easy, and My burden light” (Matthew 11: 28-30).

     These familiar words of consolation from Jesus are typically associated with the traditional devotion to His Sacred Heart. The focal point of Christ’s teaching here is that we take His yoke upon us, and in so doing, we rest in Jesus Himself. What, then, is this yoke that Our Lord is talking about?

     On a surface level, one might think that He is harkening back to His training as a carpenter. Catholic tradition has maintained with a certain level of assurance that Jesus would have been trained in the vocation of carpentry as it was typical of His day that a male would often follow his father’s profession. Since Jesus is criticized in Capernaum for teaching about the Mosaic Law with His own authority when He had no formal rabbinical training, we know from the Gospels that Jesus did not formally train as a rabbi; since He is God Himself, He needed no rabbinical education! The rabbis, in fact, had to learn from Him, which as we know, they were often loathe to do. Since St. Joseph was a carpenter, Jesus most likely learned from him and worked as a carpenter for the first thirty years of His life until He began His public mission for three years.

     A yoke, therefore, would have been familiar to a carpenter because it was fitted over the shoulders of two oxen as they plowed the fields. A yoke prevented them from working at cross-purposes, and it was carved specifically to allow for the equal distribution of weight between the two. Therefore, a yoke was unique to the set of oxen.

     Despite the seemingly obvious reference to cattle in Jesus’ teaching, He is actually speaking about something quite profound in contrast to the scribes of His day and, therefore, He not using a farming image at all when speaking about the yoke. In fact, in chapter eleven of St. Matthew’s Gospel where this passage is found, Jesus is encountering opposition from leaders. The scribes, in particular, were hostile to Jesus because they thought that they possessed the authoritative interpretation of the Law, and the Jewish people were supposed to follow what they taught. Jesus, as we know, often corrected the misunderstanding of the Law that the scribes and Pharisees insistently taught. 

     What, then, was the yoke that Jesus was talking about? The rabbis often referred to the Law of Moses found in the first five books of the Old Testament, the oral interpretation of that Law, and the Jewish codes of daily living as “the yoke of the commandments.” There were well over 600 of those commandments that a pious, religious Jew was expected to keep! However, the keeping of the yoke of the Law was what separated the Jews from the Gentiles in daily living just as circumcision of the males was the physical sign that the Jews belonged to God in a special way. Because of their special identity and relationship with God, Jews were expected to live in a certain, distinctive way that was different from Gentiles. The yoke of the Law gave the standards and guidelines on just how to do that. 

     The problem with the yoke of the commandments was that there were so many of them, the question became how anyone could possibly follow the complete body of Jewish law. Nevertheless, even though the laws could be seen as restrictive and difficult to keep, no individual Jew was able to decide on his own whether he would observe them or not. They were seen as God’s laws for the benefit of His people. The Pharisees, for instance, set themselves up as the group that kept the law perfectly, and therefore, the Jewish people should look to and emulate them as they interpreted the commandments.  

     Jesus, however, had a different approach, and this is why He faced such hostility among His fellow Jews. No one individual could reinterpret the Law unless he could demonstrate his authority from the rabbi from which he had studied. However, no rabbi would so dramatically teach that all the Laws of Moses that God revealed were completed in himself and that many of the laws that the Jews were following as equal to the Commandments did not have to be observed anymore. Jesus, however, did teach exactly that, and furthermore, He never cited any rabbi as an authority—He Himself was the only authority He gave as coming from God the Father! As we see in the Gospels and can well imagine, Jesus’ teaching and His practices were not recognized by the prevailing religious class precisely because He said that they needed to learn from Him alone!

     Consequently, Jesus taught that the yoke of the commandments among His followers would be a different one from which the Jews had grown familiar. Now, it would be His yoke and not a set of over 600 rules to follow that would be the standard. In two thousand years, that yoke has not changed. St. Augustine (354-430) would summarize it well centuries later: “Love, and do what you will.” Jesus’ new Commandment was a double one: love God and love our neighbor as ourselves. To love does not mean, however, that we follow our basest human desires in our fallen human nature. Rather, Jesus has given us the pattern of what genuine, authentic, and lasting love is. Love and self-sacrifice go hand-in-hand just as love of God and neighbor are inexorably linked. One cannot exist without the other. God is the one who elevates and perfects our love when we die more and more to ourselves each day in favor of another person. The great Christian paradox is that the more we die to our own selfish, demanding will, the more we actually find joy and happiness in this life because we realize that contrary to what the worldly elite constantly tell us, our life is only about living for someone else. In so doing, we actually discover the person that God is shaping us to become more and more each day. That is the great adventure of the Christian life!

     Jesus has guaranteed that we never love on our own. On the night of the Last Supper, He promised that to fulfill His new Commandment which He would accomplish the next day on Good Friday and then share with us, Jesus was going to send along with God the Father our greatest friend, the Holy Spirit. He gives us the strength of will and perseverance we need to see that Jesus’ yoke is not burdensome in the least. In fact, Jesus’ yoke is exactly as He promised: one that gives peace even when we face difficulties because we know we are joined to God Himself. Furthermore, to give us the assurances we need to carry forward, the Holy Spirit gives us His own seven gifts as the sign of Jesus’ yoke that we carry: wisdom, fortitude, knowledge, fear of the Lord, understanding, counsel, and piety. As a tangible sign that we are living according to the mind and will of Jesus, the Holy Spirit also gives us His fruit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. No one would argue that being yoked with those virtues and dispositions from God alone gives us a way to live that certainly fulfills Jesus’ promise of peace and surrender to Him, our greatest Good!

     May you have a most blessed and holy week!

     Fr. Shawn William Cutler

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