Sunday, 10 June 2007

Whose yoke are you under?

Title slide
Whose yoke are you under? What on earth is Jesus really talking about… when he says

Word slide
‘My yoke is easy and my burden is light?’
What kind of yoke is Jesus talking about? Now I want you to… just talk to each other… for a moment…
about the kind of yoke… you think Jesus means. [Discussion]

Egg yoke slide
Ok… Who thought it was this kind of yoke? [ask congregation wait for responses after each one]

Milk pail slide
Who thought it might be this kind?

Oxen yoke slide
Or what about this kind of yoke? You know the kind

Two oxen yoked together slide
where two beasts of burden… are yoked together
to pull a very heavy load. Or perhaps a yoke

Slave yoke slide
used as a way to control and punish slaves. [pause]

Would you be surprised if I told you it wasn’t exactly like any of these yokes? And if I told you the secret of what Jesus really meant

Blank title slide
Is actually in our first image… of a young Jewish man wearing a prayer shawl? And there’s another clue in our reading today… did you notice…

The book of Numbers says…And God spoke to Moses: "Speak to the People of Israel. Tell them… from now on… they’re to make tassels on the corners of their garments and mark each corner tassel…
with a blue thread.
Slide words
‘When you look at these tassels… you'll remember and keep… all the commandments of God,
and not get distracted by everything you feel or see that seduces you into infidelities.’
The tassels will signal remembrance and observance of all my commandments, to live a holy life …

Blank slide
Both the tassles... the reminders of God’s commandments ... and the yoke Jesus is talking about ...are on the Tallit – the prayer shawl – you can see the yoke... there across the top of the shawl on the young Jewish man’s head...

Atara slide
in Hebrew its called an Atara – which means yoke or crown . when they pray its on their heads... otherwise its worn across their shoulders.

Wide shot of young man
Today the tallit is an extra garment, worn only during prayer or at holiday worship. But the tallit Jesus wore was an integral outer garment for all Jewish men. [pause]
Blank title slide
So now we know what kind of yoke Jesus as a young rabbi is talking about. But what did he mean when he said ‘my yoke is easy’.

I was amazed to learn that in addition to the yoke on the prayer shawl… there was a broader meaning. You see…every rabbi had list… of how they interpreted the do’s and don’t in the Torah

the list was things a Rabbi forbid or what they’d permit. This list was called… the rabbi’s yoke.

In his excellent book about Christians and the Bible… Rob Bell tells us…in Jesus day when you were a student or disciple of a certain rabbi… you chose to follow him… because you believed his set of interpretations… his list… was the closest…
to what God actually intended in the scriptures.

And listen to this…when you followed that rabbi…
The Jews used to say…you were taking up that Rabbi’s yoke.’ [1]

Isn’t this amazing? Bell goes on to say. And ‘the intent of a rabbi having a yoke…wasn’t just to interpret the words correctly. It was for their followers… to live out their interpretation…
in everyday life.

Rabbis would spend hours discussing and debating with their followers… what it meant to live out a certain text.

And here’s the really incredible thing.

If a student made a suggestion… about what a certain text meant… and the rabbi thought the student had totally missed the point… the rabbi would say.
‘You have abolished the Torah’ ‘you have abolished the Law’… because in the rabbi’s opinion…
the student wasn’t anywhere near what God wanted.

But if the student got it right…
if the rabbi thought they’d really understood…
God’s intention in the text…
the rabbi would say ‘congratulations you have fulfilled Torah’… ‘You have fulfilled the Law’

Remember Jesus saying
Slide words
‘Don’t think that I’ve come to abolish
the Law or the Prophets; I haven’t come to abolish them… but to fulfil them.’

I now understand that Jesus was saying ‘I didn’t come to do away with the words of God; I came to show people what it looks like…
when the Law is lived out perfectly…’

Blank slide

And when an ordinary every day rabbi…
taught the yoke of a famous rabbi…
Jewish people would say… they were teaching in the name of that Rabbi. In the name of Hillel or Gamiliel…or Shamai

Rob Bell goes on to tell us that ‘once in a while a rabbi would come along… who was teaching a new yoke…
a new way… of interpreting the Torah…the Law…
teaching a way he believed… was closer… to what God intended… than the rabbis who came before him.’

Of course this was rare and extraordinary…
and attracted a huge amount of flack… unless two other teachers with authority… gave the new rabbi their stamp of approval. That’s why to the gospels Jewish readers…Jesus baptism by John was so important…not to mention the voice that came from Heaven. [pause]

Shmikah slide
The Hebrew word for authority is shmikah…and a rabbi with shmikah… would say things like… ‘you have heard it said…but I tell you’.

Remember last week how Jesus said this about forgiveness in place of revenge? Jesus had shmikah and what he was saying is… some rabbis interpret scripture this way… but I tell you… this is what God really means …in that verse.

And remember the list I told you each rabbi had… the list of things they’d forbid and permit…

well Rob Bells tells us they had a technical term
for the endless process of debating what was forbidden and what was allowed. They called it binding and loosing. To ‘bind’ something meant to forbid it… To loose something… was to allow it.

Rabbi’s would bind certain practice or traditions and loose others … and here’s the really cool part…
when a rabbi gave his followers the authority to bind and to loose… they called this ‘giving the keys of the kingdom’. Notice where Jesus says in Matthew

Slide words
‘I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.’

Blank slide
I now realise that Jesus is doing here is incredible. Jesus is actually giving his followers the authority to make new interpretations of scripture.

Remember when the early church had all these Gentiles coming in… and huge decisions about circumcision and eating food the Torah considered unclean? How they have to make decisions about what it means to be a Christian. Well… Jesus gives them the authority to wrestle with the Law…
and work out new interpretations of scripture.

So they get together and do this… and work out what it will look like for millions of people to be Christians. [pause…………]

And that’s exactly what we do today… in our General Assembly… in our Presbyteries… in our Session…
and in our house groups. We wrestle with the text… trying to discern what God’s will really is.

We take Jesus seriously and we live out the authority and responsibility Jesus gives us… to bind and to loose… we see our faith community… taking part in a huge discussion… that’s been going on for thousands of years in the tradition of the rabbis.

And for most of church history…
people only ever heard the Bible read out loud…
in a room full of people. They studied and debated and made decisions about the Bible as a community. And if one person went off
the deep end with an interpretation…
others were there to keep them in check.

That’s one reason… our leadership so keen to get people into study groups. Rob Bell tells us…in Jesus’ time it was assumed you had as much to learn from the discussion of the text… as you did from the text itself.

That’s why tonight we have ‘What’s the Word’
that’s exactly what we do at What’s the Word – people who are hungry to know God… and passionate about being true to the words of God… wrestle with the words together. [pause]

even the different translations we use are themselves interpretations…
they don’t necessarily use the same English words in translating the Hebrew or the Greek. And Rob Bell reminds us ‘the assumption there is a way to read the Bible that is free of interpretation…to read it…
for just what it says… this assumption is simply not true. Any Bible is an interpretation of what the original languages meant. That’s the truth!

And Jesus promised… the truth would set us free didn’t he. That’s why the early church in interpreting the scriptures would say ‘it seems right to the Holy Spirit and to us.’

Scripture has always been interpreted... and Jesus knew that. He also knew... the religious leaders of his time... had laid a very heavy yoke indeed... upon the Hebrew people... with their interpretations....

And we know that too...and that’s why a woman is up here teaching today and why our men are free not to wear prayer shawls or why our women are free not to cover their heads in church. Why Sunday is our holy day... our Sabbath... instead of Saturday.

Because... we’ve taken on the yoke of Jesus. We’ve accepted the keys to the kingdom he offers... and the authority to bind and to loose. But we can only do this if we believe the Bible is alive... and as true for us today... as it was for those who wrote it...and if believe...just as Jesus promised that more will be revealed. To read more about Rob Bell and his church look for

[1] Velvet Elvis p 93.