13 May 2012

Lord's Supper Devotion: Take My Burden

This is a little devotional I presented to our church prayer group today during the Lord's Supper time.
I would like to take a look at the following verses from Matthew, and some of the background, cultural and implications we can draw from it. Jesus says:

Come unto me, all ye labouring and burdened ones, and I will give you rest, take up my yoke upon you, and learn from me, because I am meek and humble in heart, and ye shall find rest to your souls, for my yoke is easy, and my burden is light. (Mat 11:28-30 YLT)

At the time when Jesus came on the scene, it was common practice for Rabbi’s to take on disciples, and those disciples were expected to take a place of total obedience and dedication to the Rabbi and his philosophy. The purpose was for the disciple to become just like the Rabbi, and this rabbi/disciple relationship is what is meant to take on the “yoke” of the rabbi.

The typical rabbi/disciple relationship was very tough – and required much dedication and sacrifice in order to learn and follow in the footsteps of the rabbi. In the Mishnah it is called “a painful existence.” It says “This is the way [to acquire knowledge] of the Torah: eat bread with salt, drink water by measure (Ez. 4:11), sleep on the ground, live a painful existence (literally a life of sorrow), and labor (studying) the Torah.” To bear this yoke required much hard work, much study in the Torah, and much sacrificing in life.

So, when Jesus started his ministry, he was acknowledged by many as being in the position of a Rabbi, and many scholars say this is a sign that he had obviously followed the path and study of those in the field, and at the age of thirty was now beginning his formal rabbinical career, and was acknowledged publicly as holding this position.

Many of the things that Jesus did were typical lifestyle choices of the rabbinical position, and much of what he said ties in with typical ways of the rabbi lifestyle - though he spoke quite differently and with a different authority that caused him to stand out.

What we read in this chapter in Matthew can be difficult to understand to those of us who are not steeped in Hebrew culture and tradition, and so I hope to show a bit of what Jesus was referencing in this saying. David Bivin in his book New Light on the Difficult Words of Jesus: Insights from His Jewish Context, tells us:

In Ben Sira (also known as Ecclesiasticus) – a Greek book of the Apocrypha that predated Jesus by over one hundred years, there exists an astounding parallel to Jesus’ words:

Draw near to me, you unlearned, and lodge in the house of study. Why are you slow, and what do you say about these things, your souls being very thirsty? I opened my mouth and said, ‘Buy her [wisdom] for yourselves, without money. Put your neck under [her] yoke, and let your soul receive instruction. She is found nearby. See with your eyes how, with only a little labor, I have gotten much rest. (Ben Sira 51:23-27)

We see parallels, in that Ben Sira speaks of wisdom’s yoke, and the reference to “let your soul receive instruction” is very much similar to Jesus saying “learn from me.” So we can see that a common rabbinical teaching during Jesus time, about what can be drawn from wisdom - Jesus is applying these same things to what you will receive from him. Another common teaching on wisdom, also from Ben Sira has even more similarities:

Listen, my son, and accept my judgment; do not reject my counsel. Put your feet into her fetters, and your neck into her collar. Put your shoulder under her and carry her, and do not fret under her bonds. Come to her with all your soul, and keep her ways with all your might.

So, being under the yoke of wisdom is to be desired, and though at time can be tough, it is to be preferred for what is acquired from it.  We also see that they were to “come to her with all your soul” - paralleling Jesus’ words to “come to me.” It continues on, saying:

Search out and seek, and she will become known to you; and when you get hold of her, do not let her go. For at last you will find the rest she gives, and she will be changed into joy for you.

So again in this passage, we see that being under the guide of wisdom will give rest, which Jesus has stated will be given if you take on his yoke. And the last part of the verse states:

Then her fetters will become for you a strong protection, and her collar a glorious robe. Her yoke is a golden ornament, and her bonds are a cord of blue. You will wear her like a glorious robe, and put her on like a crown of gladness. (Ben Sira 6:23-31)

Here we see wisdom’s yoke and her bonds, which is a parallel to Jesus’ speaking of yoke and burden. According to the teaching of Ben Sira, the yoke and burden of wisdom will yield the fruit of joy and protection, a golden ornament, a cord of blue, a glorious robe, and a crown of gladness – which seems reminiscent of the rewards of the saints spoken of in Revelation.

While many scholars link the burden spoken of by Jesus to the burdens spoken of later in Matt. 24:2-4 where it says, speaking of the Pharisees “for they bind together burdens heavy and grievous to be borne, and lay upon the shoulders of men, but with their finger they will not move them,” many other scholars do not make this connection, due to the use of the word “bind” as well as the plural use of “burdens.”

Instead, the yoke and burden is in the context of learning, and is related to the heavy burden required of the disciple in his learning of the ways of Torah. Jesus speaks of his yoke and burden, but in his case, it is easy and light to bear.

Here are some other things we can see in these words of Jesus:

“Come unto me…” – as we have seen, according to Ben Sira, it is wisdom who bids people to come.

“…all ye labouring and burdened” – some versions translate this “weary and heavy laden” – and some scholars see this as possibly hearkening back to the words of Yahweh when he said in Jeremiah 31:23ff:

Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel: “Once more they shall use these words in the land of Judah and in its cities, when I restore their fortunes: ‘The LORD bless you, O habitation of righteousness, O holy hill!’ And Judah and all its cities shall dwell there together, and the farmers and those who wander with their flocks. For I will satisfy the weary soul, and every languishing soul I will replenish.”

Of course this connection seems most likely, considering this same chapter is where the announcement of the new covenant is made, which Jesus came to establish.

“…and I will give you rest.” – this is seen as a Messianic claim, because the Messiah was expected to bring rest for the righteous. Also, it may be alluding to what God says in Ex. 33:14 – “And he said, “My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.”” NOTICE! Jesus is here speaking in a manner that only God could speak.

“…because I am meek and humble in heart– we can see here that Jesus’ self characterization of being meek and humble is a parallel the characterization of Moses in Num. 12:3 which tells us “And the man Moses is very humble, more than any of the men who are on the face of the ground” (YLT) or as some other version put it “Now the man Moses was very meek” (ESV).

This can be considered significant and ties in to the fact that Jesus is the prophet to come that is like Moses, for Moses told the people in Deut 18:15 “The LORD your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your brothers—it is to him you shall listen.“

The last phrase I wish to emphasize is:

“and ye shall find rest to your souls” – which many see as an allusion to Jer. 6:16, where we are told: “Thus says the LORD: “Stand by the roads, and look, and ask for the ancient paths, where the good way is; and walk in it, and find rest for your souls.” Again here, we see Jesus using words that were beforehand only words of promise from Yahweh.

So, as we approach the table of our Lord, we are coming with our worldly burdens in tow, and we are to lay them at his feet and take up the light burden and yoke of being his obedient disciple - as we enter and renew ourselves in his rest.