Good morning, today we are talking about yokes….. In farming terms, if you yoked oxen you put a specific device on them. The yoke was a wooden brace that helped a partnered team of animals pull together. Here is a clip of a yoke pair of Belgian draft horses pulling a stuck semi out of the ice.
(Pulling truck out snow with horses.) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hlyDkpYHR70
Teams of animals with a yoke on them are incredibly powerful.
However, Jesus is using the word yoke with a slight twist. In Jewish time, referring to a rabbi or teacher’s “yoke” was a special idiom that referred to a rabbi’s religious way of living. If you put on a rabbi’s yoke, it meant you followed his teachings and in a very real way pulled together as a community to forward the teachings of that particular rabbi. When Jesus said his yoke is easy and light, he is referring to the weight of laws that rabbis would impose on those following them. Many Rabbis would take the Talmud, the jewish book of law, and add MORE and MORE rules to make it harder and harder to follow that particular Rabbi.
In our modern times we still use the term follow as well. In social media, a follow represents a user who chooses to see all of another user's posts in their content feed. You can follow people on twitter, on facebook, snapchat, instagram, and youtube so that every time that person uploads their latest content or stream of consciousness you can have it pop on your feed.
I suppose if you compiled the channels and kind of people that I follow on youtube and social media, you would get a picture of what interests me, makes me laugh, or that I might find important.
I think that who you follow can say a lot about you. I can look at what you have liked or shared on your profile and I can start to build a picture of who you are. Your politics, what sports team you might follow, what sparks your creativity, the genres of music you are into, what you find important, or what makes you laugh.
Two thousand years ago, there were some interesting similarities in Jewish culture. In Galilee, the region where Jesus grew up, people were following other people then too. Except they followed teachers called Rabbis. If you liked a certain rabbi's way of interpreting the scripture, if you liked the way he framed and implemented the Torah, you would say I’m a follower of rabbi so and so. You might designate yourself his follower and that would say a lot about you. You put the YOKE of the Rabbi upon your shoulders. Pastors symbolize this when they wear a stole; they are representing Christ. Confirmation students do this when they get confirmed, they are willingly putting on the yoke of Christ after learning the tenants of scripture.
In the first century, there was a top "level" of following called disciple. But not just anyone could be a disciple of a Rabbi, you had to qualify.
Here is how the process worked:
Most everyone in Jewish culture would grow up in a rabbinic school, it would either be determined by the region you lived in or by your family's choice. As you got older, to stay in this school, you would have to pass certain benchmarks to move onto each level of Jewish education. Like today: to graduate you have to pass your classes, or complete the constitution test, etc.
Education was huge in Jesus' day, and there was an ongoing argument as to which age a Rabbi would receive a youth as a pupil. One Rabbi made the statement, “Under the age of six, we do not receive a child as a pupil. But from six upwards, receive him and stuff him with Torah like an ox!"
You see, education was important to educators, students, and parents in those times. The Mishna, a collection of ancient Jewish sayings, has a phrase that says, "Above all, we pride ourselves on the education of our children." This is the same system that Jesus would have grown up in and learned from in Nazareth in Galilee.
Jewish education was made up of three primary sections:
Bet Safar, Bet Talmud, Bet Midrash
Usually from the ages five to ten, it is a time taught in the synagogue by the Rabbi. During this time, good Jewish boys memorized the first five books of Torah-- Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy - memorized by the age of ten!
Progressing on from Bet Safar, it continues from the age of ten on to fourteen. During this time, the student would continue his memorization of the Psalms, Prophets, and the rest of the Hebrew Scriptures (the Old Testament). It wasn't uncommon in that day for a good Jewish boy to have the Old Testament memorized by the age of fourteen. They would also learn a family trade in case they didn’t continue their religious education.
At the age of fourteen, the best of the best would continue on to Bet Midrash where they would learn to apply oral and written law from the Talmud, the Mishna, Sages, and years and years of commentary on the scriptures. Each Rabbi would have their own interpretation of how to live out the Torah.
For instance, to Honor the Sabbath: One Rabbi might say that you can't go farther than the distance to the synagogue, while another might say you can't go twice the distance to the synagogue, because you have to return home. You have the law itself and then the Rabbi's interpretation of the rules required to obey the law. The Rabbi's rules were called his yoke. When you studied under a Rabbi, you took his yoke upon you.
But Jesus came and said His yoke was easy. In Rabbi speak, that means He isn't about endless lists of rules and regulations. You see, when Jesus is speaking, He's not just picking words out of the air; He's speaking as a Rabbi would.
Finally, a few (very few) of the most outstanding Bet Midrash students would go one final level further and would seek permission to study with a famous rabbi, often leaving home to travel with him for a lengthy period of time.
These students were called Talmid (tal-MEED) or the plural, talmidim (tal-mi-DEEM) (in Hebrew, which in our bible is translated disciple. (talmidim = disciples). To be a talmid, a person would go, seek out a respected rabbi, and submit to an intense interview process that would test every level of the student’s knowledge, reasoning ability, and memorization of Torah. If he was accepted, which was rare, the Rabbi would say, “Come, and follow me.”
There is much more to a talmid than what we call a student. A student wants to know what the teacher knows for the grade, to complete the class or the degree. A talmid wants to be like the teacher, that is, to become what the teacher is. That meant that students were passionately devoted to their rabbi and noted everything he did or said.
One of the Sages from the Mishna is quoted as this, "May you be covered in the dust of your Rabbi." Rabbis are passionate and animated. They would spend their days taking their disciples around teaching them, and as they traveled from place to place, they would literally kick up a cloud of dust. And because the disciples were following the Rabbi so closely, at the end of the day, they would actually be covered in the dust their Rabbi kicked up --hence the blessing, May you be covered in the dust of your Rabbi.
Now there was always the possibility at any of these education levels the that Rabbi might dismiss you, saying "Obviously, you know Torah, but you don't have what it takes to be just like me.” And the student would have to face their disappointment and return to the family trade, the family business.
Jesus inverted the system. Instead of waiting for students to come to him, though they did and a few of those cases are recorded in the Bible as well, Jesus went to seek out his own disciples, his own talmidim. The Lutherans have a saying: “God always goes first,” meaning before we are even aware or able to seek out God, God is already coming to us.
In calling his disciples, Jesus went first. He didn’t seek out the best of the best, the most educated. He sought out students who were plying their trade. Who were already told no. Who the system had already kicked out.
And Jesus called them. Because Jesus believed that those he called were capable of doing life like him.
Jesus believed that those he called were capable of doing life like him.
These beginning disciples, just ordinary fishermen, a tax collector, a revolutionary and a handful of others, became the foundation: the beginning of the church.
JESUS CHOOSE ORDINARY people to FOLLOW him.
The last thing Jesus does before leaving the disciples, his Talmidim, is to go back to Galilee where it all began. This is where Jesus went through the rabbinical process and where he first gathered his disciples. We read in the Scriptures the following:
The Great Commission
16 Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. 17 When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted.18 Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Therefore go and make disciples /Talmidim of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”
Jesus is saying that everyone, everyone is capable of following him.
No special qualifications, no test to pass, just an invitation. Jesus calls you to be his talmid, his disciple, to follow him because he believes you can. Jesus believed that those he called were capable of doing life like him.
So often we think of Christianity as something we need to believe in, but I wonder if we also need to accept that Jesus believes in us too.
The fact is if you are listening this morning, then Jesus has already gone first and created the moment, the interest, and offered the invitation. The invitation isn’t for somebody else, the invitation is for you. It's an invitation to follow him, to become his talmidim, his disciple, and to be more like him.
Jesus already believes you can follow him and
love your enemy,
reach out to your neighbor
feed the hungry,
Serve the poor and alienated
Live a life of peace
Build bridges over divides
Be more like him.
Jesus has called you, chosen you, and is with you.
And God the Father, through Jesus the Son and the disciples, and aided by God the Holy Spirit has set up this beautifully genuine and loving pile of people in this community called the church to help you along your journey as we all grow to be more like Jesus. Jesus invites us all in the same grace filled journey of becoming more like our Rabbi Jesus, who believes in us and who has given his life to say so loudly that we are invited, and loved.
This morning as you go about your day today be reminded of Jesus' love for you, and accept his invitation to follow him, be reminded of your task to become more like him, and be blessed by the belief that Christ has in you.
Let us pray
Thank you for choosing us first, for loving us first. Jesus, this morning we accept your invitation to become your disciples. We want to learn how to do life the way you do, love the way you do, help people they way you do. Holy Spirit, we are so thankful that you are with us as we learn to become more and more like our teacher, empowering us and helping us learn, bit by bit.
God, thank you for your church, filled with people to join on this journey of following you that we may pull together for a better and more loving world.
And everyone said, Amen.