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Did you know that whaling is illegal in Oklahoma? Or that people who make ugly faces at dogs may be fined / jailed. And if you’re ever at a funeral in Oklahoma City, don’t tip over the casket, because that’s illegal. Every state has some crazy laws.
In Louisiana, “Biting someone with your natural teeth is ‘simple assault,’ while biting someone with your false teeth is ‘aggravated assault.’”
And in Alabama: “It is illegal to impersonate a person of the clergy.”
Most of us are familiar with the laws that govern us, at least the more obvious ones: speeding, stealing, etc. Even the people that break them are aware of the fact that they are doing something illegal. When we consider The Law of the Old Testament we are referring to 613 laws that were established by God to govern the people. In our Gospel reading, Jesus said, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens,” it was these laws that he was referring to as a “burden.” Who could keep them? No sooner had you made atonement for the ones you had committed when you discover that you had already broken another.
There is a story about a student at Cambridge University in England who entered the classroom on exam day and asked the proctor to bring him cakes and ale. The proctor refused, expressing astonishment at the young student’s audacity. At this point the student read from the four-hundred-year-old Laws of Cambridge, which were written in Latin and still somewhat in effect. The passage read by the student said, “Gentlemen sitting for examinations may request and require Cakes and Ale.” The proctor was forced to comply. Pepsi and hamburgers were judged the modern equivalent, so the necessary accommodations were made for the student. After all, the law was on his side. Three weeks later the student was summoned to the office of Academic Affairs to face disciplinary action and was assessed a fine of five pounds (about $7.50, the cost of the meal). He was not fined for demanding cakes and ale, but for blatantly disregarding another obscure Cambridge law: he had failed to wear a sword to the examination.
The Mosaic Law was the same way. No one could keep up with the burden of all the obscurities. Addressing this burden, Jesus says, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”
There is a legend concerning Jesus which tells of his carpenter years. The legend claims that Jesus was one of the master yoke-makers and folks came from miles around for a yoke, hand carved and crafted by him.
When customers ordered the yokes they brought the oxen with them and Jesus would take precise measurements. After a week or so the owner would return with the oxen and Jesus would carefully place the newly made yoke over the shoulders of the oxen, then he would “fine tune” the yokes, removing rough spots, smoothing out edges that would eventually rub sores, making the yokes a perfect match for that pair of oxen.
When Jesus says, “my yoke is easy”, a more accurate translation of the Greek would be “well-fitting”. My yoke is well-fitting. Jesus is not saying that there will be nothing for us to carry, because we also know that Jesus says, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” The burden – that is the cross – must be carried, but through Jesus it is one that can be borne by us.
So, we are no longer burdened by the Law as given by Moses. We have exchanged that for the yoke of Christ which is well fitting and light. If this is true – which it is – then why do so many of us still carry around such heavy burdens? Such heavy loads? If you dare look in the mirror, you’ll see the answer. So often, the yoke over our shoulders is not the one that has been tailored made by Christ, instead it is the one you’ve made for ourselves. And so often, we carry these self imposed burdens because of our inability to receive the unconditional love of God.
You all know the story of the Prodigal Son. He received his inheritance before his father’s death and went off and squandered it. Ended up broke and starving. So he says, I will return to my father and be a servant, because at least his servants are treated well. Scripture says he returned, “But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him.” When his father saw him, what did his father do? He yelled at him and said, “Step one foot on this property and you’re a dead man!” No. Scripture says that the father “was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.” Yet we hear that passage and we can’t imagine that it is speaking about us. Sure, it is true for everyone else, but not me. We can’t sort it out in our minds and our hearts that Jesus would allow me to exchange the burden of my self-made yoke for the love of God.
We are no longer under the continuous demands of the Law, but we place these huge burdens on our on shoulders before allowing ourselves to receive God’s love. “I can accept God’s love if I do this,” but once we have done “that”, then we say, “God would love me if only I could be forgiven of this”. But it doesn’t stop there, because once we finally forgive ourselves we say, “I will be accepted by God when… if… after… etc… etc… etc.
Think back on the story of Lazarus, the one that Jesus raised from the dead and the brother of Mary and Martha. Jesus arrives at the tomb of Lazarus and tells those gathered there to roll away the stone, but Martha objects, “Lord, by this time there is a stench, for he has been there four days.” Jesus says to us, “Live! Throw down your burdens and accept my love” and we say, “Lord, I can’t. I’ve been dead in sin for so long that I stink.” We don’t believe that we are ones who are worthy to receive the life, the love that he is offering.
Thomas Merton asked the question of himself, “Who am I?” Then he wrote the answer, “I am one loved by Christ.” We must divorce ourselves from our self imposed burdens. We must throw them off and learn to say with Merton, “I am one loved by Christ.” Say that with me, “I am one loved by Christ.” Now, believe it. Yes, we were dead, there was a stench, but we have been raised with Christ because of God’s great love for us. We are given new life and “the old order of things has passed away.”
There is the burden of your own cross that you must bear, but it is well-fitted for you. Unlike the Law, it is not a burden that is carried out of command or compunction, but is one that is given and carried out of love, and there is the difference. Jesus says, “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” St. John Chrysostom, preaching on this passage, says: “Not this or that person, but all that are in anxiety, in sorrows, in sins. Come, not that I may call you to account, but that I may do away with your sins; come, not because I want your honor, but because I want your salvation. “And I,” says he, “will give you rest.” Set down your self imposed burdens and allow yourself to receive the love of God and find rest in him.
Let us pray: Almighty God, our Eternal Father, from the fullness of our souls we adore You. We are deeply grateful that You made us in Your image and likeness, and that You ever hold us in Your loving embrace. Direct us to love You with our hearts, with our souls, and with our minds. Direct us to love all Your children as we love ourselves. O, loving Father, our souls long to be united to You, and to rest in You forever. Have the Holy Spirit touch us so that we may love You as He does, and as Your Beloved Son Jesus does. Amen.