Yoke’s on You

Matthew 11:25-30

25 At that time Jesus said, “I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children. 26 Yes, Father, for this is what you were pleased to do.

27 “All things have been committed to me by my Father. No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.

28 “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. 29 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. 30 For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”

There are two kinds of learned people: there’s the kind that believes that they have everything already figured out and cannot stand to learn anymore, and there is the kind that realize as they learn just how little they actually know.

We have probably all met plenty of know-it-alls. These are the people who have an answer for everything and if you catch them not knowing something, they usually have a good excuse for why they were misled or perhaps just misunderstood. But I have also come across some very intelligent people who seemed to hang on every word spoken to them, even when they were clearly more knowledgeable than the person with whom they spoke. They seem to have the mentality that they can learn something from everyone. Unfortunately I tend to be the one who thinks I know it all rather than choosing to learn from others.

However, there was a time when I realized just how much I could learn from someone that many people had simply made the decision to ignore. I had a classmate in high school, let’s call him “Fred,” who did not do well in his coursework. He failed test after test, performed poorly in the classroom, and scored low on his report cards. He wasn’t an athlete and not much of a looker. To the average onlooker, Fred didn’t have much going for him. But Fred was a wizard when it came to doing mechanical work.

Neighbor, Dan, owned a tractor shop and you could tell that Fred was out helping Dan from a very young age and Fred just loved it. I grew up turning wrenches with my father (or running after wrenches for my father), but in our conversations it was clear that Fred had a far better understanding of engine mechanics than I did. In middle school he would talk about a tractor topping out at 180 horsepower on the dynamometer. I didn’t have a grasp on what that really meant until college. In high school he started building his own tractor from several junked tractors so he could compete in the local tractor pull. Before he could legally drive a car he was competing in tractor pulls with the tractor that he had built himself. I learned a lot from Fred, even though I was the one who did better in the classroom.

Wisdom and knowledge are not a bad thing. In fact, I would say that all of us have wisdom and knowledge and we can learn a lot from one another. Everyone is an expert at something. The problem with wisdom and knowledge is that “knowledge puffs up,” as we learn in 1 Corinthians 8:1.

Our scripture for this morning begins with a strange passage: “At that time Jesus said, ‘I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children.’” “These things” that Jesus is speaking of is the call to repent, to turn from the destructive behaviors that alienate us from God and from one another.

Obviously, Jesus doesn’t want us to be wise and learned. Ignorance and a lack of knowledge are virtues to which we should all aspire.

Of course Jesus is not saying that we should not study, learn, and work to become more intelligent. In verse 29 Jesus puts out an invitation for his hearers to “learn from me.” Jesus has a group of 12 very dedicated disciples and at least 70 other followers that he is able to send out to do ministry in Luke 10. A disciple, at the core meaning of the word, is a “learner.” And Jesus is quite the teacher. He teaches with parable after parable, he teaches in a traditional manner in passages like his Sermon on the Mount. Jesus is even called “rabbi” a few times in the New Testament, and a rabbi is simply a well-respected and educated teacher.

No, Jesus is not anti-education. He is not against wisdom and knowledge. This reference to the “wise and learned” is an indirect way of critiquing the scribes and the Pharisees.

Remember the two different kinds of learned people, the kind that think they have it all figured out and the kind that realizes how little they actually know. The scribes and the Pharisees fell into the first category. They had been studying the Hebrew Bible their entire lives and they were the best at what they did. So why would they listen to some poor peasant from Galilee. Really, from Nazareth? Can anything good come out of Nazareth?

Jesus is critiquing the kind of knowledge that puffs up. Here are these learned, educated, wise men who have been studying the scriptures their entire lives, and anticipating the coming of the Messiah. But they are so puffed up with their own wisdom, so sure of how the Messiah will come and what the Messiah will do that they miss him when he stands right in front of them.

I recently came across a Nooma video from a few years ago that I believe helps shed some new light on today’s passage. Say what you will about Rob Bell’s theology, but he is one of the greatest communicators of our generation. Much of what follows comes from the video titled “Dust,” which can be found here: http://vimeo.com/46266589 or at Steve Corn’s website, which can be accessed here: http://stevecorn.com/2010/11/jewish-educational-system/

I must admit that I was not overly familiar with the Jewish educational system before looking at these two resources. This tradition goes way back to the early days of Judaism, so Jesus would have likely participated in this school system growing up. When a boy got to the age of six he would enter what is called “Beit Sefer.” Beit Sefer literally means “house of books. A child would be in Beit Sefer from six to ten years of age. During that time they would study and memorize the first five books of the Hebrew Bible, what is commonly called “The Torah.” Imagine trying to memorize Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. Sure, most of us have Leviticus memorized, but how about the other four?

By age 10 most boys had studied the Torah for four years and this was considered a good base for an average Jewish boy. So after Beit Sefer, most boys would begin going to work with their father to learn how to do what their dad did. A large percentage of 10-year-old boys could be found in the work place, learning how to be a fisherman, a carpenter, or a farmer.

But the best students, the ones who were able to memorize the Torah and still seemed to have the capacity for more knowledge, would not go to work with the family to learn the family trade, but instead would continue on in their schooling to what is called Beit Talmud. Beit Talmud means “House of Learning.” In Beit Talmud these exceptional students who had already studied and memorized the Torah would commit to memory the rest of the Hebrew Bible. By the age of 15 or 17 these students had memorized Genesis through Malachi. I don’t even have my wife’s phone number memorized and they would memorize the entire Hebrew Bible!

At this time almost all of the students would be sent home to learn their family’s trade. But the very best students, the best of the best, would go on to study at a level called Beit Midrash. Beit Midrash means “House of Study,” and it is where the very best of the best students who had already memorized the entire Hebrew Bible would go on to study the various interpretations and applications of the Law.

The thing that made Beit Midrash so intense was that the student to teacher ratio was pretty low. And to get into Beit Midrash you needed the approval of the rabbi under whom you would be studying. So a promising student coming out of Beit Talmud would find a rabbi that he wanted to study under, to become his apprentice, approach that rabbi, and ask the rabbi if he would be willing to take on the young man as a student.

Generally the rabbi would then spend a significant amount of time grilling the student on everything from Genesis to Malachi and how the student understands these teachings to apply to the Jewish lifestyle. After this intense interview the rabbi would either say, “You are a wonderful person, you clearly love God and love the Torah, but you just don’t quite have what it takes to be my disciple,” or “Come and follow me and learn my teaching.”

Much like Christianity today, there were as many different interpretations of the Hebrew Law as there were teachers of the Law. And the teacher’s particular way of interpreting the Law was called his “yoke.” The imagery comes from the wooden structure that would often be used to hook two oxen together while they plowed the field. The yoke allowed the oxen to share the work load.

The interview process was so intense because the rabbi was not looking for someone to babysit. The rabbi wasn’t looking for someone who could barely keep up or barely handle the academic stress. No, the rabbi only chose those he thought could do what he does.

We come to the New Testament and we find Jesus walking along the Sea of Galilee where he encounters two sets of brothers. The first set of brothers are named Simon and Andrew and we are told that they were fishermen. We know that they were adults because Simon owned his own boat. Jesus calls out to Simon and Andrew, saying, “Follow me.” We are told that they immediately drop their nets and follow him. Then Jesus comes upon the second set of brothers, James and John. James and John are out with their father, fishing with him. They were likely a bit younger, perhaps just learning the fishing trade from their father. Again, Jesus calls out to them to follow him, and again we are told that they leave their nets and their father to follow Jesus.

It seems strange when we first read this text that these four men would just drop everything to follow Jesus. And some of us, myself included, have made sure to mention that nowhere in the text are we told that this is the first encounter between Jesus and the fishermen. But what if it was? Would that be so surprising?

Remember again what these men were doing. They were fishing. They were doing what their father had done before them, and there is nothing wrong with that. But at some point along the way they were told, “You are not good enough. You should go home and learn your father’s trade.”

They were not the best of the best. They may not have even been all that good. But along comes this rabbi, this teacher, and he says, “I think you can do what I do. Come and follow me.”

Yeah, I’d drop my net, too.

I’m pretty sure that everyone knows the pain of rejection. We know what it feels like to be told that we are not good enough, not good looking enough, not fast enough, smart enough, or popular enough. I went to one prom when I was in high school, but not with the first girl that I asked. Not the second or third girl that I asked, either. Nope, I went with a friend whose boyfriend said it would be okay.

Maybe you’ve been cut from the basketball team or your application to your first-choice college was rejected. You might have really wanted a job, but someone else got it. I’ve written a few articles that have published in newspapers and journals, but for every article that is published I’ve had a couple rejected as well.

I know what it is like to be told that I’m not good enough. We know what it is like to be told that we are not good enough, that we should go home and try a different option.

So when Jesus says that God has hidden certain things from the wise and the learned people, he is being critical of the know-it-all scribes and Pharisees. They were the best of the best, the ones who studied with the wisest rabbis and went on to graduate summa cum laude from Beit Midrash. These wise and learned individuals were missing the point and they were too sure of their own interpretation to realize it.

To contrast his interpretation of the Law Jesus says in verse 28-30, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, 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.”

I wish I could say for sure what Jesus means when he says that his yoke is easy and his burden is light. I simply don’t know because Jesus’ teachings seem quite difficult to me. Loving your enemy, turning the other cheek? Don’t get angry, don’t lust? These are challenging things to ask of any person.

But recall the process of a rabbi calling his disciples. A rabbi never calls someone to be a disciple if he does not believe that disciple is going to pull his own weight. The rabbi must believe that the disciple is going to be able to do the things that he does. Otherwise, he would not offer to share his yoke.

So I come back to my friend Fred. I haven’t stayed in contact with him since moving away from the community, but I am aware of some of the things that he has done with his life. This kid that failed test after test, and received bad grade after bad grade is now known across the country as an expert in a particular kind of tractor. He is a bit of a mechanical engineer who is the go-to guy for any advice, wisdom, or parts on retrofitting Cummins Diesel engines in Oliver tractors. After Googling his name I found this on an online forum: “Got the thing back together today with the output shaft from you guys. I can’t say enough about Dan and you. Your place is by far the best. I am very lucky as well as many of my neighbors that you guys are around. Thanks again, marc,” and “You guys have a great setup, we all appreciate what you do for the tractor industry.” The last one was from out-of-state. People come from miles away just to have Fred work on their tractor.

I know many people gave up on Fred along the way. But Dan didn’t. Dan taught him and showed him how to be a world-class mechanic. Someone invited him to be a disciple. And someone is inviting us to be His disciple as well.

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About Kevin Gasser

I envision this site to be a place where I can post my weekly sermon text and invite feedback from anyone who is interested in the church, theology, or life in general. Please note that these sermons are rough drafts of what I plan to say from the pulpit, so typos are common.
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