The thematic readings for this Sunday are all fragmentary, especially the Gospel, which is not a single extract but two short extracts stuck together. This makes them quite hard to understand, and harder still to connect. How are we to interpret the image of children playing in the market place, and the analogy of the yoke that was used to harness oxen? Are these images related in some way, and if so, what is the link between these Gospel verses, the Old Testament prophesy from Zechariah, and Paul’s reflections on sin and the will in the Epistle?
Scholars have long debated about the passages from Matthew. It seems reasonably clear that the ‘children’ in the market place are to be identified with the audience described as ‘this generation’. They thus represent the Jews of Jesus’ day. But are they calling to each other, or does the passage imagine a dialogue between ‘this generation’ on the one hand, and John and Jesus on the other? There is no straightforward answer. Possibly that does not matter very much. Either way, the essential element turns on the sharp contrast between Jesus’ proclamation of ‘Good News’ and John the Baptist’s call to repentance. The ‘children’ reject Jesus’ ‘dance music’ because it is not austere enough. Yet previously they rejected John’s invitation to ‘wail’ because they did not want to be mournful. John’s ascetic way of life – 'neither eating nor drinking' -- did not please them, but then when Jesus comes ‘eating and drinking’, they say, 'Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!' In short, whatever the message, ‘this generation’ has found a way to respond negatively.
Their negative attitude, however, is not just bloody mindedness. Neither John nor Jesus doubted the religious seriousness of the highly educated Pharisees they encountered. The problem was that far from being liberated by their faith, these devout people were encumbered by the vast and complex system that comprised the Judaic law. Their deep engagement with this system prevented them from seeing what a child could see – that the Messiahship of Jesus was offering them a different way to salvation, one that their heartfelt desire to serve God ought to have inclined them to welcome.
This is where the image of the yoke comes into play. The expression ‘the Yoke’ was often used to refer to the Jewish law. All its detailed rules for the conduct of life had been developed as a means of ensuring that people could lead useful lives while living in harmony with each other. This is what makes the analogy of the yoke relevant. Yoked together, the strength of the harnessed oxen can serve a greater purpose than any single ox could serve alone. Yet, as pictures of yoked oxen often reveal, this device is immensely heavy and highly restricting. So when Jesus says, ‘My yoke is easy’, by implication he is making a twofold claim. First, he is claiming continuity with Moses and the Mosaic law, a continuity that the brief lesson from Zechariah – which Matthew quotes elsewhere – serves to underline. Second, he is offering a way to salvation that by comparison with the Law, is ‘easy and light’. This, one would think, ought to be good news to any one wearied by a constant effort to keep all the rules. Yet ‘the children’ who do not want to ‘wail’, are not willing to ‘dance’ either.
Paul was a Pharisee of his generation par excellence. His famous encounter with the risen Christ on the road to Damascus, brought about a dramatic change of heart and mind. The short passage from Romans that is this week’s Epistle is a reflection of that change. Looking back Paul could see that even as a Pharisee of the strictest kind, his most ardent determination to keep the law failed. ‘I agree that the law is good’, he says, and ‘I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?’ Sheer will power, it seems, will not effect a rescue, and the constant effort to observe ‘the law’ simply burdens him more and more. It is only when he abandons this effort, and accepts the fact that Christ has redeemed him, that his burden is lightened.
But what is the meaning and message of all this for us? We are neither steeped in, nor tempted to lead our lives by the detailed requirements of the Mosaic law. Yet, curiously, we are tempted by something similar. The rules and regulations of modern life – in health, safety, security, protection, finance, and education, for example – are even more extensive than the Mosaic laws and no less burdensome. While their introduction and application is always intended to do help us lead good lives and live successfully in community, just like the Mosaic law, they easily become a ‘yoke’ that first captures and then kills the spirit. The truth is that letting go of rules, trusting in the providential love of God, and living by faith, is as much a challenge for us as it was for those complaining children in the market place.
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