Excursus: Yoke

IN JESUS’ WORLD, righteousness is man’s answer to the Torah, acceptance of the whole of God’s will, the bearing of the ‘yoke of God’s kingdom,’ as one formulation had it.” (Jesus of Nazareth p 17) Jesus says “Take my yoke upon you” seemingly out of the blue. But it is part of a wider rabbinic conversation. Pope Benedict’s Jesus of Nazareth cites “yoke of the kingdom of heaven” without much context. Today’s 1st reading at Mass gives us another yoke reference: “Why, then, are you now putting God to the test by placing on the shoulders of the disciples a yoke that neither our ancestors nor we have been able to bear?” (Acts 15:10)

The Jewish Virtual Library, citing the Jewish Encyclopedia, locates this Rabbinic conversation about “yoke” in the 1st and 2nd Centuries.

In rabbinic theology the yoke is a metaphor of great importance. It is the symbol of service and servitude, and in accordance with the principle that the Jew should be free from servitude to man in order to devote himself to the service of God, the “yoke of the kingdom of man” is contrasted with “the yoke of the kingdom of heaven.” The doctrine is fully enacted in the statement of Neḥunya b. ha-Kanah : “Whoever takes upon himself the yoke of the Torah, they remove from him the yoke of government and the yoke of worldly concerns, and whoever breaks off the yoke of the Torah, they place on him the yoke of government and the yoke of worldly concerns” (Avot 3:5). The “yoke of the Torah” here presumably refers to the duty of devoting oneself to study but “yoke” is used in a more specific and restricted sense. The proclamation of the unity of God by reading the *Shema is called “accepting upon oneself the yoke of the kingdom of heaven,” while the acceptance of the fulfillment of the Commandments as a whole, referred to in the second paragraph of the Shema. is called “accepting the yoke of the Commandments,” and it is this which determines the order of the paragraphs.

As B16 notes, Jesus is the kingdom in his person. Taking Jesus’ yoke is the same as taking the yoke of the Kingdom of Heaven. Rabbi Yeshua is here saying – again – that he is God, even in the calm urge to “take my yoke upon you”. No mere Rabbi would say this. The Yoke of the Torah or the Yoke of the Messiah – which would you pick? They are the same.

Jesus is not saying that Torah Rules are bad and his yoke is just love everyone. Jesus says that not one “jot or title” will pass away from the law. The moral code (no fornication, no adultery, no theft, no lies, no murder, no divorce) is still in effect. Indeed, the Apostles knew this: they did not say that the new converts could ignore the law. They said that coming to Jesus did not require the law BUT “Moses is still preached…” ie the new converts could learn the full moral code after the fact. It’s not “the law”. No one is saying that Gentiles should be circumcised or keep kosher. I’m amused that the NABRE advises Gentiles to avoid “unlawful marriage”. The Greek is πορνείας “porneias” which means sexual immorality of all types. Every other English translation gets it right.

This is the yoke of the Gospel. To say the creed is to take on this yoke. It is easy and light not because it has no rules, but because God’s Spirit lives in us and unites us to his grace.

Turn around and trust the good news.