The Hardest Question was an experiment in preaching the Revised Common Lectionary. All posting is finished, but the content will continue to live here in archive form. You can discover new content by former THQ curator Russell Rathbun at Question the Text.


The Yoke of the Law

What burden is it that the Pharisees refuse to lift a finger to move?

by Russell Rathbun

Gospel Reading: Matthew 23:1-12

For Sunday, Oct.30 , 2011: Year A—Ordinary 31

Things are about to get ugly, well, more ugly and more interesting.

The Ultimate Fight

Matthew’s Jesus has spent the last two chapters arguing, through parable and debate, that the chief priests, Herodians, Sadducees, scribes and Pharisees—all the religious leaders and power players—have squandered their positions as the guardians of the Law and administers of God’s justice and mercy.

Therefore, their place in the Kingdom of Heaven will be taken from them and given to others. Jesus then goes on for another chapter “Woe”-ing the hell out of the Pharisees and another two chapters describing the apocalyptic world their misdeeds have wrought.

Softening Them Up

I cannot help noting that Jesus begins his litany of charges against them with two clichés: Do as they say and not as they do; and they don’t practice what they preach. I would hope for more rhetorical flourish. But, perhaps, when Jesus said them they weren’t yet clichés, perhaps this is the origin of the clichés, and of course, clichés are clichés because they are true (to use another cliché). Or maybe the clichés are just to soften up the hearer for what comes next, a more complex charge leveled in one short verse.

They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them.

The Burden

What is this heavy burden the Pharisees are placing on the shoulders of others that they are not willing to lift themselves?

Of course this burden concept isn’t original to Jesus, he is playing, as he often does, with known precepts. In rabbinic literature the burden or yoke is usually the Law or the kingdom of heaven as compared to the kingdom of this world (it should be noted that when I combine words like rabbinic literature and usually, I mostly don’t know what I am talking about).

Rabbi Nechonia ben HaQanah said: He who takes the yoke of Torah on himself shall have lifted from him the yoke of kingdom and the yoke of the world’s way. But he who takes the yoke of Torah off himself shall find laid on himself the yoke of kingship and the yoke of the world’s way.

Sifra on Leviticus says: I am Jehovah your God. I am he whose Kingdom you took upon yourselves at Sinai. They said to him: Yes, yes. [God answered:] If you have taken my Kingdom upon you, take also my Commandments.

Taking on the Kingdom

In the comments from Sifra on Leviticus it is not the Law that the people took upon themselves at Sinai, it is God’s kingdom.

Only after they have taken the yoke of God’s kingdom upon themselves does God urge them to take up the burd of the law. It seems that the Pharisees have taken upon themselves first and only the yoke of the law—and this is the burden they have put upon the people.

One cannot bear the burden of the Law without first taking upon themselves the Kingdom of God.

The Hardest Question

When Jesus says in chapter eleven, 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. Is he referring to the yoke of the Kingdom the Law or something completely new?

What burden is it that the Pharisees refuse to lift a finger to move? Is it finally the burden of the kingdom of this world, the machinations of power by which they benefit?

Russell Rathbun is a preacher at House of Mercy in St. Paul, Minnesota, the author of Midrash on the Juanitos (Cathedral Hill Press, 2010) and the curator of The Hardest Question.


  1. Scott says:

    I appreciate the questions that are raised in “The Hardest Question”.

    My understanding is that a rabbi’s “yoke” was the method or tradition through which a rabbi taught. With that in mind, 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.”

  2. Jon Klein says:

    Have you ever thought about doing one of these segments without the drugs?

  3. Chris Enstad says:

    Whoa, what’s that about Jon?

    I think the yoke was the desire of the Pharisees to turn the people into little Pharisees… kind of like how we, as clergy, keep attempting to clericalize the laity… turning them into little pastors rather than apostles of the Good News to their own vocations as mom, dad, worker, friend.

    Jesus is speaking a reforming word to a people burdened by the law.

  4. Brian says:

    My church tradition is celebrating the reformation this Sunday, which has me thinking about this kind of standoff between Jesus and the Pharisees in a new light. I remember a quote from the current Dali Lama who said, and I’ll paraphrase, that it was “impossible to reach the formless without a form,” If one translates this statement to the structure of the law in our belief system, I imagine that this could possibly mean that it is impossible to reach God without some structure of religion, whether this means the law, or the liturgy, or the church structure – what have you. Many of us in the liturgical traditions might well assent to this,that our worship is designed specifically to bring us into closer relationship with God and the community around us.

    What Jesus here is railing against, and what Luther in his time railed against, is when the structure, the form, etc… supersedes the intent of religion, namely, to bring us closer to God (Love God, Love your neighbor, a la last week’s reading.) When the structure of religion no longer serves this purpose, but only feeds it’s own existence as an earthly institution, it needs to be reformed: Jesus knew this, Luther knew it, and we need to also be aware in our day that this is the case, lest the burden we place on people is not the burden of God’s kingdom, but the burden of the law that has no power to save.

    This Sunday, as a Lutheran that sees the need for the church to be constantly reformed and renewed, I will want to trace a trajectory of reformation from Jesus, through Luther, and into our present day.

  5. Ann Bemrose says:

    The great irony in keeping the Law is that, for a Law-keeper to be righteous, many others must not keep the Law themselves. A righteous man, for example, must be a man, not a woman. He must abstain from everything that my cause him to be unclean. He can’t have contact with blood, which is impossible for women during menstruation. Midwives delivered babies and were made unclean because childbirth is a bloody process for the attendants as well as for the labouring mother. A righteous man must not handle uncooked meat, yet he must also eat meat on the Sabbath, which requires others to handle the meat and cook it for him. He must have no contact with dead bodies. Handling cured leather is lawful, but raw skin is not. Therefore, someone else must skin the hides from animals and cure it. The list goes on and on.

    The point is that to be righteous before the Law requires ensuring that others have no opportunity to be similarly righteous. The division between Law-keepers and Law-breakers is profound and ultimately results in the oppression of the very people upon whom the Law-keeper relies for his righteous status.

    Practicing the Law does not set everyone free, in other words.

    In Luke’s gospel, Jesus chides the Pharisees for tithing mint while ignoring acts of justice. He complains that they are so concerned with the minutiae of the Law that they overlook the purpose of the Law, which is to promote and ensure justice among the people. While Matthew’s gospel doesn’t go quite as far as Luke’s gospel in this regard, I think the same principle applies nonetheless. The Law should not set some people above others, creating distinct classes in society, yet this is exactly how the Pharisees and religious leaders have interpreted it.

  6. russellrathbun says:

    Anne, thank you for this. It helps me read this text deeper. I can not help thinking of the 1% and the 99%. Prosperity is not possible with out those in poverty making it possible.

  7. So, how can I find Ann Bemrose’s new blog? I found the following but the link is broken:

    Christianity and Cyberspace by Ann Bemrose

    A blog about Christianity in and theological reflection on cyberspace, including computer technology, virtual reality and the Internet, as well as online communities and churches.

    Location: Aurora, Ontario

    Any help?

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