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