Jesus’ Yoke

eucharist1Jesus’ invitation to come to him with our burdens so that he can give us rest and take his easy yoke upon ourselves sounds like an irresistible blessing. But the troubling words skipped by the lectionary suggest that Jesus’ offer is highly resistible. Here, he bemoans the rejection of Chorazin, Bethsaida and Capernaum. Given the horrifying hardness of heart shown in the story of Sodom and Gomorrah’s destruction, it boggles the mind that Jesus thought those people might have responded better than the people of Capernaum who witnessed Jesus’ first miracles of healing.

How can Jesus’ offer to free us of our burdens be so resistible? We get some hint of this in the powerful, if dense, passage in Romans 7 where Paul cries out against the burden of sin that makes him do what he does not want to do. Most of us think the problem is that the burden of sin renders us powerless. There is something to that, especially in the case of addictions. But the deeper problem is that we have great difficulty knowing what we really desire. The French thinker René Girard has helped us greatly towards an understanding of this problem with his insight into what he called “mimetic desire.” That is, although we tend to be addicted to the illusion that our desires originate from within ourselves, Girard suggests that our desires originate from without: i.e. from other people. That is, we copy the desires of other people. Since the same is true of other people, they are imitating our desires as much as we are imitating theirs. No wonder desires are so complicated. It is telling that Paul says: “I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, ‘You shall not covet.’” (Rom. 7: 7) Covetousness is precisely the sin most driven by mimetic desire. This phenomenon can lead to a spiral of desire that reinforces each others’ desires in love. This is what Jesus us getting at in offering to relieve us of our burdens and take his yoke upon us. But usually, we imitate each other in a downward spiral of rivalry, anger, and vengeance. In this spiral, we become more and more convinced that our anger and rage are our own even as the rage and anger of others overtakes us like a flood. When this happens, we are yoked to our rivals and they to us. This is the yoke Jesus would relieve us of.

Girard argues that a society caught in a downward spiral either implodes into mutually assured destruction (MAD) or channels its common rage against a victim who is scapegoated. The latter is the story told in the four Gospels. However, it is not only the story of the Gospels; it is the story told numerous times in the Hebrew Bible starting with the dawn of humanity. The establishment of violence as the engine of society is what Jesus was getting at when he said, in another verse not included in the lectionary: “From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence and the violent take it by force.” (Mt. 11: 12)

Although we are prone to clinging to the illusion of our individuality, Girard has shown us that we are yoked to others through the matrix of our intertwining desires. Where we can take some responsibility for our lives is to choose how we wish to be yoked and to whom we will be yoked. In rabbinic literature, the yoke is used as an image for a Jewish student’s relationship with his or her rabbi. Jesus, as a rabbi, offers such a yoke. Being yoked to Jesus means being yoked to a Messiah who rides on a donkey in fulfillment of Zechariah’s prophecy. The Greek word translated as “gentle” is praus, the same word used in Matthew’s quote from Zechariah to describe Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem.

Jesus’ yoke may be easy but it is challenging. The temptation to give way to fear, anger, and vengeance, especially when that is all around us, is very strong, but the yoke of vengeful anger is very heavy and it entraps us in the power of sin within us that prevents us from doing what we really want to do. Escaping this trap can seem impossible. As Paul discovered, it is impossible without the grace of Christ who offers us his yoke in place of the yoke of sin. The harsh words against Capernaum and neighboring towns actually offer us hope. If Jesus could envision the possibility of Sodom and Gomorrah converting to Jesus’ yoke if they had seen the wonders done at Capernaum, although the people in these towns united to persecute Lot and his guests, surely Jesus can envision the same for our persecutory society. Can we cast the burdens of fear, anger, and vengeance on Jesus and accept the yoke he offers us, a yoke that burdens us with compassion and love?

[For an introduction to René Girard see Violence and the Kingdom of God.]

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The Naming of Jesus

HolyFamilybyGutierrez“After eight days had passed, it was time to circumcise the child; and he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb.” (Luke 2:21)

This little verse in Luke probes deeply into the meaning of the Incarnation. When God took on human flesh, God became a particular human being at a particular time and culture. The circumcision on the eighth day marked Jesus as a Jew. When he could only make inarticulate sounds, he was initiated into the rich cultural matrix of his Jewish tradition.

On the same day, the boy was named Jesus (Joshua), binding him to the associations with others in his culture who bore that name. The name is fitting in that it means “Yahweh saves.” Jesus certainly lived up to his name by being the savior of humankind. The history of the name in the Jewish tradition, however, is sometimes problematic.

A man named Joshua led the Jews into the Promised Land through a violent conquest according to the Book of Joshua. This Joshua’s character and actions were quite the opposite of Jesus, who preached nonviolence and embodied nonviolence in his life. Perhaps the name was chosen by the angel to give us a new meaning of what it really means for Yahweh to save. That is, Yahweh does not save by leading a violent conquest; Yahweh saves through Jesus’ leading us into a Promised Land based on peace and nonviolence.

The prophet Zechariah had a vision of a high priest named Joshua standing in a soiled robe while submitting to Satan’s judgment. The Lord intervenes and rebukes Satan. Then he clothes Joshua in a clean garment. (Zech. 3)  Being sinless, Jesus would not have needed to be clothed in a new garment, but he stood in the place of sinful humanity when he was nailed to the cross. According to Paul, Jesus himself is the new clothing we put on in order to put on the New Humanity.

When I was young and resentful about many things, one of the things I was resentful about was the imposition of family history and the American culture I was born into. After all, nobody consulted me about it. But now I figure that if being born into a culture with its pluses and minuses and embracing that culture in order to transform it was okay for Jesus, then it should be okay for me.