Jesus encouraged us to ‘become like little children’ (Matthew 18:3), but did he really want his Church to be like a playgroup – full of self-centred bickering and snotty noses?
Perhaps what he referred to was the implicit trust and innocence of childhood. Often when adults display these traits they can be gullible and ignorant, but disciples learn by following and asking questions, not by unthinkingly absorbing whatever they hear.
A STARTLING TEACHING
Unlike us, Jesus’ listeners recognised immediately what he meant by being childlike; it was one of the most startling aspects of Jesus’ teaching, setting him apart from other Jewish teachers. It concerned the keeping of the greatest commandment – the practice of loving and serving God. Today, as in Jesus’ time, Jewish children are only required to obey a minimal law called ‘the yoke of the kingdom’. It is not until they become adults at their Bar or Bat Mitzvah, they take on ‘the yoke of the commandments’ ? ie the obligation to obey all the commandments.
The yoke is a sadly neglected piece of technology. I keep expecting an enterprising engineer to invent a modern yoke, perhaps one that folds away like an umbrella. (It would make it much easier to carry heavy shopping bags.) The important thing about yokes is that they should fit well; if they don’t, the burden will cause discomfort.
Ancient Jews recognised that their religious laws were a burdensome yoke to carry. There were more than 600 individual commands in the Hebrew Bible, and these were just a starting point, because the rabbis kept adding others. For example, Moses said that on a Sabbath you shouldn’t do the arduous labour of gathering firewood and setting a fire (Exodus 35:3; Numbers 15:32), but the rabbis extended this to anything involving fire ? such as lighting a lamp or, for modern Jews, flicking a light switch. They believed that if you arranged your life properly, keeping these rules was possible, though onerous. But Christians such as Peter pointed out that the rules had become so complex that they were now an impossible yoke (Acts 15:10).
THE YOKE OF THE KINGDOM
Jews remind themselves of these rules every morning and evening when reciting the Shema. It starts with ‘Hear O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength’ (Deuteronomy 6:4-5), and it ends with ‘…remember to obey all my commands’ (Numbers 15:40). They decided that children, who didn’t yet have to obey ‘all my commands’ should at least obey the one at the start: ‘Love the LORD…’ They called this command the ‘yoke of the kingdom’ because when you obey it you recognise that God alone is your king.
The rabbis tried to catch Jesus out by asking him which command was the greatest. This was a trick question because all the commandments were from God, so none could be less important. However, Jesus replied that two commandments were supreme: love God and love your neighbour. He was able to get away with this because the prophets had said that loving your neighbour was better than any sacrifice (eg Proverbs 21:3; Hosea 6:6) and because loving God was the yoke of the kingdom. The rabbis acknowledged this and were silenced (Mark 12:32-34).
THE EASY WAY
One task of a rabbi was to teach his disciples how to obey God’s law in practice, and in the time of Jesus each rabbi still formulated his own set of rules or ‘Way’ (Hebrew Halakhah). We only know about the Way of a few rabbis: Shammai’s was stricter than Hillel’s, while Gamaliel’s emphasised enthusiasm above strictness. The Way that Jesus taught appeared almost laughably easy because it consisted of only two commands. Consequently ‘The Way’ became a Jewish name for what they saw as the new Christian heresy (Acts 9:2; 19:9; 22:4; 24:14).
When Jesus declared, ‘my yoke is easy and my burden is light’ (Matthew 11:30), everyone would have agreed with him – though many would have smirked. The yoke of Jesus consisted of little more than the yoke of the kingdom – the children’s version of Judaism. Jesus appeared to be treating his disciples like incapable children. And he said nothing to discourage this conclusion. He publicly prayed: ‘you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children’ (Matthew 11:25). And then he invited ‘all you who are weary and burdened… Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for… you will find rest for your souls’ (vs 28-29).
JESUS DIDN’T LOVE RULES LIKE OTHER RABBIS DID; HE LOVED PEOPLE, AND HE LOVED GOD
The Church, like any institution, soon multiplied its rules. These grew into canon law which was more complex than the laws governing most nations! Fortunately, in modern times, the Church has stepped back from its emphasis on rules. For example, children used to have to memorise lengthy answers for the bishop at their confirmation, but now we no longer expect converts to learn a complex catechism. We should all be encouraged to learn more about our faith, of course, but I’m glad that memorising a catechism is no longer a requirement for converts.
Jesus treated his audience like children – as intelligent, though uninformed, individuals who are willing and able to learn. Like any good teacher, he spoke in a language they understood without talking down to them. And he didn’t burden them with lots of rules, though he was willing to discuss existing rules about divorce, handwashing or Sabbath labour with those who asked.
Jesus would favour simplifying our practices within church. We now preach in plain English, just as those in New Testament times used common spoken Greek instead of classical Greek. We even show YouTube-style videos in church – though not yet as frequently as Jesus used parables. We try to make our sermons culturally relevant – though the issues of the day are still more likely to be addressed by a stand-up comedian than by a preacher.
Jesus didn’t love rules like other rabbis did; he loved people, and he loved God. And for those who want rules, Jesus said that these two are enough. They are easy to learn, though fulfilling them involves changes in every aspect of life. Jesus didn’t avoid the accusation that he taught a child’s version of Judaism; he considered that being a good child of God was a perfect way to please him.