The yoke of law

Fifth Sunday after Pentecost; 5 July 2020; Proper 9A; Genesis 24:34-38, 42-49, 58-67; Song of Songs 2:8-13; Romans 7:15-25a; Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30.

What a mish-mosh of readings for this Sunday! If some stranger walked up to me in the town square and put a gold ring in my nose, I’m not really sure how I would react. I might think he though I was a cow. Different times. And then we get Paul’s schizophrenic rant on the law. And Jesus offering an easy yoke.

It’s the passage from Romans, I think, that needs the most unpacking. Paul seems to be saying that he is incapable of doing what he knows is right. This passage has been used historically to argue against Pelagianism — humans are incapable of fulfilling the law. But there’s more going on here than that. Paul is using a well-understood figure of speech, and speaking in the person of Israel. Many of the psalms are written in that mode — the persecuted speaker is in fact Israel collectively.

And if we read Paul like that, this begins to make more sense. Israel has the law, and approves of it, but is incapable of fulfilling it. Just look at its history, Paul says, and you can see that it has failed. Deuteronomy 28-32 summarizes the goodness of the law and Israel’s failure to keep it. And Israel fails, because like the rest of humanity, they are captive to the flesh and the sin that results.

For Paul, the flesh is the arena in which we make distinction: male/female, circumcision/foreskin, slave/free. And these distinctions undermine the purpose of the law. The law, from the perspective of the flesh, divides those inside from those outside — exactly what the law was not supposed to do. But weakened by the flesh, the result was inevitable.

Who, then, will rescue me (Israel, or in our circumstance, white Americans, or Christians, or whoever you want to fill in) from this body of death, this way of doing things that causes death? Thanks be to God, says Paul, through Jesus Christ our Lord! In Jesus, the flesh has been put to death on the cross, so that we can now live in the Spirit, the arena where such distinctions disappear. (the foregoing heavily influenced by N. T. Wright, Paul and the Faithfulness of God.)

Of course, for us, the resurrection is still future, and so we find ourselves still living in the flesh, try as we might to put it to death. A current analogy would be that we know racism is wrong (fleshly), and we approve the law of God which would overcome that distinction, but we find evil close at hand — the systems of racism persist despite our best efforts. We cannot do the good we want to do. But we also know that Jesus has won the victory. In his death on the cross, racism also is dead. Now, we have to crucify it in ourselves. But we know how the story will end.

Perhaps that is the force of Jesus’ saying in Matthew. John came fasting and abstaining from drink, calling on us to repent of our sins, and we say, “He has a demon! What racism?” Jesus comes eating and drinking and partying with Black people, and we say, “A glutton and a drunkard!”

But Jesus invites us to share his yoke, a metaphor often used for education in the ancient world. To become a student of a teacher was to take on that teacher’s yoke, and practice his way of life. Jesus is inviting us to share his way of life. I’m not sure I would call that yoke easy — Jesus ended up on the cross. But perhaps it is easier than bearing the burden of sin. When, on occasion, we do overcome the divisions of race or whatever else divides us (quarrels in families, for example), the relief lifts us, and the burden melts away. We have a lot to learn.

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