Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Just How Easy Is the Easy Yoke?

Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.

Matthew 11:28-30

What exactly do these verses mean? Did not Christ come to liberate His people from the burdensome ceremonial laws and traditions of men so beloved of the Pharisees? How, then, can the Church be justified in making laws? In Dialogue Concerning Heresies (New York, Scepter Publishers, Inc., 2006, excellent rendition into modern English by Mary Gottschalk), St. Thomas More tackles – and lays flat – these questions. In Sir Thomas’ dialogue with “the messenger” – a young university student sent to him to receive counsel regarding the new religious ideas gripping Europe – he argues as follows (formatting and paragraph breaks are mine, and Scripture citations are omitted):

The laws of Christ’s Church…are made by Him Himself and His Holy Spirit, for the good order of His people; and they are not, in hardness and difficulty of keeping, anything like the laws of Moses. And of that I dare, of necessity, make you yourself the judge. For if you really think about it, I believe that if you were, at this age that you are now, to choose, you would rather be bound to many of the laws of Christ’s Church than to the circumcision one alone.
And as much comfort as we may think Christ called us to, the laws that have been made by His Church are not half as much trouble or difficult to keep as are His own – the ones that He Himself imposes in the Gospel – even if we set aside the [evangelical] counsels. It is, I feel, harder not to swear at all than not to swear falsely; to forbear every angry word than not to kill; to watch and pray continually than to do so on a few designated days.

And then what an anxiety and solicitude there is with the forbearing of every idle word! What a severe threat, from an earthly point of view, for a small matter! Almost never was such a distressing thing said to the Jews by Moses as is said to us by Christ in that statement alone, where he says that on Judgment Day we shall give an account of every idle word. And then what do you say about the forbidding of divorce, and the revoking of liberty to have several wives, where they had the liberty to wed as they pleased if they took a fancy to any that they came across in the war?...
Also, what comfort do you call this, that we are obliged – under pain of perpetual damnation – to suffer whatever kind of affliction and shameful death, whatever kind of martyrdom, for the profession of our faith? Do you believe that these ease-giving words of His easy yoke and light burden were not spoken as much to His Apostles as to you? And yet what ease did He call them to? Did He not call them to watching, fasting, praying, preaching, traveling, hunger, thirst, cold and heat, beatings, scourgings, imprisonment, painful and shameful death?
The easiness of His yoke does not consist in bodily ease, nor does the lightness of His burden consist in the slackening of any bodily pain (unless we are so oblivious that whereas He Himself did not gain Heaven without pain, we expect to get there with play), but it consists in the sweetness of hope, whereby we experience in our pain a pleasant taste of Heaven. This is…not any delivering from the laws of the Church (or from any good civil laws, either) into a sorry liberty of slothful rest. For that would be not an easy yoke, but a pulling of the head out of the yoke. And it would be not a light burden, but all the burden removed, contrary to the words of both Saint Paul and Saint Peter…[who] do command of us obedience to our superiors and rulers, of the one kind and the other, in things not forbidden by God, even if the things are hard and distressing.
Something to think about!

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