My yoke is light, Jesus tells us.
St Paul seemed to interpret that, at least in part, to refer to a lifting of the weight of the law and the beginning of salvation by grace. St Paul had been, in his own words, “a Pharisee’s Pharisee.” He said that he had striven all his life to follow every single rule that constituted the Law of the Old Covenant.
He was one of the rule-making class who spun out additional rules and laid them on top those originally handed down on Sinai. St Paul’s religion before he met Jesus was evidently characterized by rigor and what must have been a kind of humorless desperation to get it right.
That kind of rule-worshipping religion inevitably sets aside compassion and gentleness of heart and puts rules above people. It’s what led Jesus to remind the Pharisees that the sabbath was made for human beings, human beings weren’t made for the sabbath. In other words, God’s Commandments are meant to help us, not beat us to the ground and torture us with our failures to be perfect.
St Paul had experienced the full catastrophe of rule-bound religion. Instead of leading him into righteousness, his zealotry had led him to murder.
He cheered the stoning of St Stephen. He was on his way to execute orders of violent persecution against Christians when Jesus knocked him off his donkey, struck him blind, and asked Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?
Not, notice, why are you persecuting my followers. Jesus said, Why are you persecuting me? That’s how close Jesus is to us. We are, in spiritual ways that none of us can fully comprehend, Him in this world.
This story is rife with clues that can lead to a deeper appreciation of what we have and who we are as Christians. Let’s focus for a moment on the burden of trying to achieve salvation by your own efforts, by the Law.
That’s the weight Saul carried. His ultimate reaction, which was to murder and persecute those he considered violators of this law, is human nature at its most predictable. Relying on your own strength in the face of the devil will make you mean. You can count on it.
Jesus battled with the lawmakers and law enforcers, the Pharisees, of his day almost constantly. They saw Him for the threat that He was to their power and authority. He called them out for their hypocrisy and indifference to human suffering.
Woe to you teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You tithe a tenth of your spices — mint, dill and cumin. But you neglect the weightier matters of the law — justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others.
Notice that Jesus didn’t say that it was ok to break the Law. But He clearly — and consistently, I might add — taught that justice, mercy and faithfulness, were the “weightier” aspects of that Law.
To juxtapose His teaching with today’s flashpoint issues, it seems clear that “weightier matters” are those things that concern human life, human dignity and integrity in dealings with others. In other words, the weightier matters are what we call “the common good.”Bringing an end to abortion, which is much more than just changing the law, is one of those things, as are preventing euthanasia, opposing rape and sexual assault, standing against racism and misogyny. But there’s more to it even than that. The common good demands a respect for the truth and honest dealings one with another. In politics and governance, it requires honesty and an unyielding commitment to create and maintain a just and stable government.
A just and stable government is the essential political/governance component of the common good. Without that, issues, even issues that seek to preserve and protect human life, become clubs that can be and are used to degrade, abuse, enslave and murder whole populations.
St Paul dedicated his life before he encountered Christ to making and enforcing laws. He was convinced that it was his duty to murder innocent people to protect that law.
By his own testimony, he felt burdened and oppressed by the weight of the Law. He had experienced the futility of trying to find his way to God by following rules. His efforts to build a ladder to heaven made of rules had turned him into a murderous monster.
Yet there was a ladder to heaven. That ladder was Jesus. Jacob dreamed of a ladder on which the angels of heaven went up and down. Jesus testified at His trial that He was that ladder. You will see heaven open and the angels ascending and descending on the Son of Man, He said. The Pharisees understood that Jesus was calling Himself the Son of God, that He was saying that He was God. They used this statement as evidence to justify putting Him to death.
Saul of Tarsus was a Pharisee’s Pharisee. He wanted to wipe the Christian faith from the earth. He cheered the killers when they stoned Stephen. He secured legal documents to enable him to murder Christians and was going to implement them on that road to Damascus.
His rule-bound religion had led him so far away from God that he had become a murderer of God Himself. That’s what Jesus told Saul when He said, Why are you persecuting me? Not “my followers,” but me. Why are you persecuting me?
Saul of Tarsus was lost in sin and thought he was righteous. But when Jesus reached out to him, he did the one thing that is necessary to go to heaven. He said yes to Jesus. He followed Christ and he became Paul and Paul became a great saint. It really is as simple as that.
The yoke of Christ is light. In fact, it is so light that all you can feel is the lack of weight. There is no freedom like the freedom of knowing that God loves you. You can step out from any precipice, slide across any ice. He will never let go of you.
You are free from the law of death. You don’t have to strive and beat yourself up trying to be perfect. All you have to do is love God and love other people.
If you do that, everything else will follow. You won’t lie because the Holy Spirit in your heart abhors lies. You won’t be cruel because every person you meet is made in the Image of the God Who loves you. You will look at the babies in cages on the border, the aborted child, the rape victim, and you will see Christ crucified standing right in front of you.
The yoke of Christ is light. It is easy. He is the Way to Heaven.