The dust and the yoke of Jesus
With Peter Veysie
GEORGE Methodist Church
Sunday 30th September 8am
and Sunday 7th October 2018 10 am
Matthew 11: 25-30
- Galilee in the time of Jesus
The people of Galilee were the most religious Jews in the world in the time of Jesus. This is quite contrary to the common view that the Galileans were simple, uneducated peasants from an isolated area. This perspective is probably due to the comments made in the Bible, which appear to belittle people from this area. At the Shavuoth feast in the book of Acts for example, the people seem amazed that the Galileans were capable of speaking in other languages.
The Galileans had more interaction with the world living on the “way of the sea” (the trade route, see Matt. 4:15) than the Jews of Jerusalem who were more isolated in the mountains. The Galilean people were actually more educated in the Bible and its application than most Jews. More famous Jewish teachers come from Galilee than anywhere else in the world. They were known for their great reverence for Scripture and the passionate desire to be faithful to it. This translated into vibrant religious communities, devoted to strong families, their country, whose synagogues echoed the debate and discussions about keeping the Torah.
Jesus was born, grew up, and spent his ministry among people who knew Scripture by memory, who debated its application with enthusiasm, and who loved God with all their hearts, all their souls and all their might (Deut. 6:5). God prepared this environment carefully so that Jesus would have exactly the context he needed to present his message.
- Education in Galilee
The Mishnah(1) describes the educational process for a young Jewish boy in Jesus’ time.
At five years old [one is fit] for the Scripture, at ten years the Mishnah (oral Torah, interpretations) at thirteen for the fulfilling of the commandments, at fifteen the Talmud (making Rabbinic interpretations), at eighteen the bride-chamber, at twenty pursuing a vocation, at thirty for authority (able to teach others)This clearly describes the exceptional student, for very few would become teachers but indicates the centrality of Scripture in the education in Galilee. It is interesting to compare Jesus’ life to this description. Though little is stated about his childhood we know that he “grew in wisdom” as a boy (Luke 2:52) and that he reached the “fulfilling of the commandments” indicated by ones first Passover at age twelve (Luke 2:41). He then learned a trade (Matt. 13:55, Mark 6:3) and spent time with John the Baptist (Luke 3:21; John 3:22-26) and began his ministry at -about thirty- (Luke 3:23). This parallels the Mishnah description quite closely. It certainly demands a closer look at the education process in Galilee.
Schools were associated with the local synagogue in first century Galilee. Apparently each community would hire a teacher (respectfully called “rabbi”) for the school. While this teacher was responsible for the education of the village he had no special authority in the synagogue itself. Children began their study at age 4-5 in Beth Sefer (elementary school). Most scholars believe both boys and girls attended the class in the synagogue. The teaching focused primarily on the Torah, emphasizing both reading and writing Scripture. Large portions were memorized and it is likely that many students knew the entire Torah by memory by the time this level of education was finished. At this point most students (and certainly the girls) stayed at home to help with the family and in the case of boys to learn the family trade. It is at this point that a boy would participate in his first Passover in Jerusalem (a ceremony that probably forms the background of today’s bar mitzvah in orthodox Jewish families today.) Jesus’ excellent questions for the teachers in the temple at his first Passover indicate the study he had done.
The best students continued their study (while learning a trade) in Beth Midrash (secondary school) also taught by a rabbi of the community. Here they (along with the adults in the town) studied the prophets and the writings (3) in addition to Torah and began to learn the interpretations of the Oral Torah (4) to learn how to make their own applications and interpretations much like a catechism class might in some Churches today. Memorization continued to be important because most people did not have their own copy of the Scripture so they either had to know it by heart or go to the synagogue to consult the village scroll. Memory was enhanced by reciting aloud, a practice still widely used in Middle Eastern education both Jewish and Muslim. Constant repetition was considered to be an essential element of learning (5).
A few (very few) of the most outstanding Beth Midrash students sought permission to study with a famous rabbi often leaving home to travel with him for a lengthy period of time. These students were called talmidim (talmid, s.) in Hebrew, which is translated disciple. There is much more to a talmid than what we call student. A student wants to know what the teacher knows for the grade, to complete the class or the degree or even out of respect for the teacher.
A talmid wants to be like the teacher, that is to become what the teacher is. That meant that students were passionately devoted to their rabbi and noted everything he did or said. This meant the rabbi-talmid relationship was a very intense and personal system of education. As the rabbi lived and taught his understanding of the Scripture his students (talmidim) listened and watched and imitated so as to become like him. Eventually they would become teachers passing on a lifestyle to their talmidim.
As a result, Galilee was a place of intense study of Scripture. People were knowledgeable about its content and the various applications made by their tradition. They were determined to live by it and to pass their faith and knowledge and lifestyle on to their children. It was into this world that Jesus came as a child and eventually a rabbi.
3.Jesus the Rabbi
Jesus baptism and the two witnesses required for him to be a rabbi- John and His Father who said this is my son with whom I am well pleased. Mark 1:9-11
The term rabbi in the time of Jesus did not necessarily refer to a specific office or occupation. That would be true only after the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed (70 AD). Rather, it was a word meaning “great one” or “my master” which was applied to many kinds of people in everyday speech. It clearly was used as a term of respect for one’s teacher as well even though the formal position of rabbi would come later. In one sense then, calling Jesus “Rabbi” is an anachronism. In another sense the use of this term for him by the people his day is a measure of their great respect for him as a person and as a teacher and not just a reference to the activity of teaching he was engaged in.
Many people referred to Jesus as Rabbi. His disciples (Luke 7:40), lawyers (Matt. 22:35-36), ordinary people (Luke 12:13), the rich (Matt. 19:16), Pharisees (Luke 19:39), and Sadducees (Luke 20:27-28). Jesus fit the description of a first century rabbi especially one at the most advanced level, the one sought by talmidim.
He traveled from place to place with his disciples depending on the hospitality of others (Luke 8:1-3) and often meeting in private homes (Luke 10:38-42)
In travel, rabbis would visit local synagogues because of the discussion of Scripture that occurred regularly in these community centers (Matt. 4:23)
- The yoke of the Rabbi
Rabbis invited people to learn to keep the Torah. This was called taking “the yoke of Torah” or “the yoke of the kingdom of heaven”. Rabbi’s with s’mikhah would have a new interpretation or yoke. Torah teachers would teach the accepted interpretations or yoke of their community. Jesus invitation to those who listened to many teachers and interpretations helps establish him as a Rabbi would present an interpretation that was easy and light (to understand not necessarily to do) (Matt. 13:11-30). As such, he was probably not speaking to unsaved people burdened with sin but people unsure of the many interpretations they heard in the dynamic religious debate in Galilee.
- Being committed disciples today.
The decision to follow a rabbi as a talmid meant total commitment in the first century as it does today. Since a talmid was totally devoted to becoming like the rabbi he would have spent his entire time listening and observing the teacher to know how to understand the Scripture and how to put it into practice. Jesus describes his relationship to his disciples in exactly this way (Matt. 10:24-25; Luke 6:40) He chose them to be with him (Mark 3:13-19) so they could be like him (John 13:15).
It is likely most students were turned away. Some of course were invited to “follow me”.
The blessings of hearing these words as a young person was profound especially as they had returned to fishing and had probably been rejected by the fancy talmidim schools of the North.
This indicated a total commitment which is a crucial message for us as disciples of today. We must believe that Jesus calls us to be disciples because he knows he can so instruct, empower, and fill us with his Spirit that we can be like him (at least in our actions). We must believe in ourselves! Otherwise we will doubt that he can use us and as a result we will not be like him.They listen and question, they respond when questioned, they follow without knowing where the rabbi is taking them knowing that the rabbi has good reason for bringing them to the right place for his teaching to make the most sense. In the story recorded in Matthew 16, Jesus walked nearly thirty miles one way to be in Caesarea Philippi for a lesson that fit the location perfectly. Surely he talked with them along the way but the whole trip seems to have been geared for one lesson that takes less than ten minutes to give (Matt. 16:13-28).
This means that the present day disciple must be no less focused on the rabbi. We must be with him in his Word, we must follow him even if we are not sure of the final destination, we must live by his teaching (which means we must know those teachings well), and we must imitate him whenever we can. In other words everything becomes secondary in life to being like him. When they had observed and learned for a time they were sent out to begin to practice being like the teacher (Luke 9:1-6; 10:1-24).
- Making disciples of others.
When the teacher believed that his disciples were prepared to be like him he would commission them to become disciple makers. He was saying “As far as is possible you are like me. Now go and seek others who will imitate you. Because you are like me, when they imitate you they will be like me.” This practice certainly lies behind Jesus great commission (Matt. 28:18-20). While in one sense no one can be like Jesus in his divine nature, or in his perfect human nature, when taught by the Rabbi, empowered and blessed by the Spirit of God, imitating Jesus becomes a possibility. The mission of the disciples was to seek others who would imitate them and therefore become like Jesus. That strategy, blessed by God’s Spirit would bear amazing fruit especially in the Gentile world.
We must know God’s Word and Jesus’ interpretation of it. We must be passionate in our devotion to that word and Jesus example. As we are filled with his Spirit, we must be obsessed with being like him as far as is humanly possible. We must strive for relationships with others so they will observe us and seek to imitate our love and devotion to God and our Jesus-like lifestyle (1 Cor. 2:16, 11:1; Gal. 3:27). By God’s grace, that strategy CAN change the most pagan of cultures…. our own!
Notes from Ray van Der Laan “The dust of the rabbi”with extra thoughts from Peter Veysie
- Spend some time putting yourselves in the time of Jesus in Galilee. What would it have been like?
- Discuss the educational system of the early times in Israel. What could we learn for our children today?
- What were the requirements for a rabbi? How did Jesus fulfill this?
- What was the yoke of the rabbi?
- How can we be better disciples today?
- How are we making disciples as Jesus has commissioned us in Matthew 29:19-20.