The Pharisees were a primary focus of the teachings of Jesus. The all-male Pharisees comprised a religious group within Israel that influenced the daily life of the people from the moment they got up in the morning until they went to bed at night. Two thousand years ago, there was no separation of church and state as we have grown accustomed to today. All facets of the lives of the Israelites were regulated, influenced, and controlled by religious authorities.
Something of what this experience might have been like is evident in some of today’s Islamic societies, where culture, tradition, and custom are not options. Those strictures form and animate the fundamental issues and choices that are a part of normal everyday life. The people who live in these societies as native-born citizens and visitors are expected to follow the rules at all times.
Under the Pharisees in Jesus’ time, more than 600 specific commandments needed to be obeyed in order for a person to live a life that was understood as pleasing to God. Some commandments were undoubtedly useful and seem to have been known to Jesus. More often than not, he left such commandments unchallenged. Others seemed to become a focus of his teaching, occasional frustration, and sometimes anger.
A picture that emerges from the Gospels is that the Pharisees and other teachers of the law had placed too many burdens and expectations on the people. Jesus offered a new way of living that gives praise and glory to God. “Come to me, for my yoke is easy and my burden light” (Matthew 11:28–30). Jesus’ gospel presents an invitation to what we now understand as life in God’s kingdom.
Notice in the invitation, however, there is an expectation, a first step that seems essential. The expectation is a familiarity with what has once been required and then an awareness of what’s now possible. It isn’t an invitation to ignorance or to a life with no expectations, rules, or requirements. Rather, it’s an invitation to more, not less.
The person who accepts the yoke of Jesus accepts a way of living, a perception and understanding of life that can lead ultimately to freedom and the fullness of life, what we today might understand as everlasting life. This “gospel living” also has challenges. The burden and the yoke are easy and light, and both are part of the invitation and the way of life.
Saint Alphonsus Liguori, the founder of the Redemptorists, said if a person “loves God, he can do what he pleases.” That might sound like freedom to do what we want, but it isn’t. Alphonsus understood that for us to enter into a relationship with the Lord and become aware of God’s presence at work in our lives, we must make a fundamental change within.
A relationship with God must fill us, change us, and captivate us so our life experiences and living make it impossible to choose, do, or hope for anything that ultimately fails to give glory and honor to God. This doesn’t eliminate the possibility of weakness, failure caused by lack of effort, and sin. It places each of these realities of the human existence within a larger context as part of the process of human living that ultimately pleases God. In Alphonsus’ day, this was a profound and revolutionary spiritual insight. Today, perhaps it remains so.
It has always been easy for all people at all times to get swept up in the energy that goes with life. It’s tempting to take refuge in learning and obeying the rules and regulations, down to the most minute point, and be somehow assured that this is what God requires. We might even be tempted to insist that rule-following is the only way to live, perceive reality, and give glory to God. The temptation to live within the strictest bonds of the law, real law and imagined law, is certainly one of the struggles of scrupulosity.
The gospel invites all people—including, of course, those who suffer with scrupulosity—to something more. It calls us to a way of perceiving life that celebrates the universal presence of God in the people, events, and circumstances that are part of God’s creation.
If we learn to see as Jesus sees, if we learn to perceive life in the kingdom of God, then we’ll understand what it means to experience the yoke and the burden of the Lord. And we’ll be free. Our hearts, our spirits will soar. We’ll be able to believe and participate confidently in all that God has given us on this and every day.
Fr. Thomas M. Santa, CSsR