Today, the 5th July 2020, marks the 72nd anniversary of the founding of the NHS. Perhaps, more than ever, we have realised how much it actually means to us. For weeks we clapped for the NHS and carers, we saw on our screens the heartbreak and courage of the doctors and nurses and other staff who risked their lives ( and still do) to take care of us. We realised the gift that such a health service is and how it has been disregarded by many. When the NHS was founded it wasn’t without opposition. Some hailed it too close to socialism, others didn’t like the idea that local authorities and charities would pass control of hospitals to the government. Some staff complained they didn’t want to be employees of the state. Yet on 5th July 1948 Nye Bevan and the government of the time finally established the NHS. Despite the different voices of negativity the ideal of a health service free on contact for all people was created. Something fundamentally good, cutting across barriers of wealth and inequality was born.
In today’s Gospel we hear Jesus getting hacked off by the grumbling and voices of negativity that he is hearing. These are coming from the Pharisees and the cities that he has passed through in his ministry. You can’t do right for doing wrong, as we might say. Jesus calls out his critics for their attitude. They weren’t happy with John the Baptist, with his fasting and strict lifestyle , while also they condemn Jesus for drinking ,eating and hanging out with the wrong crowd. It tells us a lot about the human condition, this drive to be critical and negative. The risk of change to the status quo has created upset throughout history. It happened in the early days of the formation of the NHS, it happens in society and it happens in ourselves.
The Pharisees upheld the written law, the Ten Commandments, just as Jesus did as a Jewish teacher of the faith. The idea of taking on the “yoke” of the law was common to Judaism.It was a serious obligation yet not a burden as such. Indeed the Bar Mitzvah coming of age, celebrated still today, is a joyful occasion of lifting the yoke of the law on ones shoulders.
Perhaps to us in the modern day the idea of being yoked to something lends images of cattle bearing a heavy load, of a weight to carry and there is a sense of that certainly, but in Judaism the bearing of this yoke was also a source of life…the law called for taking care of the poor, the widow,the orphan and the stranger, all parts of common life.
No, the law in itself was not burdensome but the Pharisees also had a spoken law to define the commandments. These could be anything from what defined work on the Sabbath to how far you could actually walk without breaking that law. These man made laws became a legalistic rule book which distracted from the basic commandment that Jesus was emphasising, which is to love. They were products of a need to control and hold power , the opposite to what Jesus was teaching. Such laws were a burden on the people and they did make the yoke heavy to bear, they restricted the flourishing of life and God’s plan for all of creation. This is what frustrated Jesus.
Jesus offers something different, he offers the yoke of love, his invitation is to cast our burdens and worries on him. To yoke ourselves to him. The offer of rest is not something superficial, but an invitation to find rest for our souls. Whatever we are yoked to at present, it may be our work or success…it may be fear or anxiety, it may be attachments to things, addictions or beliefs…All these become burdensome over time. Yet if we yoke ourselves to Christ and walk with him, our burdens become lighter and we begin to see the world in a different way. We begin to look with eyes of compassion and our hearts can’t be indifferent. We are called to stand up against injustice, to feed the hungry, care for the poor, defend the oppressed. The ideals of the NHS foundation were exactly along these lines, to take care of the health of every human being so the poor would no longer lose out. Indeed Nye Bevan called the NHS a triumph for Christianity, though an atheist himself.
The Gospel of Christ always requires a response, you see. It’s not about rules and regulations, and it’s not only attending church on a Sunday, though this is what feeds us. It means binding our whole life to Christ and responding with love so that our words and actions speak for themselves. It’s certainly not easy,and the words of Paul in his letter today remind us of a common human weakness we probably all can identify with…the fact we all mess up from time to time. The good I would do I don’t do and the stuff I don’t want to do I end up doing! We all know that story! Human nature is just that…the propensity to get it wrong, to sin, whether we lose our temper, tell a lie or don’t follow through on a promise, whatever. It isn’t a cop out, it happens and then we must acknowledge it, be sorry and ask for God’s help. Paul’s words may help us understand why both individuals and institutions are never perfect, however well meaning they may be. Thank goodness God’s nature is to have grace and mercy. Thank goodness for the yoke of Christ to carry the burdens we cannot and to lead us in the ways of gentleness and peace, because we cannot manage it ourselves.
So as we go out on our streets today to clap once again for the NHS on its 72nd anniversary let us remember all that they take on ,the yoke that they carry to ensure everyone is cared for equally and the weight of loss that they bear. May we listen to Jesus’ invitation in our own lives to yoke ourselves to him that our feet may walk alongside him, our hearts beat in tune with him and our lives live in tandem with him for “My yoke is easy and my burden is light…and you will find rest for your souls” .