As we read in the New Testament, St. Peter gave many moving and penetrating speeches. At the Council of Jerusalem, he articulated a particularly consoling idea. To my little mind, this idea is one of the most wonderful, beautiful, captivating, and invigorating ideas in our religion.
Peter said to the brethren, the shepherds of the Church: “We cannot place on the shoulders of our people a yoke that neither our ancestors nor we have been able to bear.”
Now, to what exactly did St. Peter refer, when he spoke of this ‘unbearable yoke?’
I think it is clear that he did not mean the Ten Commandments themselves. Nor did he mean simply the ritual of circumcising baby boys.
What he meant by ‘unbearable yoke,’ I think, is: A way of conceiving ‘justice’ or ‘righteousness’ that departs from the innate freedom of every human individual to follow his conscience and live as a child of God.Pharisaism had gotten the Jewish nation to the point where an ordinary human life could not possibly meet the standards of righteousness.
A system of moral judgments had been built which no one could, in fact, successfully navigate without departing from the basic principles of morality that naturally arise in a human conscience.
The Lord Jesus referred to this in one of His arguments with the Pharisees, when He excoriated them for teaching people to designate their property as korban, ie. consecrated to God. In practice, this meant that their family members couldn’t have any of it.
What I am trying to say is: One of the things that the New Covenant does for us is to restore us as individuals to the point where we can operate with an honest conscience. The natural moral principles of mankind are spelled out in the Ten Commandments—not as something coming from on high; the Ten Commandments articulate the fundamental distinctions between right and wrong which arise in our consciences.
In my humble opinion, the zeitgeist of our age sags under the burden of a Pharisaical system of artificial morality that the Pharisees of old could only wonder at with amazement. The New Covenant in Christ frees us completely from the complicated moralism of all the contemporary ideologies. I think this is a wonderful and revolutionary idea, really: We do not need to establish our righteousness according to any set of contemporary moral principles, be they ‘conservative’ or ‘liberal.’ We can have peace and live simply and freely by the Ten Commandments.
(I will try to come back to this subject and give some examples of what I mean, from both liberal and conservative sides, if time permits me.)