Recently I was asked to fill in as Gospel Doctrine teacher. I thoroughly enjoy the opportunity/challenge of helping people gain another lens through which to view the scriptures (ancient and/or modern) since everytime I see people have that moment of enlightenment when they gain new insight into the scriptures, gospel, etc. (something that I would argue is an observable phenomenon), I feel that I get to re-live the moments of enlightenment in my own life. This process of learning, teaching, learning, teaching, etc. is by far and away the place where I feel my strongest personal connection to the gospel, the church, and God and thus rarely pass on such an opportunity. My lesson went very well and a great majority of the class were thrilled to gain some insight into the context of verses that are so often repeated that they have nearly become proverbial:
“Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matt 11:28-30).
I attempted to put some context to these verses by examining questions like: What is a gospel? Who wrote the gospels and when? Why did each evangelist write their particular gospel? Does this change how we read the gospel accounts? More particular to the verses in Matthew, I focused on the radical nature of what Matthew’s Jesus is saying. These verses, along with much of the material leading up to them, are very subversive in that they are calling into question the ever-present powers of the Roman Empire. For example, when Jesus asks the crowd what they were going into the wilderness to see in speaking of John the Baptist, he does so by means of 3 questions (2 of which are rhetorical). Q: What did you go into the wilderness to see? A reed shaking in the wind? (obviously not). Q2: What did you go into the wilderness to see? Someone clothed in soft robes? (obviously not). No, Jesus proclaims, you went to see a prophet (Matt 11:7-9). These strategic questions further a narrative in Matthew that works to call into question the Roman authorities. A reed was a symbol of the Herodian dynasty and only royalty would have been able to afford the luxury of soft garments, but a prophet, and particularly a prophet like John is filled by true power and part of the real kingdom, in fact he is the fore-runner to the legitimate kingdom, that of God’s kingdom. This contrast between the Emperor’s Kingdom and God’s Kingdom continues as Jesus thanks God for hiding the great things that Jesus has accomplished from the “wise and intelligent” and revealing them to “children” (Matt 11:25; my translation of what KJV translates as “wise and prudent” and “babes”). In other words, the truths that count are not given to the elites (those that think they are wise) but to those with no social status (children). The language of “Father” and “Son” in vv 25-27 has double meaning in that these are imperial terms that were used to speak of the Emperor and/or the Roman pantheon of gods. Finally in vv 28-30, Jesus speaks of giving “rest” to those that are oppressed with heavy burdens. “Rest” is often used in the OT as descriptor for relief from slavery and/or from the acts of oppressive regimes. For Jesus to invite people to take his yoke, a term that often denotes slavery in the OT, is a poignant (as well as multi-faceted) metaphor. In effect, Jesus tells this group that unlike the tyrannical suffocating yoke of Rome, my yoke is kind/good/easy, and my burden/load is light/insignificant/small. This message of Jesus as presented by Matthew certainly did not “stick to the (Roman) manual.” The class was especially successful due to the diversity of well thought out questions and comments from the class. Though I obviously can’t speak for everyone in the class, (from my perspective) everyone seemed to enjoy the lesson from their respective contexts and and I would say that a feeling (which I choose to interpret as the spirit of God) was indeed present as instructor and students learned together, “underst[oo]d one another, and both [were] edified and rejoice[d] together” (D&C 50:22).
However, it was a meeting right after the block not more than an hour later that has me pondering (and thus blogging). As part of my calling in my home ward, I have been asked to chat with the Sunday School (SS) President from time to time to gauge the state of the SS overall. During the course of our chat this individual (who I no doubt believe is well intentioned) expressed that he thought the SS was doing well but that he had concerns that some of our teachers were not “sticking to the manual” and teaching “pure doctrine.” Interestingly, not more than an hour earlier he had lauded my lesson that while having used the prescribed scriptures (or at least a portion of them), and having made a conscious effort to center the main message around the “Purpose” section in the manual (“To help class members understand that as we take the Savior’s yoke upon us and do his will, we will find the peace and joy that he has promised”), certainly did not use the manual as the sole source for the insights, thoughts, and ideas expressed. This discourse of “pure” or “true” doctrine is a prevalent idea throughout much LDS thought and yet people seem to (un?)consciously look the other way when insights are brought into SS (or any other LDS classroom setting) that are “not in the manual.” I am left with the question of whether or not it is even possible to “stick to the manual.” Literally taken, this would seem to suggest that we do nothing but read word-for-word what is written in the manual to the class, but more times than not, this “reading from the manual word-for-word” is viewed as the product of those that either forgot they were supposed to teach or failed to prepare. So what is a teacher in the church to do? What does it mean to “stick to the manual?” Can a teacher “stick to the manual” and still bring in her/his particular point of view? For those who seek to uphold a strict “to the manual” approach, how and/or when (or is it?) appropriate to use sources other than the manual and/or the standard works? Does our own brain, thoughts, opinions, and/or notions count as an unapproved source? Finally, even if we only read from the manual/standard works, are we not interpreting these sources as we read them? I obviously have my own ideas/answers (that I admit without reservation are flawed) to these questions but I pose them to a larger audience in an attempt to try and better understand where my fellow sisters and brothers are coming from in their attempt to expound only true doctrine. If Jesus taught SS today, would he “stick to the manual?”
 Many (if not most) of my insights into Matthew and negotiating the Roman Empire are taken from the highly recommended works of Warren Carter. See his Matthew and Empire: Initial Explorations (Harrisburg: PA: Trinity Press International, 2001). See also his work on John’s gospel, John and Empire: Initial Explorations (New York: T&T Clark, 2008).