Having concluded a series of dialogues with the Pharisees and other religious leaders, Jesus now directs his words to the crowds, warning them not to follow the example of the scribes and Pharisees. Though they were Moses’ successors, the Pharisees and scribes exalted themselves and made their mastery of the law a badge of social privilege. Worse, they lorded the law over the people adding extra burdens. Like the priests Malachi condemns in today’s First Reading, they caused many to falter and be closed off from God.
And so, in our texts for today, we have the contrast between how Paul is trying to relate to his spiritual community, and how the scribes and Pharisees are. We can immediately see from how Jesus describes the scribes and Pharisees creating burdens for others who are already carrying crippling burdens of their own. They have taken the sacred Law of Moses, which Jesus upholds in this passage, and burdened it with the deceptively heavy weight of their own egos.
The scribes and Pharisees that Jesus describes do not believe that God loves them freely and fully regardless of what actions they do or do not take. They are constantly hustling for God’s favour. They do not believe in an unconditionally loving God in their heart of hearts. There are many Christians today who suffer from this. What began as an honest search for the love of God and a life in the centre of God’s will has turned into our becoming another burden. Why did this happen? What is missing?
When we approach the Christian life as a constant stream of virtuous activity directed as loudly as possible both at God and at our faith community. Our self-imposed burden will sooner or later become arrogance and self-satisfaction and lead to judge mentalism of the scribes and Pharisees in our gospel passage today.
“Let me remind you, brothers, how hard we used to work, slaving night and day so as not to be a burden on any one of you while we were proclaiming God’s Good News to you.,” Paul tells us. This “work,” “night and day,” that Paul speaks of consists in large part of patient and faithful prayer.
That’s one half of the equation—the labour and toil of prayer and individual encounter with God. The other half is the night and day patient engagement with one another in community. Moving from being a burden to others to lifting burdens from others requires exactly that—others. The quest for gospel transformation does not take place in a bubble. There are some of us who might enjoy sitting alone all day and thinking beautiful thoughts about God—but that is not love. Individualistic spiritual practice taken to an extreme will make us a burden to our community as surely as no spiritual practice at all.
Anyone who has had to carry heavy burdens will know that balance is the key. Trying to carry heavy bags of groceries up flights of stairs in only one hand is very difficult. Shift the bags to carry them equally in both hands and the burden is suddenly much easier to bear. So, it is with our balance of individual and community spiritual intimacy. Keep it all on one side of the equation and we are quickly out of balance, becoming heavy to both ourselves and others. Seek an even distribution of time alone with God and time together with God, and suddenly progress forward is smoother and easier.
Paul says in our epistle today that the Word is at work in us as believers. “it is still a living power among you who believe it.” That’s the most important thing of all as we seek to carry our own burdens and those of our fellow disciples. No burden we shoulder is ours to carry alone. The Holy Spirit within us is always present and ready to do the heavy lifting. Jesus says it himself in the Gospel of Matthew: “My yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” The burdens of life and community may never go away, but when the love of God pervades them, they are no longer crushing weights. Our burdens become a steadying presence, anchoring and grounding us in the faithful pursuit of grace and truth. For it is when we commit to turning our burdens over to God that we are at last empowered to bear the burdens of one another.
Let’s ask Our Lord today to help us be good disciples who share his message with those who need it so that they welcome the message.