Heavy Burdens

For they preach but they do not practice.  

They tie up heavy burdens hard to carry 

and lay them on people’s shoulders,  

but they will not lift a finger to move them.  

~  Matthew 23:3-4

Jesus has made his way from Galilee to Jerusalem while teaching all along the way.  Many times, he encountered the scribes and the pharisees among the crowds. Very often, it was the question from the scribes and the pharisees that triggered the teaching by Jesus. Many of the stories Jesus told, the scribes and the pharisees took as directed at them. “(21:45)” Jesus’ words challenged them to the extent that they wanted to do away with him. 

The words of Jesus to the crowds and his disciples about the scribes and pharisees in the gospel text today are no exception. The scribes and pharisees knew the law of Moses and the prophets to perfection. They carried phrases of the law in widened phylacteries on their foreheads. 

If we were to continue reading this chapter in Matthew, we would hear the seven woes cited by Jesus showing how the scribes and pharisees neglected the most important of the law. 

We heard the most important law in the Scripture reading Sunday, October 29, when a pharisee, a scholar of the law, wanting to test Jesus, asked him which commandment of the law was the greatest. Jesus’ well-known response: “You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and the first commandment. The second is like it; You shall love your neighbor as yourself. The whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments” (Mt 22:30-34) 

We can imagine how humiliating the words of Jesus were for the scribes and pharisees as he spoke to the crowds. Jesus unveiled their hypocrisy: “Do and observe all things whatsoever they tell you, but do not follow their example. For they preach but they do not practice. They tie up heavy burdens hard to carry and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they will not lift a finger to move them. All their works are performed to be seen.” 

Jesus instructs the crowds and the disciples not to be like that. The greatest among you must be your servant. You are to be servants to one another. You are to help lift the burdens of those who are weighted down.

Jesus was not trying to humiliate anyone through his teachings; Jesus was inviting the scribes and pharisees back to fidelity to God and to the law of love. We hear a similar call to fidelity in the first reading, when through the prophetic voice of Malachi, the priestly people who had “turned from the way and caused many to falter by their instruction”, are called to renew their commitment to the Covenant of Levi, that is, a commitment to the God of their ancestors who led them out of slavery. 

Jesus was all about lifting burdens: “Come to me all you who are labored and are burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart; and you will find rest for yourselves. For my yoke is easy and my burden light.” (Mt 11:28) 

As we listen to the news every day, we see that the burden for many is not ‘light’; the burden is extremely ‘heavy’. With the horrific active violent wars before our eyes, we see how difficult it is to lift the burdens laid on the shoulders of our brothers and sisters in the war-torn countries of Israel, Palestine, and Ukraine right now: we have seen men, women, and children trying to escape death, thirst, and hunger while literally carrying children and elderly people on their backs. We even see children trying to save other children. And they are all carrying the heavy burdens of those they have lost. 

Our hearts are heavy, too. We carry the burdens of decisions that are made by our governments. We are jolted by the unbelievable, unnecessary suffering of our brothers and sisters; we lift our prayer for peace and for war and violence to end.

We ask ourselves; why are nations fighting nations? why are peoples divided by race, ethnicity, culture, creed, class, and economics? Is it because we let power, prestige, greed, titles, and desire for superiority rule over our lives?  When this happens, we, individually, as a nation or as nations of the world, become blinded to the burdens placed on others. The double commandment of loving God and loving the other as I love myself is erased from the forefront of our consciousness.  

As I personally pondered this double-single law to love, I became more aware that, in neglecting to love, I become, not only a burden to others, but I also become a burden unto myself. A spirit of joy and good will diminishes for all. 

My mother would say about a relative of ours; “when Marilyn comes into the room, the lights turn on”. Her very presence brought a joyful spirit that was contagious.  If there were burdens or cares resting on our shoulders, they were, at least, temporarily lifted.

Life carries its own burdens without adding more. Jesus was all about lifting the burdens of the poor, the marginalized, the humble, the forgotten… His preaching on their behalf even took him to the cross.

We may not be able to do great things to alleviate the burdens of the many. Yet, in our everyday encounters with others, we can lighten burdens through exercising the universal human gestures of a warm smile and greeting, a kind and encouraging word, offering a helping hand, doing small acts of kindness, listening with empathy, sharing joy and happiness, and expressing gratitude. 

These gestures are transformative. What may seem small is big. Why?  Because we join Jesus in his mission to love and to lift the burdens of the many. And, without a doubt, the “lights in the room will turn on”. Let us be that light.

A reading from the Holy Gospel according to Matthew: 

Jesus spoke to the crowds and to his disciples, saying, 
“The scribes and the Pharisees 
have taken their seat on the chair of Moses.  
Therefore, do and observe all things whatsoever they tell you, 
but do not follow their example.  
For they preach but they do not practice.  
They tie up heavy burdens hard to carry 
and lay them on people’s shoulders,  
but they will not lift a finger to move them.  
All their works are performed to be seen.  
They widen their phylacteries and lengthen their tassels.  
They love places of honor at banquets, seats of honor in synagogues, 
greetings in marketplaces, and the salutation ‘Rabbi.’ 
As for you, do not be called ‘Rabbi.’ 
You have but one teacher, and you are all brothers.  
Call no one on earth your father; 
you have but one Father in heaven. 
Do not be called ‘Master’; 
you have but one master, the Christ.  
The greatest among you must be your servant. 
Whoever exalts himself will be humbled; 
but whoever humbles himself will be exalted.” 

Matthew 23:1-12