November 5, 2017 31st Sunday in Ordinary Time

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Nov 052017

1 Thessalonians 2:7b-9, 13

Brothers and sisters: We were gentle among you, as a nursing mother cares for her children. With such affection for you, we were determined to share with you not only the gospel of God, but our very selves as well, so dearly beloved had you become to us. You recall, brothers and sisters, our toil and drudgery. Working night and day in order not to burden any of you, we proclaimed to you the gospel of God. And for this reason we too give thanks to God unceasingly, that, in receiving the word of God from hearing us, you received not a human word but, as it truly is, the word of God, which is now at work in you who believe.

Matthew 23:1-12

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.”


There’s a theme in both the epistle and gospel lessons assigned for today, and I’d like to reflect on this theme for a bit. It’s burden-bearing. If the essence of our Church’s social doctrine is thinking “we” instead of just “me,” then one of the more practical things we can do is be empathetic, sensitive to and helpful in bearing one another’s burdens.

As we all know, sometimes the burdens get really heavy and both Jesus and St. Paul express concern about this. St. Paul states in his first letter to the Thessalonians: You recall, brothers and sisters, our toil and drudgery. Working night and day in order not to burden any of you, we proclaimed to you the gospel of God. Paul is saying that he’s putting in a lot of effort so as not to add to the burdens of the Thessalonians. 

In contrast, Jesus speaks of the scribes and Pharisees, who pile on heavy burdens hard to carry and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they will not lift a finger to move them.   Note the difference between the two statements. On the one hand we have St. Paul who has no desire to add to the numerous burdens of the Thessalonians, whereas Jesus speaks of the unnecessarily heavy loads that the scribes and Pharisees pile on the people.

The topic of burdens is important throughout the Scriptures. Paul tells us in the Letter to the Galatians, “Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you fulfill the law of Christ.” (Gal. 6:2) Jesus himself says, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens and I will give you rest.” (Mt. 11:28) We all know what it is like to feel burdened by life.

Every single person we know is bearing a burden of some kind, some seen, some unseen. Cancer, financial hardship, broken relationships, caregiving for an elderly parent, a child struggling in school, addiction, chronic health issues; the burdens add up and weigh us down. And we all feel the collective burdens of lives lost or afflicted because of natural disasters, mass shootings, and the global struggles of war, poverty and disease.

It’s no surprise that the bearing of burdens shows up all through the Bible. And in our texts for today, we have the contrast between how Paul is trying to convey the Good News of Jesus to the faithful in Thessalonica in a non-burdensome manner, over against the scribes and Pharisees who demand things that are oppressive. What differentiates them? After all, Paul began his religious life as a Pharisee. What helped him to escape being a burden to his community? And more than that, how did he become someone who lessened the burdens of others?

The scribes and Pharisees were guilty of making religious leadership more of a public display than an act of service. More often than not, their good works were performed in order to be seen and admired by others. Sometimes they enlarged their phylacteries to make them more conspicuous. (By the way, phylacteries were small leather boxes containing passages of scripture that were strapped to the forehead and left arm during prayer.)  They also liked to display longer than usual tassels on their garments as visible reminders to keep the commandments. And as they preened and pranced in public, they would also shove one another out of the way to get to the place of honor, somewhat like a politician today who elbows others aside to get in front of a TV camera.

It must be noted that Jesus was not opposed to religious dress, official titles or even positions of honor. What he criticizes is calling attention to one’s practice of religion for the sake of receiving accolades from people rather than the approval of God.  Jesus is stressing that humility is essential for all ministry, lest those who are placed in authority over others think of themselves as superiors rather than servants. Our Lord even went so far as to say that anyone who exalts him or herself can expect the day of reckoning to bring humiliation.

In probing a bit, we can speculate from how Jesus describes the scribes and Pharisees, that they are creating burdens for others because they are carrying crippling burdens of their own. Their burden is made of a toxic combination of trying to curry God’s favor by their demonstrations, all the while demanding that everyone around them acknowledge their superior efforts. They have taken the sacred Law of Moses, which Jesus upholds in this passage, and saddled it with the deceptively heavy weight of their fragile egos, the all too often petty and fearful tyranny of the ego.

However, we have to be careful. Before long we can start to think that we’re better than other people who aren’t working as hard as we are to further the Kingdom of God. It can be a short road from “trying to help and care for others” to being “holier-than-thou and insufferable.”  What began as an honest search for the love of God and a life of holiness can turn into our becoming a burden to all we encounter. Why did this happen? What is missing?

What is missing is the space, silence, and humility needed to actually receive and convey the radiant love of God. When we approach the Christian life as a constant stream of virtuous activity directed as loudly as possible both at God and at our brothers and sisters and neighbors: “Look at me! Look at all the wonderful things I’m doing!”  The still, small voice of the Holy Spirit is very easily drowned out. Our self-imposed burden of a needy ego, never patient enough to surrender to the love of God, will sooner or later become the arrogance and self-satisfaction of the scribes and Pharisees depicted in our gospel passage today.

Contrast this with the words of St. Paul: You recall, brothers and sisters, our toil and drudgery. Working night and day in order not to burden any of you, we proclaimed to you the gospel of God. This “toil and drudgery,” “night and day,” that Paul speaks of consists in large part of patient and faithful prayer: Regularly going silently within, becoming still and engaging in spiritual disciplines, finding and remaining faithful in daily spiritual practice. Joining this with the formal prayers of the Church, the Liturgy of the Hours, The Our Father, The Hail Mary and so on, this is the labor and toil that, over time, lifts our false internal burdens and sets us free. The freely chosen work of prayer and building spiritual intimacy with God slowly transforms us from being burdens, to merely having burdens, to one day lifting the burdens of others.

That’s one half of the equation: the labor and toil of prayer and individual submission to God. The other half is the night and day patient engagement with other people. Moving from being a burden to other people to lifting burdens from other people requires exactly that: other people. 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 practices taken to an extreme will make us a burden to others 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 communal 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’s people, especially at Mass, serving the poor and needy, watching the neighbor’s kids while she tends to an emergency and suddenly progress forward is smoother and easier.

Paul says in our epistle today that the Word is at work in us as believers. That’s important to remember as we seek to carry our own burdens and to be sensitive and helpful to those who are heavy laden. No burden we shoulder is ours 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 empowered to bear the burdens of one another. And a burden shared becomes a burden halved, as the old saying goes. We can modify this: a burden shared becomes a burden graced.