Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, "The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses' seat; therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach. They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them. They do all their deeds to be seen by others; for they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long. They love to have the place of honor at banquets and the best seats in the synagogues, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have people call them rabbi. But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all students. And call no one your father on earth, for you have one Father-- the one in heaven. Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Messiah. The greatest among you will be your servant. All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted."
In this morning’s gospel reading, Jesus accuses the religious leaders of tying heavy burdens, hard to bear, and forcing others to carry them. He is not talking about literal physical burdens, but something worse – spiritual burdens – which can be much heavier and much harder to set down.
Specifically, Jesus is talking about the way that the Pharisees, scribes and other religious leaders had twisted God’s Commandments, which were given by God to bring life and health to individuals and the community, into a horrible weapon and a heavy burden that brought fear and turned people away from God.
You see, for many years, Jewish religious leaders intent on keeping God’s law and living holy lives had been “putting a fence around the Law.” In an attempt to make sure that they never came close to breaking one of the 10 Commandments, they had added all sorts of regulatory padding – until finally the 10 Commandments had burgeoned into almost 800 rules.
For example, to God’s basic Command to “Remember the Sabbath and Keep it Holy” they added a general list of 39 types of work that were forbidden on the Sabbath. But they didn’t stop there. They just kept adding more and more specific rules and examples until there were literally hundreds of things that you could not do on the Sabbath.
For example, if you fell and broke your arm you could not get any medical help until the next day, because it did not constitute a life-threatening injury, no matter how much pain you were in. You could not gather or cook any food, not even boil water, under any circumstances, not even if you were starving. You could not carry anything with your hands (although you could weasel around that rule by carrying something in your ear or in your mouth!)
All those nit-picky rules were too much to even remember, let alone keep. But the Pharisees filled everyone with fear by telling them that if they didn’t keep all the hundreds of rules they couldn’t earn their salvation and God would reject them. Then they watched like hawks to pounce on people who violated a rule.
That is the heavy burden that Jesus spoke of. A soul-crushing burden of constantly living in fear that you weren’t pleasing God made worse by the “tut-tutting” scorn of the religious leaders.
The image of the burden that always comes to my mind when I read this passage is of one of the training exercises that I had to do in Officer Candidate School. The platoons were divided into groups of 10 and we had to hoist a full size telephone pole onto our shoulders and then complete a 5-mile obstacle course run. Well, let me assure you, running up hill with a telephone pole is a heavy, ill-fitting burden that is hard to bear.
At different points along the run, we would put the pole down and rotate our spots along it. At one point the two tallest recruits in our group were on the two ends of the poll. Unfortunately for me – I was one of them. And as it happened, the shortest woman in our platoon had rotated to the center. So as we ran that leg of the course the other tall recruit and I were essentially bearing the heaviest burden of the weight of the pole.
While the short recruit in the middle didn’t even have it resting on her shoulder, she merely had her hands on the pole to keep her place in the group. It didn’t seem quite fair at the time, but I have come to see it as a metaphor for the heavy burden of the laws of the Pharisees and for the grace that Jesus offers.
The Pharisees tried to make the people bear all the burden of these hundreds of rules and regulations on their shoulders. Giving them the worst of the weight, while they sat back and watched. They told the people that if they faltered or failed they would never make it into God’s Book of Life, that they would never earn their place in Heaven. The burden was so great that many people simply collapsed under it, and crawled away in despair thinking that they were such failures that God could not possibly love them.
But they were wrong. God did care. He cared about them so much that He sent His only begotten son Jesus Christ to save people from these soul-destroying burdens.
In fact, Jesus said this very clearly, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (Matt 11:28-30) Jesus’ yoke is easy and His burden is light, because it the yoke of rest and salvation. He destroyed the burden of all those petty human rules. And He did what we could not, He perfectly kept the fullness of God’s original Commandments. He fulfilled them. And He invites us to share in that fulfillment. He invites us to be a part of His squad – but wonderfully, Jesus is the tall one, the strong one on the ends of the telephone pole. We can rejoice to be the humble, short recruit in the middle of the pole. You don’t have to bear the burden.
All we have to do is reach our hands up in praise, hold on, and run with Jesus.