Lifting the burden of the Pharisees


In today’s Gospel Reading, we hear Jesus say:

“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.” (Mt 23:1-12)
 –

When Jesus refers to the Pharisees, he means a particular Jewish sect, one focused especially on observing the law, although they were also distinguished by openness to oral tradition, belief in a Messiah,and other specific ideas. Of course, because of Jesus’s words in passages such as these, “Pharisee” has come to mean anyone who emphasizes the law and formal rule over love. Although the law is intended to promote love, often laws and rules can inadvertently become oppressive and even lead to others’ suffering. As Jesus makes clear, the law exists for us human beings, so that we might flourish. We  do not exist for the law.

In Lent we are to consider our own sins, with the gentle eyes of God looking at them with us. Where have we put heavy burdens onto others’ shoulders, and not done the work to lift those burdens from them again? Perhaps the burden is not asking someone to follow the letter of the law, but something else: having unreasonable expectations; competitively vying for honor at another’s expense; or being unwilling to forgive and to let others know that they are forgiven. Jesus diagnoses the problem of sin in this case as one of propping up our sense of self: maybe we don’t wear long tassels on our clothes, but we do want to save face; protect our own sense of self; or look good in the eyes of others. Admitting our shortcomings is vulnerable and takes courage.

If the diagnosis is burdening others, the cure, Jesus says, is humility. That humility is not found in self-hatred or berating oneself. Rather, humility is grounded in a common love that ties together our love of God with a universal love of one another. Jesus reminds us that we are all brothers and sisters. We all have one Father, God, and this common belonging to God’s family places us on a level playing field. To exalt ourselves or to berate ourselves is equally to lack humility. Instead, we can remember that everyone is beloved in God’s eyes—those whom I love and those with whom I have conflict, those who like me and those who don’t. Holier people are not more loved by God than broken and sinful ones—and anyway, we are all in the latter category.

As we grow in the love of God, and know more deeply God’s unconditional love for us, others’ opinions of us matter less and less. With that freedom to know ourselves as essentially beloved, also comes a freedom to extend the same to others, without expectation, desire to control, or need to elevate oneself. Humility and self-love are mutually supporting.

In Lent, we can take the time to rest in that unconditional love of God, rest in the vision of God’s love of everyone else, too, and consider: where do I want to release others from any burdens that I have placed upon them? Where do I want to allow God to release those that I carry?