A Word about the Readings
by Father Gethin
(The readings may be found here)
First of all, we must be clear that Paul is not being intentionally obtuse or obscure in today’s epistle, with this apparent and glaring contradiction about burdens: on the one hand, ‘bear one and other’s burdens’, while on the other hand, ‘everyone must bear his own burden’. So which is it? In fact it is both: and not by contradiction, but by consequence: for me to bear your burden depends on bearing my own burden first, and to do either depends on how well I receive the story of the Samaritan leper. What can all this mean?
The first burden, the burden I am meant to bear for you, is the burden of your trouble or suffering, any of the many hurts and struggles that befall us in the course of this mortal life. In those occasions, just as we are able to identify with and take pity on one and other, we are called to stand with each other under the sorrow, to make your sadness also my sadness, because I know that you are able to be loved, and that I am able to love you. And love, as the story of Jesus’ earthly life so radically displays, means to share a common life, and not to count the cost. So there is the first burden: an individual trial, suffered by a community (the simplest community being two).
The other kind of burden is quite different—and in fact in the original Greek text, an entirely different word. In this case, burden is the burden of responsibility for one’s own work, or calling. It is the gravity of my own identity, as distinct from yours. And of course it is only common sense, that it is exactly to the degree that I understand my own life and good purpose as a child of God, created with unique gifts, and therefore dignity, that I have any power or freedom to reach out to you with my self-offering of kindness in love. I can bear your sorrows because I am confident in my own life and being, made in the image of God.
So Paul wants us to be clear of these two things: that our conversion restores us to our God-given life and identities, our individual places in His kingdom, so that, as the subjects of that kingdom, we may be the ministers of its peace to one and other. That is the meaning of our redeemed life: we must each first take care to submit ourselves to God’s mercy, to be healed and strengthened by His grace—we must pray the leper’s prayer, ‘Jesus, Master, have mercy on me’. Then, we must also allow our hearts to be moved with the spirit of thanksgiving, in which we find the overflowing desire to minister the same goodness to our neighbour.
Only as we permit the fruit of the spirit (of which we were reminded last Sunday) to grow in us, only as we return to Jesus and prefer to dwell with Him, to rejoice in His love for us, only there, do we find the will to uphold each other in the face of suffering and earthly trouble. Apart from that spirit, apart from the offering of our joyful thanksgiving to Christ, the sufferings of our neighbour are no more than a nuisance. But with that spirit, no trouble is too petty or too great for us to meet it with the mercies of God. The way of discipleship is the way of turning again and again to Jesus with thankful hearts, and in that dwelling-place with Christ, we find ‘our faith has made us whole’.