Burdened under the Law
The Church’s moral law has received attention in the public square for many years now, on topics ranging from contraception to torture. These sorts of discussions take place within the Church as well, as seen in the current discussion on civil divorce and remarriage. It often happens that people are more or less opposed to the Church’s teaching, and while in extreme cases this may be motivated by malice, most of the time this is driven by sorrow or pain experienced in difficult situations. For people struggling with same-sex attraction or an unhappy marriage, for example, the Church’s law can seem like a burden crushing their attempts at happiness.
And [Jesus] said, “Woe also to you scholars of the law! You impose on people burdens hard to carry, but you yourselves do not lift one finger to touch them.” (Lk 11:46)
It could seem that Jesus is here affirming the idea that God’s law is burdensome, so the Church’s pastors ought to lighten the load by removing the law. However, Jesus also proclaimed that He came not to abolish the law but to fulfill it, suggesting that there is something deeper at stake here.
Our Lord’s words invite us to view the law in a new light. While obeying God’s law can be difficult, it is not the law itself that is the burden. Rather, the law shows us the burdens we’re already carrying. And this revelation brings us true freedom. Think of someone who receives a diagnosis for a medical condition with subtle symptoms, such as a psychological condition like anxiety or depression. The symptoms continue to be a burden, but there is a real freedom in knowing what these problems truly are and that there may be a way to start to fix them.
We all too often fool ourselves into thinking that our sins—which can range from gluttony to adultery—are making us happy, and so we can no longer see them as burdens. In every case, God’s law is there to gently but surely remind us of the truth of what we’re carrying strapped to our backs. And the law really is gentle, despite its seeming harshness, for if we ignore the law of God and persist in our sin, we are still answerable to the law of human nature. Eventually, our backs will break under the load. In matters close to the heart of faithful human life, such as marriage, the Church’s law is not an arbitrary scholarly procedure but a reflection of the very law built into creation by God. If the Church’s pastors were to cease teaching the law, they would condemn us to break our backs in blindness.
Sometimes, though, blindness appears easier, and one way we try to ignore the stress on our backs is to focus on the burdens that other people carry. Misery loves company: if we can make others out to be more weighed down than we are, perhaps we’ll be distracted enough to ignore our own pain. So, we become a new breed of the scholars of the law that Christ condemns. We invoke the law to load onto others’ backs the burdens of public shame and mockery—”look how sinful those people are!”—in a vain attempt to cover our own faults. By bringing this tendency of ours to light, the Lord both condemns and offers hope in the same statement, like the doctor giving a careful diagnosis and prescribing a remedy.
But shame and mockery are not the only burdens we carry. Sin is a real assault on our human nature, not an internalization of public opinion. Even after sin is forgiven, some of its effects can remain. We might have built up habits that lead us to return to the same sin again and again, for example. Or, particularly if we have sinned against chastity, we might have damaged our ability to relate to others in some way. What hope does the Lord offer us here?
Jesus does not tell us to untie these burdens, nor does He promise to do so Himself, at least not immediately. Instead, He takes up His Cross and invites us to do the same. This teaching can be hard to bear. But we do not need to take up our crosses alone. Neither did Christ. As Simon helped our Lord, so can we lift a finger to carry each other’s burdens—even those we didn’t put there ourselves. Misery already has company, but if we truly love our company, perhaps our burdens will be less hard to carry. As Saint Paul tells us, “bear one another’s burdens, and so you will fulfill the law of Christ.”
Image: Detroit Photographic Co. & Library of Congress, A lumber pack