Bearing Burdens with the Physical Acts of Mercy.

Bearing Burdens with the Physical Acts of Mercy.

Bearing Burdens with the Physical Acts of Mercy.

“Continue bearing each other’s heavy burdens. In this way you will be fulfilling the Torah’s true meaning, which is upheld by the Messiah Christ. Keep carrying one another’s overwhelming loads, and you will be truly obeying Christ’s Royal Law of Love. By your ongoing offer to stoop down and help shoulder one another’s crushing burdens, you will be completely submitting to the way Christ expects us to live.” (Galatians 6:2).

Bear (Greek, “bastazo”) – to carry, to carry off; to take away, to take up with your hands; to shoulder or share a weight. This word is in the continuous present tense, which means to continue doing so, an ongoing effort and not a one-time activity.

Burden (Greek, “baros”) – a crushing load; an extremely heavy weight; an overwhelming burden; an oppressive weight too heavy for one person to carry alone.

Fulfill (Greek, “anapleroo”) – to accomplish in its entirety; to complete; to perform fully; to observe perfectly.

Law of Christ (Greek, “nomos”) – the teachings of the Messiah that highlight the intended meaning of the Law of Moses; Christ‘s words in the Gospels that clarifies the heart of Torah; the set of biblical expectations established by Jesus that reveals what the Lord had in mind in the Hebrew Scriptures; the spirit of the Law of Moses behind the letter of the Law, as expressed by Jesus Christ.

Bearing the Cross. Why was burden-bearing so near and dear to Paul’s heart, so much so as to believe that when one bears the burdens of others, one in fact is completing the expectations of Christ? Perhaps Paul focused on burden-bearing because this human act of love perfectly described what Christ did on the Cross for our salvation. The whole point of Christ’s burden-bearing was to heal and ransom us out of His profound love for us. Burden-bearing represents and demonstrates God’s love for us, and summarizes all that he did on Calvary. So when we bear the burdens of another, we are participating in the love Christ has for others. When we pick up our cross daily, we can’t help up but bear the burdens of others. “Surely it was our weaknesses He carried; it was our sorrows and our pain of punishment that weighed Him down. God has placed on Him the guilt and sin of us all… Through what He experienced, my Righteous Servant will make many righteous, in right standing before God, for my Servant bears the burdens of their sins.”  (Isaiah 53:4, 5, 11).

Context – Burden-bearing can be applied to any excessive weight on a believer’s shoulders. In this passage though, Paul seems to be directly applying this word to spiritual burdens… guilt from a particular sin; a difficult time of temptation; sorrow over spiritual failure; being overtaken by the weight of an unexpected sin or wrongdoing; the expressed need for forgiveness; a time of doubt; an obvious need for sound Christian teaching; the need for a fellow believer be warned about the path one is traveling. Whatever this spiritual burden might be, fellow believers are expected to be aware of the spiritual well-being of fellow believers, and then to helpfully carry that believer by bearing his burden, by helping to shoulder the weight of it. Paul is referring in this passage to matters that are spiritual in nature, something that is weighing excessively on a brother/sister’s spirit. Bearing someone’s burden is putting God’s agape love into action.

The Premise. Caring for others reflects the heart of God, and is grounded in the Biblical fact that all human life is sacred. There is a shared human dignity between all people, regardless of race, health, age, faith, status, station in life, the country of origin. Burden-bearing begins with those closest to us… our spouse, our children, our extended family, our church community, our neighbors in need, in that order. Any father or mother who, through a personal distance, or indifference, or overwork, or arrogant disdain, doesn’t bear the burdens of those closest to him/her in a personal and profound way, then that person is disobeying Christ. That person will not fulfill the law of Christ. That person does not reflect the heart of God.

Works of Mercy. Both the Roman Catholic and the Eastern Orthodox have “Works of Mercy” in their Church Catechisms, both the Physical Works of Mercy and the Spiritual Works of Mercy. Since Biblical times there have been six Physical Works of Mercy expected of Christian believers, with the 7th Work, to bury the dead, not added to the list until medieval times. So, I’ll be referring to the first, original six Physical Works. These Physical Works are outlining acts of mercy that relieve physical suffering. They are accepted as revealing love-in-action, a model for how to treat others in the name of Jesus, and tangible ways of loving your neighbor who has physical needs. These Physical Works are practical ways of making Jesus visible in your corner of the world. These merciful acts are not necessarily what is needed to be a Christian, but instead reveal if one is a Christian in the first place:

  1. Feed the Hungry;
  2. Give Drink to the Thirsty;
  3. Clothe the Naked;
  4. Give Shelter to the Homeless;
  5. Visit the Sick;
  6. Visit those in Prison.

This ancient list of Physical Works of Mercy is based on the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats in Matthew 25:31-46. Jesus offers this story as His final words before the Passion. It appears He wanted to close His teaching ministry with a visceral punch to the gut, and He was successful in that. The following are thoughts about this well-known parable.

Is this a parable, or is it a word of prophecy, an eye-opening description of a future judgment? Is this a piece of fiction, or a slice of future history? The reference to the shepherd and the sheep and the goats gives it a feel of a parable, but the interaction between the Son of Man and the nations seems almost like an eye-witness piece of journalism.

Crime and Punishment? The scene in the parable as painted by Jesus is stark and dramatic. The Judge of all mankind, the Son of Man, Christ Himself, has gathered the nations of the world. “Nations” always in Scripture refers to the Gentiles, the heathen peoples. These unbelieving nations, and perhaps all the believing peoples as well, gather around the Judge as He sits upon the judgment throne. The multitudes are then judged by how they treated the Hidden Messiah in their midst, the Lord who is somehow present with the needy ones and participating in their suffering. The persons judged righteous didn’t know what they had even done to deserve God’s approval. And the cursed ones likewise were not aware of what they had done wrong. The blessed ones inherited the eternal Kingdom of the Father, and the cursed ones received everlasting punishment.

Mother Teresa. One of the greatest saints of the 20th century, one of its brightest shining lights, was Mother Teresa of Calcutta. She came to base her whole calling on this particular parable. Her vision was to serve Jesus in the poorest of the poor on the desperate streets of Calcutta, India. She sought to “satiate the thirst of Jesus by serving Him in the poorest of the poor.” Her Order, the Missionaries of Charity, literally saw God in the poor, they perceived a spiritual reality in the poor. She longed to “bring joy to the suffering heart of Jesus,” and saw the face of Jesus in the destitute and dying. To her dying breath, she held fast to the words, “As you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.” These words seemed to summarize the Gospel for her. She taught her fellow missionaries what she called “Gospel on five fingers” – You-did-it-to-me – one word for each finger. In the words of one of her biographers, she wanted her missionaries to “always remember the poor – not only to respect the dignity of the child of God in each one, but also to realize the supernatural reality of God’s presence in each of them.

This is quite a compelling and dramatic story to offer as the closing chapter in His ministry. As one would guess, there is disagreement as to what it all means. Jesus seems to invite the reader/hearer to think about His words and discuss them thoroughly. On the one hand, this. On the other hand, that. On the third hand, this. On the fourth hand, that.

Follow the Light Shown. It is the End, and Jesus gathers the Gentiles, those outside of the Faith, and He is going to execute judgment. This parable is often called the Judgment of the Multitudes. How will He judge those heathen peoples who have not heard the Gospel, who don’t know about Jesus, or who because of culture or upbringing don’t truly understand the Christian alternative? Those heathen who have understood and rejected the Lord and lived an intentionally evil life is one thing, but this is entirely different. How will Jesus judge those who haven’t truly faced the option of choosing Christ? Will He simply say, “Too bad, but you never heard of me, so to hell with you!“? Or does He present an option of grace? If “love fulfills the law (Romans 13:10), perhaps Jesus in this parable is explaining that, for those who haven’t even been introduced to or acquainted with the Gospel, demonstrating love for the needy is equivalent to expressing love to God. Loving those who are in God’s image is the same as loving God. Perhaps when an unreached person is given a nudge to follow his God-given conscience and serve the downtrodden, Jesus so identifies with the needy that He accepts that compassionate act as ministering to Him. Perhaps the salvation of the heathen who innocently lived in the dark lies in fulfilling the Messianic law of love, the divine duty of compassion and mercy. Showing compassion is following the light that has been revealed, even if it isn’t the full light, even if it’s a dim light.

A Literal Mystery. Christ so closely identifies with those who suffer in the world that He somehow attaches Himself to each sufferer, He in effect participates with them in their suffering. He even thinks of the sufferer as “brethren,” (v. 40) of being in the same family as Him. Jesus has adopted every needy person in the world. Jesus is present with the have-nots, the overlooked, the neglected in a spiritually meaningful way. Jesus knows what it’s like to suffer, He is familiar with pain and loneliness, He is acquainted with grief and shame. The Lord is saying that He is personally with that person in the midst of his suffering. When you care for the needy, you therefore are caring for Christ as well. When you are serving the hungry in a soup kitchen, you are also filling the plate of Jesus. When you dress the wounds of a soldier on a battlefield, you are providing first aid to Jesus. When you visit a prisoner in his jail cell, you’ll find the top bunk belongs to Jesus. If you offer your home to a homeless person, better make sure that bedroom has a twin bed for Him. If you offer the shirt off your back to a half-naked man on the street corner, be aware that you are clothing Jesus in His “distressing disguise.” (Mother Teresa). The miserable have captured the heart of Jesus to the extent that He joins them in their misery. He is a presence in their poverty. Jesus so closely identifies with the needy that when you care for the poor, you care for Him, and when you ignore the needy, you ignore Him, to your peril.

Caring for Believers. Because Jesus in verse 40 called the needy in question “brethren,” there are some who believe that He is referring specifically to His disciples in their neediness. So Jesus is talking about judging people based on how they treated Christian believers. Jesus is saying that He is present in the lives of believers through His Holy Spirit, and in caring for needy believers, people actually care for Christ. Christ is hidden in each believer, the Hidden Messiah. By mistreating disciples of Jesus, or by neglecting their needs, people will be judged accordingly. By ignoring the Christians who are suffering, people ignore Christ Himself, and are liable to judgment. Certainly in the early Church and in many eras thereafter, Christians were often overlooked, were in the company of the have-nots, and were persecuted for their belief in Jesus. In this interpretation, Jesus is saying that, when it comes to His disciples, He will always have their back. Jesus is telling the Gentiles that they will be judged according to how they treat the suffering Christian in their midst. By ignoring the needs of the believers, they were, in the eyes of Jesus, guilty of criminal negligence.

Caring for the Chosen People. Who do the needy people represent in this parable/prophecy? It could be anyone who is poor and needy. It could be the Christian believer who is needy, since Jesus called the needy people His “brethren.” Or, the needy person could be the Jews who are in need. Jesus indeed calls them “brethren,” and why couldn’t He be referring to His fellow Jews? Jesus is Jewish from the tribe of Judah, His family is Jewish in the line of David, His religious and cultural brethren are all Jewish. So perhaps this parable is reveals that people will be judged by how they treat the needy Jewish person in their midst. They are, after all, literally Jesus’ brethren. It is certainly Biblical that God has promised to bless all those who bless Israel, and will curse those who curse Israel.

First, the Church. One wonders just who the sheep and the goats represent in this parable/prophecy. Many believe that, because both the sheep and the goats call Jesus “Lord,” they must all be believers sitting in judgment. It does seem unlikely that an unbeliever would call Jesus “Lord,” unless one takes the view that this scene is the Final Judgment when everyone sees Jesus for who He truly is, the Lord of the Universe, and everyone in the world bows the knee and acknowledges that to be true. But this parable doesn’t actually say this is the Final Judgment, so it could be a lesser judgment day when Jesus wants to “clean house.” He wants to separate the true believers from the false believers. It’s not unlike the moment in Matthew 7:21-23 when many people who say “Lord, Lord” will not be able to enter the kingdom. So, could this parable be about the Lord separating the weeds from the wheat (another parable in Matthew 13:24-30), the wheat from the chaff in the household of God? Many believe that God’s judgment begins in the Church (1 Peter 4:17), and this parable may be illustrating that fact.

The Fruit of Mercy. This gathering of the nations around the judgment throne includes everybody, the righteous and the unrighteous, the heathen and the faithful. The faithful in particular are going to be judged by how the Faith has been demonstrated in daily life. You can tell a good tree by its good fruit. (Matt. 7:17-20). Faith without works is dead. (James 2:14-18). In the end, we will be judged by how we lived out our faith, how we imitated the spirit and life of Jesus. If we serve the needy, hence Jesus, we will be saved. If we ignore the needy, thus ignoring Jesus, we will be liable for punishment, not really saved in the first place. The Lord expects a lifestyle of mercy in order to accurately reflect His heart, in order to reveal that His Spirit has affected and transformed our life. “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.” (Matt. 5:7).

“Christ has no body on earth but ours, no hands but ours, no feet but ours. Ours are the eyes through which the compassion of Christ looks out upon the world. Ours are the feet with which He goes about doing good. Ours are the hands with which He blesses His people.” (St. Teresa of Avila).