The Load and the Overload

A poem and a lesson.

It is the very design of God
The each of us should
Carry his own load.¹
Being lazy, many won’t like this,
But still, it’s what he wanted
And it is what is best for us.

And it is also his design
That we should carry
One another’s overload.²
And many won’t like this, either.
But still, it’s what he wanted,
And it is what is best for us.

¹Galatians 6:5 For each will have to bear his own load.

The Greek word here for “load” (phortion / φορτίον) might just as well be translated as “freight” or “burden”. It is the same word Jesus used when he taught them that he, as the Master, does indeed require that his subjects wear a “yoke” and carry a “burden”. And we must understand that his “yoke” was “easy”—that is, that it fit very well, and was not awkward to wear. And we must also understand this very important point: His burden is light. And this makes for a very important two-part lesson for us: There is a burden, but it is light. Here are his words:

Matthew 11:28 Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. 29 Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For my yoke is easy, and my burden (phortion / φορτίον) is light.”

And we need to know one other thing about this, in order to put it into perspective. If we read the gospels carefully, we see a contrast between Jesus’ burden (phortion / φορτίον) and the burden that the Scribes and Pharisees (the narcissistic religious rulers in Judea at the time) were laying on the people: His burden was “light” and the one they were laying on the people was “heavy”.

Matthew 23:1Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat, so do and observe whatever they tell you, but not the works they do. For they preach, but do not practice. They tie up heavy burdens (phortion / φορτίον), hard to bear (dysbastaktos / δυσβάστακτος —oppressive) , and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to move them with their finger. They do all their deeds to be seen by others. For they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long, and they love the place of honor at feasts and the best seats in the synagogues and greetings in the marketplaces and being called rabbi by others.

And before we move on, I want to talk about this “hard to bear” idea. The Greek word (dysbastaktos / δυσβάστακτος —oppressive) appears in the New Testament only in Matthew’s telling of this speech by Jesus, and in Luke’s telling of the same speech. (Luke 11:46). So if we were to wonder about that word, and wonder whether Jesus had anything specific in mind when using it in this speech, we might go searching in the Greek translation (Septuagint / LXX) of the Old Testament, to see if it was ever used there. And it was. Once, and only once. And I think that this brings a lot to bear on Jesus’ statement:

Proverbs 27:3 Stone is heavy and sand a burden,
    but a fool’s provocation is heavier (dysbastaktos / δυσβάστακτος —oppressive)than both.
Anger is cruel and fury overwhelming,
    but who can stand before jealousy?

The two verses above go together. They constitute a literary device, common in Hebrew literature, called parallelism. Note that in verse 3, there are two heavy things (stone and sand), and then the third, which is worse than them both (the fool’s provocation). And in verse 4, there are two things that are difficult to endure (anger and fury), and a third that is worse than them both (jealousy). In each statement, the author leads to the same focus. In the first case, he calls it “a fool’s provocation”, and in the second, he calls it “jealousy”. But it is the same thing. That is, jealousy is that “fool’s provocation”. It is that more-than-overwhelming habit of the fool. His jealousy is wilting. And the author here asks who can stand before it? It wears people out. And I definitely think there are often strong ties between the biblical “fool” and “mocker” and what we would call today, the “narcissist”. (Sorry, but it’s too much to get into in this article. Perhaps I’ll publish elsewhere about it soon!)

The point of all this, though, is that there are some (or many?) in this world who will gladly heap upon others wilting, overloading burdens, that spring from their own insecurity and selfishness and jealousy. They are not happy themselves, and cannot stand to see others be happyunless, perhaps, that happiness is about them, the narcissist. If you are happy about other thingsif you have a fulfilling life of your own, that does not revolve around themthey will be jealous of that, and will heap onto you an unbearable burden. And this can happen in the church or in a marriage or in the workplace.

And before we move on, let us notice that Jesus’ audience was already in a bad spot. They were already over-burdened by the narcissist rulers (the Scribes and Pharisees) that had a choke hold on their society. We see it here:

Matthew 11:28 Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden (phortizō / φορτίζω), and I will give you rest. 29 Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For my yoke is easy, and my burden (phortion / φορτίον) is light.”

They were “harassed and helpless”, is says in another place (Matthew 9:36), and Jesus was stepping in to put their foolish/narcissistic masters in their place, and to replace the heavy burden under which they were struggling, with his own light burden and easy yoke. That is, they were not just loaded, but were overloaded, and he was going to do something about it, because he was cool like that!

And that brings us, finally, to the “overloaded” part of this post, which I addressed in the second stanza of the poem at the beginning.

²Galatians 6:3 Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.

The word for “burdens” here is not the same word Jesus used in Matthew 11. Here, the Greek has βάρος (baros). And this word might be understood quite the same as the other word, generally speaking, yet Paul uses the general “burden” or “load” idea in this same passage twice, and does not use the same word for each. Further, the two uses of this burden/load idea don’t really match very well, for in the one case, he says that each one should carry his own load, where in verse 3, he says they should carry one another’s loads. And I heard it taught years ago that the best understanding of it is this: Each one should carry his own load, but you should carry one another’s overloads—meaning, you should step in when they are overwhelmed and failing. And this is exactly what Jesus did—and I think that Paul gives a shout-out to this fact when he includes the part right after the comma:

Galatians 6:3 Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.

It was to be their culture—their character—to carry their own load like Christ did, to be self-responsible and mature—but also, to sacrifice themselves in carrying the overloads of the others. And that’s the only way I can honestly, rationally, and responsibly interpret this passage.

So, unless I have missed it somehow, the message here is that we need to be the sort of people who are busy about bearing our own responsibility, who are helping others when they are overwhelmed, and who also—and this may be the hardest part for some)—who also are getting help from others when we are down, so that we do not crash and burn, so to speak, in life’s most overwhelming episodes.

Remember the proverb we looked at. The jealousy of the fool cannot be long withstood before it overcomes us. And I do suspect that we all bear lots of scars and fatigue from the narcissistic people and institutions in this world, and that we’re all suffering to some degree (whether large or small) from something like Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). And sometimes, we just need help.

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