The Shoulders of the People

"... but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach. They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them.

Matthew 23:1-12

October 30, 2020, Words By: Jenna Smith, Image By: Ivanoh Demers/Radio Canada

They do not practice what they teach.
They are unwilling to lift a finger.
They love the seat of honour.

Jesus’ criticism of his community’s religious leaders is, as usual, raw, unrestrained and unfiltered. What stands out in this particular passage is his opening criticism: “They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others.”

The behaviour of the pharisees and scribes—described in detail by Jesus as a series of hypocrisies, sins of self-serving hierarchy, and oppressive elitism—results in a heaviness on the shoulders of the people.

It is institutional-induced fatigue.

I cannot help but read this passage through the lens of a society-wide conversation right now on systems, namely, systems of oppression. This conversation doesn’t discount individual sin, but it highlights that there is a fundamental brokenness—a sinfulness—in the structure of power itself.

In my home province of Quebec, we as a society are also feeling the heaviness on our shoulders. The conversation around systemic racism has emerged once more, following the untimely death of an Indigenous woman, Joyce Echaquan. She died at the hands of hospital staff who yelled diminishing and prejudicial slurs at her while she begged them to change her medication doses. Her last living act was to film the whole thing on her phone. The debate with our government exploded: was this the act of individuals who were heinous and racist, or was this the result of a broken and oppressive system? Our Premier still adamantly refuses to admit to systemic racism being a problem in Quebec.

We are suffering from institutional-induced fatigue.

Jesus spends the entire passage pointing out what is wrong with the scribes and pharisees at an institutional level. And it makes me wonder if he is not using the sins of the leaders as a means of addressing an abysmal system, one that, in its entirety, is sinful.

If that’s the case, his directive to the disciples in verses 8 and 10, “you are not to be called rabbi…nor are you to be called instructors…” reads as an urging to resist the temptation to join forces with their present power structure. We know that later the disciples did indeed instruct, teach, and for all intents and purposes, occupy rabbinical roles.

They just didn’t do so in the system.

This conversation becomes a whole lot more uncomfortable when it is applied inward, on our own religious leadership and institutions. Leadership within my Christian community is literally my wheelhouse: I am, in many ways, part of the league of pharisees, one of the scribes or instructors. What hypocrisies, what legalism, what hierarchy am I participating in that is directly or indirectly laying weight on the shoulders of my neighbour?

Jesus uses the word “burden.” It echoes in contrast to that other verse in Matthew, better-known, that employs this word (the only other time Jesus uses it in the Gospel of Matthew): “Come to me all who are heavy-laden and I will give you rest. For my yoke is easy and my burden light.”

Our participation, or even alignment, with systems or institutions may well be inevitable. As long as humans desire connection and productivity, they will gather and organize. The invitation from Jesus, however, is to develop a religiosity—literally a binding together of what which is broken—that is anchored in his person, and not in the system.

One will weigh heavy on your shoulders.

But the other will be light.

About The Author

Jenna Smith