Bear One Another’s Burdens

I came across this in The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, from the section on Isaac the Theban:

One day Abba Isaac went to a monastery. He saw a brother committing a sin and he condemned him. When he returned to the desert, an angel of the Lord came and stood in front of the door of his cell, and said, “I will not let you enter.” But he resisted saying “What is the matter?” and the angel replied, “God has sent me to ask you where you want to throw the guilty brother you have condemned.” Immediately he repented and said, “I have sinned, forgive me.” Then the angel said, “Get up, God has forgiven you. But from now on, be careful not to judge someone before God has done so.”

I think back to the Gospel of John, chapter eight, the woman caught in adultery, and the attempt of the scribes and the Pharisees to test Jesus. And how this approach — “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her” — is how we as followers of Jesus are called to live with each other. Our desire to judge others should always be circumscribed by our understanding of our own sinfulness.

Note well, in both John’s Gospel and here, in this saying of the Desert Fathers, right judgment is not in question. The woman in John 8:1-11 “had been caught in adultery” (μοιχεια) — her guilt is not in question. Nor is the brother monk’s in this story here.

What is in question is the condemnation that follows the judgment. Here, in both these stories, we are not allowed — through divine intervention — to condemn. It has consequences. For us.

How does one live in this? Judgment and condemnation are really central (and even essential) to some kind of shared life together — both as church and as a larger community. (Without norms and bounds proclaimed and enforced, what becomes of us?) I suspect that this kind of mercy is so very hard to do, because it seems to be a natural human urge to judge and condemn. Especially if you are right.

But bearing each other’s burdens seems to be more important to life as a community of people called to follow Jesus. It begins with Christ bearing the burdens of sin for God’s people — for the whole κοσμος! This is not about being nice, or even kind, but rather about bearing Christ to the world and being Christ in the world. It is about a God of forgiveness and mercy, a God who forgives those who have sinned and rescues those who are lost! I am reminded of the words Paul wrote to the church at Galatia (because I am beginning to read Paul the same way I read the rest of scripture):

1 Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted. 2 Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ. 3 For if anyone thinks he is something, when he is nothing, he deceives himself. 4 But let each one test his own work, and then his reason to boast will be in himself alone and not in his neighbor. 5 For each will have to bear his own load. (Galatians 6:1-5 ESV)

This from a man who had no problem judging. Or even condemning.

One thought on “Bear One Another’s Burdens

  1. If you haven’t read it, I enthusiastically recommend “Paul Among the People” by Sarah Ruden. She is a liberal Quaker, a classical scholar who is gaining some renown as a translator from both Greek and Latin. Before she got the idea for the book, she had not read much of the epistles and held the common negative image of Paul as a sour misogynist authoritarian, etc. When she actually read Paul in Greek, in the light of her knowledge of 1st century classical literature, she got a very different picture.

    I think of Paul as more like Scrooge on Christmas morning. He is so full of the ecstasy of having been redeemed from near-demonic persecutor of the church to apostle for the gospel. F. F. Bruce subtitled his book on Paul “Apostle of the Heart Set Free”. He can get testy trying to herd Christian cats in the very harsh society of the early Empire. But to me he seems to radiate joy even from prison, after scourging, after shipwreck, facing martyrdom – like he’s got the greatest job in the world.

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