Now a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph. He said to his people, ‘Look, the Israelite people are more numerous and more powerful than we. Come, let us deal shrewdly with them, or they will increase and, in the event of war, join our enemies and fight against us and escape from the land.’ Therefore they set taskmasters over them to oppress them with forced labour. They built supply cities, Pithom and Rameses, for Pharaoh. But the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and spread, so that the Egyptians came to dread the Israelites. The Egyptians became ruthless in imposing tasks on the Israelites, and made their lives bitter with hard service in mortar and brick and in every kind of field labour. They were ruthless in all the tasks that they imposed on them.
In all fairness, we are supposed to carry some burdens in life. The Hollies’ classic song “He Ain’t Heavy – He’s My Brother” echoes Jesus’ own words regarding our debt to love one another (Rom 13.8). But things have gone wrong, and some things have become twisted. We often find ourselves carrying burdens that are soul-crushing.
Today’s reading focuses on the forced labour conditions endured by the ancient Hebrew workforce. This brutal treatment led to a collective lament to God prior to the exodus from Egypt. Things have not changed in the meantime – individuals, workforces and entire populations still lament and protest about their living conditions today.
Even religious movements can impose soul-crushing burdens. Jesus warned against such purveyors of oppression: “They tie heavy burdens … on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them.” (Matthew 23:4).
But the fault of heavy burdens isn’t just the fault of corrupt forces and institutions. All so often, we need little help from others as we expertly lay impossible burdens upon our frail shoulders – including unrealistic dreams or destructive habits, among many.
So the pressure of these unrealistic and soul-crushing burnens, be they imposed by others or ourselves, leads us to the foot of the cross. Jesus invites us to carry his burden, which seems to be impossibly heavy but is significantly lighter and the way of love (Matt 11.28-30).
In the words of the classic hymn: “Leave your heavy burdens at the cross.”
Father God, we sadly recognise the familiar world of burdens – a world that we created, Forging harsh work conditions, spiritual oppression and personal choice Placing impossible pressures on the lives of many. May you re-create a world as you intended Bringing freedom and relief from the pressures of life. May we leave our heavy burdens at the cross And walk with your son, Jesus, in real freedom.
The Rev’d Daniel Harris, ministers in the North Manchester Mission Partnership.