overburdened

Last Sunday I preached in my home church in Alaska. My text was Gal. 6:1-5. When I was growing up, this passage puzzled me since it said in our Bibles in verse 2

Bear ye one another’s burdens, …

I understood how a group can help an individual who is struggling with some difficulty. But then verse 2 seemed to be contradicted by verse 5 which focused on the individual:

For every man [Greek, each one] shall bear his own burden.

As I studied for the sermon I discovered that there are two different Greek words underlying “burden” and “burdens” in this passage. In verse 2 the Greek word βάρος refers to a burden that is heavy, difficult to carry. In verse 5 the word φορτίον refers to something which is more of a typical load to be carried. A soldier typically wears a certain φορτίον ‘kit’.  A ship or donkey is expected to carry a φορτίον ‘cargo, load’. A person’s φορτίον can even refer, metaphorically, to how that person conducts their life.

Better Bible translations reflect the differences in meaning of these two Greek words. I encouraged the church to help bear the weight that feels like too much for one person to handle. We can come alongside people who are experiencing a heavy load and let them lean on us, give them a shoulder to cry on, comfort them, pick up some of their load.

But I also encouraged them to remember that we each have responsibilities in life that are ours and ours alone. If we are unloving, no one else can be loving for us. If we want to eat, we need to do the work necessary to eat, as Paul commanded the Thessalonians (2 Thess. 3:10). We must pull our own weight, act responsibly, and not be slackers. No one else can act responsibly for us. That is our own individual job.

Most recent English versions differentiate the two kinds of weights that can be carried by translating the first as “burden” and the second as “load” (RSV, NASB, NRSV, ESV, NKJV, NWT, NIV, TNIV, TEV, NAB, NJB, NET, TM, HCSB). That is good translation.

Some translations make the metaphorical nature of the weight in verse 5 explicit:

  • For we are each responsible for our own conduct. (NLT)
  • Assume your own responsibility. (GW)

3 thoughts on “overburdened

  1. Peter Kirk says:

    David Ker, if you are around, I think you need to remind Wayne that verse 2, “Bear ye”, is clearly addressed to the two bears of the Elisha story. Indeed I think this should be understood as a rebuke to those bears for getting involved in a third party’s business, mauling the kids who mocked Elisha, and not restricting their attention to one another’s burdens. What kind of exegesis is that? 😉

  2. Peter Kirk says:

    A bit more seriously, I wonder if anyone else has tried to interpret “Bear one another’s burdens” as “don’t bear anyone else’s burdens”. I guess that exegesis might appeal to the translators of The Conservative Bible, and might even appear in their translation.

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