Walking along a country road, a little girl struggles under the weight of a heavy load. A passerby stops to see if she needs help and notices that she’s carrying a rather large baby boy, not much smaller than herself, it seems.
“Don’t you get tired carrying him?”
The little girl matter-of-factly replies, “He’s na heavy; he’s mi brither.”
The story first appeared in Scotland in 1884, in a book on the Parables of Jesus. It showed up in the September 1924 Kiwanis magazine. Then in 1941, Father Edward Flanagan discovered a similar story with a picture in Ideal magazine and got permission to use the motto and image at Boys Town, the home for boys he founded.
The movie Boys Town came out in 1938. A 1941 sequel, titled The Men of Boys Town, included the line, “He ain’t heavy, he’s my brother.” In 1969, Bob Russell and Bobby Scott wrote a song by the same name. It became popular and was sung by dozens of pop singers in the 60s and 70s. In addition, there have been numerous paintings and sculptures on the same theme.
There’s something about the story of the little girl that captivates the imagination and begs to illustrate a key theme in the Bible. In Genesis 4:9, The Lord asks Cain about Abel, and the murderer replies, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” The answer implied in the scripture is simple. “Yes, you are your brother’s keeper.” Leviticus 19:18 instructs the people of God to “Love your neighbor as yourself,” which Jesus quotes in Matthew 22:37. The apostle Paul adds in Galatians 6:2 that we are to “Carry one another’s heavy load, and by doing so, fulfill the law of Christ.”
In Victor Hugo’s timeless novel, Les Misérable, Jean Valjean is a former criminal who changes his name and his lifestyle in order to hide his past, eventually becoming the mayor of a town. But the new chief of police is the very same officer who was a guard at the prison, and is looking to re-arrest Valjean for breaking parole. One day, one of the men in town is trapped under the heavy weight of a horse-drawn wagon, and nobody is able to get him out from underneath. Then, while Javert, the police inspector, is watching, the mayor hefts the weight of the wagon, lifting it off the ground high enough for others to pull the man to safety.
The officer remembers a time when a prisoner had done something similar in the prison, and wonders if this is the same man. Knowing what’s at stake, Valjean risks his identity and his freedom in order to help the man.
Carrying one another’s burden is the essence of loving someone in the name of the Lord, loving someone enough to lighten the load, loving someone enough to risk everything in order to offer a helping hand.
The Parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke chapter 10 has a similar motif. In this story, several righteous people see the injured man, but they don’t stop to help him. The one who provides the desperately needed assistance is an outsider, a despised Samaritan, someone you’d least expect to offer help. But he does stop, and he does help. In fact, he pays the innkeeper to care for the man until he returns.
After telling the story, Jesus asks, “Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?” An expert in the law replies, “The one who had mercy on him.” Jesus tells him, “Go and do likewise.”
It is this Go and Do Likewise that Jesus asks his followers to put into practice. Are we big enough to see every human being as our neighbor and every person out there as a brother or sister? To put it into the words of the little Scottish girl, “He’s na heavy; he’s mi brither.”
Copyright © 2020 Paul Linzey, used with permission.