Sunday, May 20, 2018

The Second Mile

"On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus.  'Teacher,' he asked, 'what must I do to inherit eternal life?'
'What is written in the Law?' he replied.  'How do you read it?'
He answered, ' "Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind'; and, 'Love your neighbor as yourself."'
'You have answered correctly,' Jesus replied.  'Do this and you will live.'
But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, 'And who is my neighbor?' "
Luke 10:25-29

I love the story of the Good Samaritan. It contains a perfect summation of the law and a beautiful example of the love that Jesus has called us to.  It also shares many similarities with the story of the rich young ruler.

In this encounter with Jesus, we see a searcher truly asking Jesus what is required for eternal life.  And when asked what the Law requires, he gives the correct summary.  In fact, he gives the summary that Jesus himself gives - to love God and to love your neighbor.  This should have been sufficient, but the young expert in the law wanted to qualify who counted as his neighbor.

This was the Pharisees problem.  “Woe to you Pharisees, because you give God a tenth of your mint, rue, and all other kinds of garden herbs, but you neglect justice and the love of God.  You should have practiced the latter without leaving the former undone.”  Luke 11:42  The Pharisees, like this expert, would have no problem with loving their neighbor so long as they were good Jews, but any going any further than that would be problematic.

In telling the story of the Good Samaritan, Jesus described a traveler along the Bloody Path, a crooked, winding pathway going from the mountain to sea level.  It was known to be treacherous, with many areas prone to gangs and marauders.  It would not be a surprise in the story for the man to have been attacked and left injured on the side of the road.

The surprise would have come with those appearing next in the story who had the opportunity to offer aid, a priest, a levite, and a Samaritan.  The priest and the levite would have represented the very best of the best to the Jews.  The Samaritan would have been viewed as trash.  The were viewed as dogs.  Less than dirt.  Jews and Samaritans hated each other on a level of Jews and Nazis, Jews and Palestinians, Christians/Jews and Muslims, etc.

So it becomes very interesting that the only one to stop and offer aid was the lowly Samaritan.  I think Dr. Martin Luther King has one of the most interesting insights on this passage.  He outlined how the Priest and the Levite looked at the man and asked "If I help this man what will happen to me?"  King would summarize "it weighed more with them that he might be dead and defiling to the touch of those whose business was with holy things than that he might be alive and in need of care."  They were so concerned regarding their own defilement from touching a dead body, which would require a cleaning before entering the temple.  He noted that the Samaritan on the other hand looked at the man and asked “If I do not help this man, what will happen to him?"

We can further see how serious Jesus is about loving our neighbor and how challenging that will be in the Sermon on the Mount.  There Jesus outlines exactly how we are to love our neighbor.  To love them even when it hurts, when it’s uncomfortable.

"You have heard that it was said, 'Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.'  But I tell you, do not resist and evil person.  If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also.  And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well.  If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles.  Give to the one who asks you, and do  not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from  you.
You have heard that it was said, 'Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven.  He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.  If you love those who love you, what reward will you get?  Are not even the tax collectors doing that?  And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others?  Do not even pagans do that?  Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect."
Matthew 5:38-48

Jesus outlined a few big categories on how to love and I really do think we underestimate how difficult and how radical they are.  First, we are to love everyone including our enemies.  We are to love and for our enemies.  Not just a "pious" prayer of “Lord bring them around to you,” though that is a part. It’s pray for them as we do ourselves: pray for their safety, pray for their nourishment, pray for their well being, etc.

Second, we are to turn the other cheek.  Jesus is literally directing us toward not seeking retribution and avoiding escalation.   Please note, Jesus does not provide any limitations on this.  There is not a limitation on the number of times that we are to turn the other cheek.  To focus on such a number is the equivalent of asking "who is my neighbor."  It's slightly missing the point.  The focus is to avoid conflict.

Jesus then reiterates this concept by instructing us to give the shirt off your back.  This example is discussed in a court room sense.  We are to settle disputes rather than seeking court justification; if giving your opponent your shirt (something extra) will settle the dispute finally, it is better to do so.

Jesus then closes the examples by telling us to go the extra mile.  The second mile.  This is a form of impressment.  In Roman days, Jews like others under Roman occupation, could be forced to carry a soldier’s bag (100 lb) for one mile.  Regardless of what the Jew was doing, regardless of where the solider was going, the Jew was required by punishment of law to carry the soldiers pack.

As you can imagine, there were typically two different types of responses to this requirement.  The Zealots, or the religious right/fundamentalists, would dig in and engage in  “civil” disobedience.  Be thrown in jail for refusal.  This type of requirement and response would be part of what led to a Jewish revolution attempt
The average person might carry the pack, but would grumble the whole way, throw the pack down at the end, and storm off in a huff.

But Jesus says do more – do something astonishing.  Don't just carry the pack the required distance.  Go further.  Don't do it begrudgingly; do it willingly.  Do it as service to God.

It's also very important to notice what Jesus does not say.

He does not say use the second mile as an opportunity just to witness.  This might be a natural outcome, but the command is not there.  We’re not to do this for an ulterior motive beyond carrying the pack and providing the assistance needed.

He also does not give any exceptions.  There is no exception for circumstance.  Of particular interest, there is no exception for the Sabbath.  On the Sabbath, Jews viewed scripture as preventing them from being able to work, regardless of what the work was for.  They had even calculated the specific number of steps that they were allowed to take to prevent them from breaking this rule.  What is very interesting about this situation is that depending on the circumstances, a Jew might be able to carry the pack for one mile and return to his home without breaking the number of steps.  By instructing them to walk two miles, still having the return trip of two miles, without an exception for the Sabbath, Jesus' new instruction would definitely cause them to break the allotted number of steps on a Sabbath.  One further indication showing Jesus cares not for our religious rules we have created, but deeply cares about his people and the instruction to love.

In that context, what does going the second mile look like today:

  • Perhaps going the extra mile looks like caring for someone through their illness instead of leaving them to it as a consequence of their sin.  The church missed a tremendous opportunity to care for and love on hurting people in the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s.
  • Perhaps going the extra mile looks like praying for political leadership we oppose and not resorting to calling them various names or calling for their heads whether on Facebook or in person.
  • Perhaps going the extra mile today looks like calling a person by the name and gender they identify with rather than the one we are comfortable with, and recognizing that a person who goes through a transition as quickly and as publicly as Caitlin Jenner has gone through may have many other issues and hurts in her life that need to be addressed

I don’t know that any of these are 100% right.  But I do know that planting our flag on one side and declaring an entire set of people as “them” and putting a chasm in between us and making them approach us only if they’ve cleaned up and agree with us, is 100% wrong.

And further, the focus on being "right" is another adventure in missing the point.  It's the pharisee asking "who is our neighbor" or asking how many times to turn our cheeks.  The focus on being "right" is one of the most detrimental instincts in the church.  It is at the root at a number of church splits that we have seen, preventing God's universal Church from getting along with each other.    It's what puts doctrine over discipleship.   And any number of horrors can be justified under the banner of being "right" (the Crusades, the Salem Witch Trials, the continued propagation of the "curse of Ham" doctrine).

So the question today is what is our response when we’re told to carry the pack:

Are we the zealot, focusing on our own righteousness, just like the Pharisees and Sadduccees?  The priest or the Levite who focuses on keeping themselves clean?

Are we the average Jew, who is dragged along and complies, grumbling all the time?

Or are we the one that astonishes?  The Samaritan who is deeply concerned about what will happen to his fellow man if he does not act?

"By this everyone will know you are my disciples, if you love one another."
John 13:35

"Above all love each other deeply, because love covers a multitude of sins."
1 Peter 4:8

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