In the first week of this series, we reminded ourselves of the “Greatest Commandments” — to love God and to love our neighbor. We considered not just “The Golden Rule,” but what my pastor friend calls “The Platinum Rule:” treat others the way they want to be treated, which requires listening and getting to know our neighbors.
In the second week, we reminded ourselves of the call to “bear one another’s burdens,” including the responsibility to restore one another, when we inevitably make mistakes, in a spirit of gentleness, recognizing that we, too, are imperfect.
Last week, we reminded ourselves of the example of Jesus talking with, and offering grace to, a Samaritan woman, going to the “wrong place” at the “wrong time,” engaging with patience, curiosity, respect and a spirit of listening and truth, with people who have “baggage” and conflicted “history.”
Today, we look at the question of what to do in the face of patent injustice directed, personally, toward us. What do we do — or what are we called as people of faith to do — when our own personal safety is at stake, when we are personally inconvenienced, when someone with greater power strikes at our bodies, our personhood, our possessions, or our time?
“You have heard that it was said…” The passage we are wrestling with today comes from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, a hefty set of teachings directed toward his closest disciples, as a large crowd of others looked on (and probably tried to listen in). This was an audience that was familiar with the traditional teachings to which Jesus gives new interpretations — but perhaps we aren’t as well-acquainted with those original contexts. So let me provide a little background information:
The teaching about “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” is found in three different places in the Torah — and actually spells out even more body parts, “hand for hand, foot for foot, and life for life.” This was the definition of “justice,” a way of tempering the desire for revenge. You couldn’t take another’s life because they injured your hand or foot; the “repayment” had to be equal, and could not be escalated. There was debate about the interpretation of this among learned Jewish folks; did this mean you pluck out the other person’s eye, or do you financially compensate someone for the loss of their eye? But the point was to keep the response measured.
But Jesus took the teaching on justice a step further, not just refusing to escalate the violence, but to diminish it, to swallow up and neutralize the evil through the active practice of loving non-violence.
Here’s another piece of background, on the origin of that phrase, “go the second mile,” which doubtless you heard echoes of, even in the modern translation of the passage read a few minutes ago. Under the Roman occupation, there was a law that a Roman soldier could force any stranger to carry his backpack for one mile. Anyone who refused to comply could be flogged. (I wanted to check my facts on this practice, and learned that the key verb in this verse, ἀγγαρεύσει, is used only once in the New Testament; it is a term that harkens back to a practice from the time of King Cyrus the Great of Persia, who invented the postal system to carry messages from one place to another. The couriers could force anyone to carry the load for one mile, but no more, and the Romans then adopted this practice to keep their soldiers from wearing out. A Roman soldier’s backpack weighed about 66 pounds, and I found two photos showing the items that would have been in that pack. I guess there are a lot of history buffs out there!)
For me, the question raised in this passage is, how do you respond to the abuse of power? It was an important question in Jesus’ time as well as ours. In my Common English Bible, the translators made headings for these paragraphs, calling the first the “Law of Retaliation” and the second, the “Law of Love.” Both of these reflections hinge on the counter-cultural notion that everyone is of equal sacred worth — and that includes those we would rather not consider as such, because they’ve done nothing to “deserve” our gentle treatment.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.took the application of this teaching deeply to heart. His was a theology of active, radical love, not just for neighbors, but for adversaries. “Darkness cannot drive out darkness,” he said; “only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”
I remember serving in a very challenging appointment years ago, during which time I was regularly meeting with a mentor who had training in spiritual direction. There was one person in that congregation who was particularly trying for me, constantly and publicly critical, consistently undermining my efforts and questioning my authority and my motives. Her previous behavior pattern was to kind of “explode” and then leave the church (only to return when there was a change in pastors), but this time she stayed and fought me at every turn, with a passionate self-righteousness that drained my soul and made me question my calling. Years after I was appointed elsewhere, I would still occasionally have a dream about this person — or rather, it seemed, she invaded my dreams. I remember my spiritual director/mentor asking me, during that trying time, to consider this difficult person as a gift to me — to ask God and look for the gift that she was bringing. It was a challenging spiritual practice. Although I think I suffered a bit of PTSD from that period in my life, I was eventually able to regard this antagonist with a degree of compassion instead of intimidation or fear. She still comes to my waking mind at times (and I still engage in a compassion practice when that happens) but she has not come to my dreams for a long time now.
Jesus invites us to a special kind of freedom when we accept the challenge to go the second mile. It is a place where our happiness is no longer held hostage by external circumstances, where others cannot take our joy from us. It is a place of gratitude for sun, rain, and the present moment, and dedication toward the well-being of every human one God has created.
As we bring this series to a close, I invite those of you who are still wearing them to take a look at your friendship bracelet. As I made these, a song was going through my head:
Weave, weave, weave us together.
Weave us together in unity and love.
Weave, weave, weave us together.
Weave us together, together in love.
(by Rosemary Crow, 1979 — Girl Scout song and Chalice Hymnal #495)
Notice that although they are of different colors, every strand is the same length, and each is needed to make the woven bracelet strong. In fact, the differences add to the beauty of the pattern. We must believe that our “enemies” and “adversaries” are of equal value, that their contributions to this life we share are just as important, even if they do not believe the same.
Help us, O God, to see as you see, to love as you love, and to allow you to heal our hearts, so that we, in turn, may be peacemakers and repairers of what is broken. Amen.