Thursday, June 27, 2013


When I think through the implications of Jesus' teaching about how to love our enemies (Mt. 5:38-48), I realize once again how provocative he was.  In certain respects, I wish he would have been more vague about what it means to "love."  It would've helped us justify ourselves with empty expressions like, "hate the sin, love the sinner," for who could deny that we are "loving" someone when we tell the truth about sin?  But, Jesus won't let us get off so easy.  He doesn't leave the definition of "love" to us.  Rather, he offers a startling example that forces us to do things that don't come so easy.

When we think about loving our enemies, we often center on the "turning the other cheek" part of his advice.  And, that teaching is provocation enough to make us rethink whether we are truly loving our enemies.  But, recently I've been thinking through the other bit, the part about "going the extra mile," as an even more scandalous teaching--for Jesus' day and for ours.

Think about what it meant for his day.  He's making a clear reference to the practice of Roman soldiers to "force" imperial subjects to carry their armor, swords, provisions for a mile.  Since Rome didn't pay their armies enough to live on (some things never change), the Senate made provisions for Roman soldiers to exact help from the people they were ruling, e.g., extorting provisions for a journey, procuring goods for an expedition, or forcing locals to carry anything for a mile.  Of course, Roman soldiers abused the law and often took more than they should.  Think about how many times Jesus witnessed the scene growing up in Nazareth (a little town located a few miles from a major Roman highway).

Roman soldiers enter Nazareth.  They need food, water, perhaps tools, equipment, beasts of burden, etc.  Going house to house, the soldiers take what they need, what they want.  A Jewish man objects; they can't take his ox!  It's the only one he's got.  It took a year's pay to get it.  How will he plow his field without it?  The man resists.  The soldier gives him the usual warning, a back-handed slap across the face.  What can the man do?  He relents.  But, it gets worse.  The soldier has decided that he will not only take the man's ox, he will conscript the Jew to carry his armor.  That's the last thing the man from Nazareth would want to do:  help his enemy with Roman occupation.  As he carries the weapons and armor, imagine what would go through his mind:  "I wonder how many Jewish brothers and sisters this pagan has killed with his sword.  And I'm helping him get to the next Jewish village!"  They reach the end of the mile.  According to Roman law, that's as far as the subject should have to go.  But, the soldier keeps walking.  The Jewish man says, "That's it.  I'm going no further."  The soldier returns, slaps the man across the face again, and says, "Keep moving."  This was a common scene repeated thousands of times, not only in Palestine but throughout all imperial provinces of the Roman Empire.

Going "the second mile" not only meant willfully accepting the injustice of the enemy but also "aiding and abetting" the perpetrators.  Imagine what it looked like to fellow Jews when one of Jesus' disciples helped Roman soldiers rule the land promised by God to Israel.  By any standard, such action would be treason:  treason against fellow Jews, treason against God.

And, now we've come to the litmus test of what it means to love our enemies.  If our friends can accuse us of helping our opponents to the point that we are acting like traitors, then we might be living up to what Jesus taught.

But, we don't do this for two reasons:  we refuse to admit we have enemies (we Christians love everyone, right?), and our enemies know we hate them.  It's no wonder we don't know how to love them.


Bill said...

This is a powerful, and challenging, message. Following Jesus isn't easy.

stephen said...

I can't help but wonder if Jesus was speaking to this specific situation of carrying the Roman armor, or if Jesus was expecting a much broader interpretation regarding one's stance toward the Roman Empire. Meaning, I'm a disciple and I am commanded to carry a soldier's armor - I do it and I even go the extra mile, as Jesus directed, all while also carrying disdain and fury over what this man represents. I'm not entirely sure it is possible to hold those two in tension and still love as Jesus prescribed. I have an awful long list of enemies. Jesus is simultaneously confusing to my flesh and dangerous to my world. I love him.