Jesus’s words in the Gospel reading for today might be familiar ones: love your enemy, turn the other cheek, go the extra mile. I know that every time these words come around in the lectionary I experience a mix of feeling inspired and also a degree of resistance. After all, I think, going the extra mile is unjust! Especially when you consider the cultural context: under Roman law at the time, Jewish people could be pressed into serving Gentiles and be asked to carry bags for a distance. But one could not be asked to go further. The practice was oppressive. My own resistance comes from the injustice of it all. In a wider community, we ought also to care for justice. Right?
Yes, Jesus cares for justice. Some have interpreted Jesus’s words to mean that there is a way to reveal injustice but not through violent resistance. If you go the extra mile, then you are in a way resisting the boundaries of the social structure. At the point that the soldier says you’re done, continuing on could be a way of bringing attention to the practice and its injustice. If you turn the other cheek, you are showing as protesters like Martin Luther King and others in Birmingham did, what the oppressor is capable of. To do more than is required draws attention to the unjust social structure. It draws attention to what the oppressor is doing.
But while I like this approach I think it’s also not enough. For the context Jesus presents suggests a further meaning . Jesus tells us that God is generous with everyone: just and unjust people. When the land is parched and dry, God sends down gentle rain on the whole community. God tends to the needs of all and not some. God’s generosity does not draw distinctions in the way human beings do. God’s love is without bounds because that is who God is. Love is God’s nature.
In the Jewish context, doing a mitzvah or good deed is a matter of the heart and not only the exact act of the law. Jesus in the sermon doesn’t specify if you carry a bag for a Roman , be sure to go the extra mile. He says if you carry a bag for anyone, go further. In other words, make your service to others not just the fulfillment of an obligation but rather a matter of the heart. Maybe you offer to carry a bag for a fellow member of the community not because you must but because you would like to do something caring.
We do this all the time with people who are easy to love. If I’m hiking and my family member hurts his knee on a hike and asks for help, I will willingly carry his extra gear for quite a ways because he is in need. Mothers lug their kids’ tricycles through parks when the toddlers become bored and run off to explore earthworms under a tree. We do these extra little acts of love all the time. We even carry our crosses through life.
The challenge for us is to do good things for those who are not to easy to love: the person we perceive as part of the “other group” (think about our country’s political divisions). Or the person who doesn’t always treat us that well. To be clear, Jesus is not supporting abuse. We always need to draw healthy boundaries with others.
Rather Jesus is saying something like this: don’t frame your own actions towards others in terms of what the other person has done for you. Instead, frame your actions towards others in terms of what God has done for you. God is generous because God lacks nothing. God is love. We are not God but we can be like God because God gives us so much love. And then we can share love with others and go the extra mile out of that sense of plenty.
We can act with generosity to those who don’t actively show love for us, or those who we perceive as political “others” in politically contentious times. We can practice good deeds for others without measuring or counting the cost. Or counting the exact mileage!
To be able to do this we have to allow ourselves the space and time to receive what we need within from God. That can be prayer, silent meditation, time in nature, time with those who love us well and fill up our stores of love.
Lent is nearly here so we can think about how we might use the season of Lent to repent for where we have not loved well, to pray to be more aware of God’s love for all of us, and to fast from those things that are impediments to love. And then to be generous in love for others.