If anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile

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“If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also, and if anyone wants to take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile” Those were Jesus’ words (The Gospel Reading for the Seventh Sunday after Epiphany – Matthew 5:38-48) to the people of Israel under Roman occupation. The people were the underdogs in that society and  understood the value of a robe and a coat on one’s back.

In this teaching, the powerless is being deprived, presumably by the powerful, of even the basic necessity. “So they want to take your coat?” Jesus is saying, “give them your robe as well”.For a first century Israelite that meant being stark naked. In that society, the shame would be, not on the naked person, but on the one who took his covering.

Similarly, a Roman soldier could order anyone to carry his luggage for one mile – not more. So Jesus is saying, “That’s what he wants you to do? Carry it for two miles”. It is the soldier who will be in trouble  for that breach of conduct.

One wishes that the members of Congress see that picture as they strive to take more and more from the little that is available for the poor and the needy. In first century Israel, this was a story of power, specifically the powerful and their treatment of the powerless. Jesus is teaching the powerless how to shame the powerful.

While persecution and even martyrdom were ever present realities for Jesus’ audience in the first century, today’s Christian – especially in the West – is, in many ways, in the equivalent position of the Roman Empire. Power manifests itself in various forms. I will cite here, the gun and firearms as examples for illustration.

A person with a gun feels to have – and indeed does have – power over one who does not have a firearm. That sense of power drives one to shoot at an unarmed adversary during an argument or when the latter defies instructions from the former. Ironically, and tragically, in perversion of moral law, the powerful can still find defense in some laws of “self defense” or “stand your ground”.

Clearly, Jesus’ teaching in this Sunday’s Gospel does not look like anything like self-defense  or stand your ground in any sense, even with the powerless party, much less the powerful. So, how should we understand this Sunday’s message?

The First Reading from Leviticus 19:1-2,9-18 begins with the words: “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy”. That is followed by ethical instructions on how to live with one another, especially how to treat the powerless, the less fortunate: Don’t be so greedy that you deprive even the needy; don’t cheat or steal; don’t defraud or make life unbearable for the less fortunate and so on.

The Epistle Reading (1 Corinthians 3:10-11,16-23) emphasizes imitating Christ, or having Christ as the foundation, in contrast to worldly wisdom. Similarly, what the final sentence in the Gospel Reading (Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect) signifies is to be Godly through God’s code of ethics.

The best summary is clearly in the Collect with this prayer: “Send your Holy Spirit and pour into our hearts your greatest gift, which is love, the true bond of peace and of all virtue without which…” there is no real life.

Life is a constant call for choices and decisions with consequences

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A short distance north of present-day Nablus in Samaria (Nablus is an Arabic corruption of Flavia Neopolis) are the twin mountains Gerizim and Ebal. The biblical Shechem where Jacob’s Well still attracts pilgrims and tourists as the site where Jesus had a life-changing conversation with the Samaritan woman (John 4:5-26) is only a short distance between Nablus and the twin mountains.

It was here, between MountGerizim and MountEbal that “Joshua gathered all the tribes of Israel [to Shechem] and summoned all the elders, the heads, the judges, and the officers of Israel, and they presented themselves before God” (Joshua 24:1). He charged them to make a choice and decide between serving the Lord or other gods. He said; “Now, if you are unwilling to serve the Lord, choose this day whom you will serve…but as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord” (Joshua 24:15).

In Deuteronomy 11:29 Moses said to the Israelites in his farewell address: “When the Lord your God has brought you into the land that you are entering  to occupy, you shall set the blessing on Mount Gerizim and the curse on Mount Ebal. That is what Joshua did – giving everyone the chance to make a choice and decide.

Every single day we are faced with many alternatives from which we must choose and make decisions; and every choice has its consequences. The First Reading for the Sixth Sunday after Epiphany (Ecclesiasticus 15:15-20) is a call to make a choice: “He has placed before you fire and water; stretch out your hand for whichever you choose”. It is the same call in the alternative Old Testament Reading from Deuteronomy 30:15-20: “See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity…Choose life so that you and your descendants may live”.

That is the nature of life: choices and decisions and consequences all the time.