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.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Job's God

Recently, 12 million viewers heard a man continuously pray to Jesus while walking a tightrope across a narrow stretch of the Grand Canyon.  He's being hailed by many Christians as the perfect example of what it means to "walk by faith and not by sight" (from the Apostle Paul).  But, I don't think that's what Paul had in mind at all.  Rather, the man was walking by sight.  He had his eyes open.  He had a balancing pole.  He had practiced the stunt in Florida.  Indeed, all of his sensory apparati were in full operation when he traversed the metal cable.  The stunt was a carefully choreographed event to be seen (not believed).  When Paul was talking about "walking by faith not sight," he was trying to explain why he believed in the resurrection of our bodies, that one day we will "put on immortality."  I've never seen this happen--when death loses its grip and resurrection swallows our mortal flesh.  Neither had Paul.  Rather, like him all that I see around me is life (the colors green and blue are everywhere) and death peaking it's ugly head out every once in a while.  But, whenever death shows his ugly face--I see it--it's strangely hard to believe what I don't see:  resurrection.

I hate death.

I've never been fond of Job's God.  Job, I like, even admire, but God doesn't come off very good to me in the ancient story.  Job is the epitome of what Paul meant:  despite everything he sees, he still believes.  Death shows up and ruins everything.  God tries to make amends:  telling everyone that Job didn't deserve what happened to him, giving Job a new family, new house, new possessions.  But, I don't like that part of the story at all.  It makes it sound like Job could be satisfied with another family, that he could be "bought off", that he would simply "thank God" for restoring what he lost.  But, read the story carefully:  that's not what Job says because that's not what God does.  Job didn't thank God.  God didn't restore what was lost.  That would be resurrection.

A week ago I watched my father-in-law die.  It was ugly.

Death, I hate you.

When we gathered for the funeral, my brother-in-law recounted what his father said when he found out he had terminal cancer, "Well, God never promised us we wouldn't have trouble on this side--only that we wouldn't have it on the other side."  And that was it.  My father-in-law never spoke of his illness again.  Every time we asked, "How are you doing?"  He would say, "Not very good."  He never complained.  Never lashed out at God.  Rather, he simply stated what we all could see.

Now, we are left to believe what we cannot see, what my father-in-law said:  we won't have trouble on the other side.  The only way God will restore what was lost is resurrection.  The ending of Job's story is not enough for me.

"I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in Me shall live even if he dies, and everyone who lives and believes in Me shall never die.  Do you believe this?"

Yes, Lord, though it's hard to see.