The challenge is not just to return good for good, but good for evil.
Epiphany 7a 2014 • SJF • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSGI’m sure all of us have heard, or perhaps even said those words, “go the extra mile.” Churches will even talk about “extra-mile giving” to describe contributions that members make beyond their regular tithe or offering. The contrast is between actions seen as a duty, and those that are above and beyond the call of duty. The military will recognize such actions by awarding a medal or a commendation.
If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile.
The problem is that the “extra” or “second mile” that Jesus talks about is not about doing better than good. He is not talking about doing good at all. In fact, he says that this is about how to deal with evildoers. Do not resist them, he says; if someone hits you on the right side of your face, let them hit you on the left as well; if they take you to court to sue you for your shirt, give them your jacket, too; if they force you to go one mile, march another mile for good measure. None of these are good things; these are nasty things done to you by nasty people — evildoers; and Jesus says that not only are you supposed to put up with it, but to welcome more of the same treatment. Most surprising of all, he continues by saying that you are to pray for these evildoers who persecute you, and to love your enemies. “Going the extra mile” is not meant by Jesus as a shorthand for generosity to those who deserve it. No, it is about acting like God.
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For God, Jesus assures us, makes the sun rise on the evil as well as the good. God sends sweet rain on the righteous, but on the unrighteous, too. If we are to show that we are children of God, we are challenged to behave like our Father in heaven, to act like God in this crazy way that God acts — when God rewards with good even those who are evil; to do good even to those who do not, by our understanding, or any by reasonable standard, deserve to be rewarded; to forgive those who trespass against us.
This is not an entirely new teaching, though Jesus puts it in terms that are considerably more blunt than they had been in the past. There have always been those who adopted the other point 9of view: the tit-for-tat of doing good in return for good done, a kind of reversal of the Golden Rule: not doing good as you would be done by, but doing good — or evil — as you are done by, a gracious act in return for a gracious act, a tit for a tat, an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. There were always those — and there still are — who would talk about “the deserving poor” as if being fed when you are hungry or given something to drink when you are thirsty was something you had to qualify for.
In response to such people who thought that good treatment must be earned, the Lord spoke to Moses, charging him to tell the people that they were called to be like God — to be holy as God is holy. So when they reap the harvest, they are not to reap every last patch, or gather what falls by the side; they are not to strip every last grape from the vines, or pick up those that fall on their own — even though the grain and the grapes belong to them, they are to leave these portions of their own crops for others, for the poor; not because they deserve it, but because they are poor, and this is how God means to provide for them: to let the people be good as he is holy; to let some of that good filter through to them.
This may be hard for some to understand. They might complain that it is an unfair attempt to redistribute wealth, or combat income inequality by taxing those who have to give to those who do not, and who, moreover, do not deserve to be helped. Think of old Ebenezer Scrooge, who scoffs at the idea of giving a little so that the poor could have some food and drink and means of warmth at Christmas-time. “Why?” is his cold-hearted question. When told that some of them might die, he proudly shows his lack of care, “If they had be like to die they had best be quick about it and decrease the surplus population.”
And sad to say, the world is full of Scrooges to this day. There are plenty who want an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, to be rewarded and praised for doing what is really only a duty to one’s fellow human beings — not just those you like, not just your friends and your family, or those who pay you back, but even, as Jesus said, your enemies, and those who persecute you.
And my friends, I will admit that this doesn’t make sense. But it is how God acts; it is how God asks us to act: not just to do good when we are done good by, but to do good even when we are persecuted, punished, and put upon.
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I will end this reflection by telling you the story of an Irishman named Gordon Wilson. One day in November 1987, Wilson and his twenty-year-old daughter Marie were watching a parade on the streets of Enniskillen, in Northern Ireland. Just as a group of parading soldiers and police came by, a terrorist bomb went off, leveling the brick wall next to which Wilson and his daughter were standing, and the wall collapsed and buried them both under several feet of bricks. Wilson couldn’t move, but under the pressure of the bricks he felt someone take his hand. It was his daughter Marie. He could hear her muffled voice, “Is that you, Dad?” He answered, “Yes, Marie.” In the background he could hear distant sirens, and the sounds of people moaning or screaming. He asked, “Are you all right, Marie?” “Yes,” she said, but then she began to cry and moan, and the moan built towards a scream. He asked again if she was all right, and between sobs she kept assuring him that she was, and then she became more quiet. Finally, after a long silence, she said, “Daddy, I love you very much.” Those were the last words she spoke, as she sank into unconsciousness.
They and others injured by the terrorist attack were unearthed and taken to the hospital, where Marie died. Later that same day a reporter asked Wilson if he would consent to an interview. His injuries were relatively minor — just a broken arm and shoulder — so he agreed. After telling his story, the interviewer asked, clearly expecting and answer that he could really make use of, “How do you feel about the people who planted that bomb?”
Wilson surprised many when he said, “I bear them no ill will. I bear them no grudge. Bitter talk is not going to bring Marie Wilson back. I pray, I shall pray tonight and every night for God to forgive them.” Over the next months and years, people expressed amazement that he could forgive such a terrible act. But he explained, “I was hurt. I had lost my daughter. But I wasn’t angry. Her last words to me were words of love, and they put me on a plane of love. I received grace from God through those words, and through the strength of God’s love for me, to forgive.”
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Love... your enemies, Jesus said, and pray for those who persecute you. God willing, none of us will ever be asked to walk the extra mile that Gordon Wilson walked, a walk of forgiveness and an affirmation of life even in the face of death. He could have walked a very different path, he could have walked a way of anger and revenge. Instead he chose the path of love, a love that overflowed from his dying daughter’s hand, and brought him peace.
May we be so washed in the love of God that we too can learn to walk the extra mile, to turn the other cheek, and to forgive. In this may others see and know us to be children of a loving, forgiving God; for God forgave his enemies, though they nailed him to the cross. Such is the way of God, to turn the other cheek, to go the second mile. Let us strive to be perfect as he is perfect, holy as he is holy; to be like the one who is above and beyond all, to be like the one whom we worship, and follow him whom we adore, even Jesus Christ our Lord.