Monday, May 30, 2005

The Roman Soldier in Your Life. Tom points out that in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus describes a standard of behavior that is impossible. And it's true. Jesus sums up what he has to say in Matthew 5:48: "Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly father is perfect."

Right, Jesus.

What do we do with this?

If we are theologians, maybe we think up a period of history not the present, and assign that sort of talk to that period.

If we are a parish minister, maybe we just preach from some other text.

But maybe not.

I like what the editors of the NIV Study Bible say in their introductory note at Matthew 5:1. They say, in part:

"The SOM's call to moral and ethical living is so high that some have dismissed it as being completely unrealistic or have projected its fulfilliment to the future kingdom. There is no doubt, however, that Jesus (and Matthew) gave the Sermon as a standard for all Christians, realizing that its demands cannot be met in our own power. It is also true that Jesus occasionally used hyperbole . . . "

Hyperbole. I can deal with that. We don't, for example, gouge out our right eye and cut off our right hand, as "commanded" in 5:29 and 30. (That's a good thing too, given what there is to see on the internet.) But in this case, hyperbole is not a thing to be recognized as such and then dismissed. It is to be recognized for what it says about where we are on our journey and where we need to go. There are deep meanings in this hyperbole that are worth addressing.

What is hyperbolic about the second mile statement? It is surely not always impossible to go a second mile, carrying someone else's burden. What is hyperbolic about this statement is the person for whom the Jew is carrying the burden a second mile, the Roman Soldier. We probably cannot begin to appreciate how outrageous this must have been to the young Jew who was listening in the crowd. Of all the relationships that were the most dangerous, resented, and aggravating, it must have been the day to day relationship between the common Roman soldier and the common Jew.

I think Mel Gibson probably got it right about the Roman soldier.

Is there a Roman soldier in your life? I hope not.

But if we are to afford second-mile treatment to the Roman soldiers in our life, how about those relationships in our lives where it is not so full of danger, resentment, and aggravation. In many of these, second-mile behavior is completely attainable. In the relationships we have with our friends, our employers, people who serve us, our spouses, our parents, our children, it is not outrageous to command that we move beyond obligation to something like grace and even love. Let's not worry about doing the impossible while there plenty of possible things to do in response to Jesus' love-one-another injunction.

(Thanks for letting me try these thoughts out on you.)

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