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The Challenge of the First Mile
Dr. Bruce Lancaster
May 8, 2016
A Reading from the Gospel of Matthew
‘You have heard that it was said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But 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. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.
‘You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.” But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax-collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
This is one of those passages that has moved out of the bible and has become part of the vernacular – a popularized saying ‘to go the second mile’ – used by people who have no sense of its biblical roots. When we are faced with a challenge, when the going gets tough, to give that extra effort – it even speaks of something heroic – to go the second mile.
Well, let’s pause and remind ourselves of the background here. We need to remember that Jesus lived and preached in occupied territory. And Roman law said that these occupying troops were permitted to force any Jewish citizen to do their bidding. According to this law, a Roman soldier could force a Jewish citizen to carry his pack for him a distance of one mile. One never knew when a Roman soldier would say, “Hey, you carry this for me.”
So Jesus’ statement here is quite revolutionary. If you were compelled at spear point to carry the pack one mile, do so but then go one more– go two miles!!!
It is against this background that we look at our text for this morning, “If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles.” Jesus is telling us we have a choice to make about the second mile.
But often, it seems to me, our focus is so much on going that second mile that we overlook something basic, something obvious – the first mile. It seems so basic that it hardly needs mentioning, but reality is that you cannot make a journey of two miles without first going the first mile. The requirements of the first mile serve as the foundation of the second mile. So, look at our choices for that first mile – first, about ourselves.
It speaks of the reality of the basic, bedrock response of faith – practicing what we preach when the unforeseen, the trouble, the burden is cast is upon us.
You don’t have to look very far to find a reason to feel sorry for yourself. But why would you want to waste even a few moments of your precious life on self pity?
Such is the lesson learned from the lady who moved out of her home after 66 years to an assisted living studio apartment. Her husband of 70 years had passed away, making the move necessary.
As she maneuvered her walker to the elevator, the director provided a visual description of her tiny room, but before the director could finish…“I love it,” she stated with the enthusiasm of an eight-year-old having just been presented with a new puppy.
“Mrs. Jones, you haven’t seen the room, just wait.”
“That doesn’t have anything to do with it,” she replied. “Whether I like my room or not doesn’t depend on how the furniture is arranged – it’s how I arrange my mind. It’s a decision I make every morning when I wake up. Each day is a gift, and as long as my eyes are open, I’ll focus on the new day.”
The challenge of the first mile is the choice we make about ourselves.
And the second choice is about others, how we choose to respond to others. It feels good to do acts of kindness for people who appreciate them, who know how to say, “Thank you.” It is enjoyable to go farther and to do more for people if they respond positively. We all like that kind of affirmation. But in his instruction to go the second mile, Jesus was not referring to appreciated acts of unusual kindness.
Jesus says: “Do not resist one who is evil. But if any one strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.”
The Mosaic Law, the Code of Hammurabi, and Roman law all required that one who does an evil act should get what they had given – another one of those biblical passages that has come into the vernacular: An eye for an eye, tooth for tooth.
Jesus is repealing this law of retaliation that had been in effect for centuries. And not just concerning people, but also circumstances in life, to unforeseen situations that tumble in on us and say, “You got a long way to go.” No more, Jesus says, you have a choice in the challenge of the first mile – how you respond to whomever, whatever comes your way.
Thomas Keating, in Invitation to Love: The Way of Christian Contemplation, puts it this way:
There is no commandment that says we have to be upset by the way other people treat us. The reason we are upset is because we have an emotional program that says, “If someone is nasty to me, I cannot be happy or feel good about myself.”
Now yes, [he says] there are situations we have every right to be indignant and to take steps to remedy them when we’re not treated as human beings.
[He concludes] But apart from such circumstances, instead of reacting compulsively and retaliating, we could enjoy our freedom as human beings and refuse to be upset.
No one makes you angry – you choose to…No one puts you on a guilt trip unless you buy the ticket…No one can drive you crazy unless you give them the steering wheel!
It’s all in how we accept the challenges of the first mile – we have the choice of whether to be faithful to our Lord Jesus Christ, and to choose his way of love. Or, we can choose the way of bitterness or self-pity, the way of revenge or retaliation. Wishing for more or feeling resentment because you don’t have more, that only wastes your precious time.
The challenge of the first mile is to open yourself to the fullness of your faith and tap into the unique richness that is yours through the Holy Spirit. Then you take that first step forward using what you have, from where you are right now.
When the Bible is read,
the prayers are said,
when worship is attended,
when acts of loving kindness personify your living,
when integrity is the norm in your life,
when we are routinely responding
to the chances and choices of ready,
willing, and eager service in Christ’s name:
we have accepted
the challenge of the first mile.
TO GOD BE THE GLORY.