Sunday, August 28, 2011

The Third Mile

by Peter Rollins

One day a small group of disciples who had embraced the way of Jesus early in his ministry heard him preaching by the side of a dusty road. As they crowded round they heard Jesus say, “The law requires that you carry a pack for one mile, but I say carry it freely for two.”

The disciples were deeply impressed by these words, for at that time a Roman solider had the legal right to demand that a citizen carry his pack for a mile as a service to the Empire. This teaching not only allowed the disciples to turn this oppressive law into an opportunity to demonstrate “kingdom” values, but also presented them with an opportunity to suffer in some small way for their faith.

As it was common for soldiers to evoke this law, the small band of believers soon developed a reputation for their actions. Roman soldiers would often hope that the citizens they asked to carry their packs would be among these disciples, and often a small bond of friendship would develop between a soldier and these followers of the Way.

After a year had passed this custom had become so established in the group that it became a defining characteristic of their shared life. The leaders would frequently refer to the teaching of Jesus and emphasize the need to carry a pack of the Roman soldier for two miles as a sign of one’s faith and commitment to God.
It so happened that Jesus heard about this community’s work, and, on his way to Jerusalem, took time to visit them. The leaders eagerly gathered all the members of the group to hear what Jesus would say. Once everyone had gathered, Jesus addressed them:

“Dear brothers and sisters, you are faithful and honest, but I have come to you with a second message, for you failed to understand the first. Your law says that you must carry a pack for two miles. My law says ‘carry it for three.’”

This story brings up the question of Biblical interpretation (there are many ways to look at this story). So to treat the Bible as a type of religious textbook that provides a sort of ethical framework telling us how to live in each and every situation requires that we approach it in a certain way. Usually this means we must mine the pages and try to discover the answers to specific questions in life or to specific situational uncertainties. Once you find the answers, one then can choose to act according to the textbook or blueprint or to violate it. At the same time, one can ask if the Bible can be read this way without doing Jesus’s teachings a disservice. So was Jesus advocating an approach like that where we open up scriptures for a concrete set of religious conduct or was he promoting a radically different Way of life?

What if it is the latter? What if he is offering a life of love that transcends religious codes of conduct? A religious code seeks to provide a way to work out or figure out what can be done in each situation. Contrastingly, love is never satisfied or constrained. Love doesn’t sit back but always does more than what is asked of love. Imagine a law that says to give 10% to the poor. The person who loves those who are poor will always give more than the required amount. Instead of waiting what out to be done or how much out to be given, the lover doesn’t wait but always gives in excess. The lover’s love exceeds the law and acts in the absence (very important as religious codes of conduct including the Bible, if interpreted as such, never address every situation we face today) of the law. Love fulfills the law by going above and beyond it.

So the story imagines what Jesus might say to the community that took Jesus’s words literally and enacted a religious law in order to follow it. By the instantiation of the law in order to follow Jesus’s words actually undermines the radical nature of it by missing the spirit of the words. The literal following failed to take the words seriously enough. Now we should still admire the ardor and passionate intent of this faithful band of brothers and eschew maligning them. But the example points to the real danger inherent in a literal rendering (at least for these words) and absorbing his living beyond the law back into the law.

So love goes further, beyond duty. The ethical question asks “What must I do?” The love response is “I will do more.” When the ethical guidance or compass doesn’t provide clear direction (and it by nature will have many of those times) love sets out anyway with clear direction, providing a way when there is no way. This is the love Jesus lived, a love that pushes harder and further than any law, a love that is more demanding than any rule or creed. This love experienced in a revolutionary life is faithful to the law by exceeding it.


timskywalker said...

great post....keep on going (that extra mile, 1, 2, 3 or 4!

Victor said...

Right on!