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The Seventh Sunday after the Epiphany Year A

Walking the Extra Mile

Readings: Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18; Psalm 119:33-40; 1 Corinthians 3:10-11, 16-23; Matthew 5:38-48

The gospel for this Sunday is once again from the Beatitudes, the Sermon on the Mount. I have to admit, that “Don’t worry! Be happy!” philosophy that runs through the chapter begins to cloy after a while. The Old Testament reading from Leviticus is one thing as it reminds us of our need to love our neighbour. What is Jesus thinking in taking it all so much further? Jesus reminds us that we are called to love those who harm us, oppress us, and even enemies intent on destroying us. We are to offer those harming us the other cheek. We are to give those trying to steal our coat, our cloak as well. We are to offer to walk the extra mile, to give liberally to everyone who asks, to do good to those who persecute us. We are to smile through it all. And then the clincher as Jesus sums it all up. “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

I think it is the perfection that really gets to me. That kind of hyperbole, if that is what it is, is a sad reality that has driven many to despair, compulsion, perhaps even suicide. It isn’t enough that many people drive themselves to perfection in their work and in their scholastic endeavours. The lives of saints are filled with tales of self-abuse. Then there are the young women whose body image causes them to diet to the point of anorexia. Or the cult leader who imposes his doctrine on a group of people. The path to human perfection has even led to schemes to rid the world of whole races of people.

So what is Jesus on about? What did he mean by telling us to be perfect the way God is perfect? How can we be perfect, flawless, completely pure and whole? We will never be able to get rid of all the imperfections in our lives. We will never be able to cut them away or change them so that we are perfect. Truly Jesus must have had something else in mind, something that issues from his unique understanding of God. In the Beatitudes, Jesus is teaching the disciples about the coming of the kingdom. It is a teaching deeply rooted in his understanding of the call of the Christian to perfection in this life. It is a call that brings God and humanity into closer relationship and allows the kingdom of God to exist here and now. It is a call that truly asks of the Christian to walk the extra mile in everything that they do.

So when Jesus asks us to learn to love even our enemies it is so that we will no longer return evil for evil, but will find some way to offer blessing and love. Because Jesus knows that it is what the world needs. The question remains for me. How do I even begin to learn to do that? How do I begin to learn to breathe love the same way that my heart beats? How does love become a part of my very being?

I would have found it much easier to understand if Jesus had told me a story. It might have gone something like this. A man set out on his usual jogging route one afternoon. He headed down a busy street towards the park. He had not gone far when he felt a terrible pain in his chest. He fell right there in the street. There were lots of people around. A woman close by noticed him fall. “He must be drunk!” she said to herself as she crossed over to the other side of the street without even a second glance.

A man in a business suit looked at his watch. “If I stop and help him I’ll be late,” he muttered to himself and pretended that he hadn’t seen what happened.

Mary was driving her daughter home from school. She saw the man as he began to fall. She saw him grab at his chest. She pulled over. “Call 911!” she said to her daughter. “Tell them where we are and that we need an ambulance right away.” She got out of the car and turned the man over. She could see that his colour was poor. Somehow or other her Girl Guide training in CPR came back to her. By the time the ambulance pulled up she was breathing life back into him. They got him stable and prepared to take him to the hospital. Not wanting him to face this all alone, she followed along in her car. She and her daughter waited with him until his family arrived at the hospital. He called her his guardian angel. When asked why she stayed with him, she said, “We need to walk the extra mile for one another.”

Come to think of it, Jesus did tell that story. He told it many times and in many ways. It is after all the story of the compassion of the Good Samaritan who walked the extra mile for a stranger in need. It is the story too of the Prodigal Father who cared so much for his son that he would not give up on him but lavished love on him. It is Jesus’ own story, for he loved us so much that he gave up his life on the cross for us.

Walking the extra mile, turning the other cheek, giving until it hurts is not about trying as hard as we can to love God and to love our neighbour. It is not about being perfectionists. It is about living generously. It is about allowing God’s grace to work in our lives. After all that is how God lives with us. That is the possibility for which we were made. So it is about understanding how much God loves us and then allowing God’s love to transform our lives so that we have all the love we need to pour out for others to become everything that God is calling us to be. Wouldn’t that bring about God’s kingdom here on earth?
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