This Mile’s for You

Dear Will:

Say you were a Jew living in Palestine in the days of Cæsar Augustus. On any given day, you could just be going about your business—heading to the market to pick up some fish, let’s say—and a Roman soldier could interrupt you mid-errand to compel you to do his bidding instead. If he felt like it, Roman law permitted him to hand you his heavy gear and force you to carry it for him a mile up the road. Even if your hands were full and you were headed in the opposite direction, it didn’t matter. You’d have to put down your stuff, hoist his load, and trudge off with him. Here’s guessing you’d be late for dinner.

Any self-respecting person would be understandably resistant to such state-sanctioned overreach. Think of the indignity and the public humiliation of being turned into a beast of burden by some young conscript on a power trip. If it were me, I imagine I’d be thinking: “It’s clear who the ass is in this situation, and it’s not me. Who are you to tell me what to do? If I comply, I’ll be acquiescing to illegitimate authority. This is an assault on my freedom.” At which point I’d have been faced with two options: swallow my dignity and comply, or defy authority and suffer the consequences. Given what we know about Roman soldiers, I imagine that “the consequences” in this case would be, shall we say, unpleasant.

Jesus was around in those days, so I suppose it’s reasonable to wonder what He might have done if one day He caught the attention of some indolent legionary looking for someone to carry his gear. Given the scrutiny under which He often found Himself, we might understand if Jesus had avoided this highly-charged political question altogether. But that wasn’t really Jesus’s style, now was it? In His Gospel-defining Sermon on the Mount, Jesus gave explicit instructions on this very question: “Whoever compels you to go one mile,” He said, “go with him two” (Matthew 5:41).

Wait, what? Why would Jesus expect His followers to comply with an unjust order from a gentile oppressor? More to the point, why would He then add indignity to indignity by suggesting that His true followers would willingly go an additional mile beyond that which was required by law?

For starters, I imagine there was the whole “don’t get yourself beat up or killed” thing. At its most basic level, Jesus must have known that refusing the soldier’s order would put an indignant Jew in great personal danger. Beyond that, He would have also known that defiance could put an entire community at risk. The Romans were not above overreacting in order to keep their subjects under control. More than anything, they wanted peace and civility, and they weren’t averse to violence in order to enforce it.

That makes sense, right? As a purely practical act of self-preservation, complying with the law was the logical choice. But if that explanation satisfies you, you haven’t really understood the teachings of Jesus.

Throughout His ministry, Jesus emphasized the importance of putting the needs of others above your own. Time and again He urged His disciples to sacrifice self-interest and convenience in order to show love and compassion to those nearby—even (especially?) those who might seem unworthy of kindness and service. Wasn’t that, in fact, the whole point of the parable of the Good Samaritan, who went well out of his way to carry and care for a fallen stranger? At the very core of the Gospel of Jesus Christ is the expectation that our day-to-day choices will be informed by a desire to do what’s best for other people, even if it results in a little personal hardship.

So why go that extra, unrequired mile? Because in doing so, you spare your neighbor that selfsame humiliation. Every mile you go, carrying that Roman burden, is one mile someone else doesn’t have to. What’s more, doing so transforms an hour of oppression into an act of selfless service. For a Christian, the labor and inconvenience cannot be required when the miles are freely given. It’s one of the ultimate lessons of the cross: When I willingly do good on behalf of someone else, I don’t relinquish my free will; I celebrate it.

So next time someone asks you to do something you don’t really want to do, something truly inconvenient that may feel like an assault on your liberty, consider the teachings of Jesus. Surely He would urge you to surrender your pride, put aside personal preference and freely do what’s best for others—especially when doing so would ultimately be in your best interests as well. To me it’s worth a shot . . . or two, depending on the brand.

PW

Go, and Do Thou Likewise

SamaritanDear Will:

I’m not going to rehash the ugliness of what happened recently in Charlottesville except to say that it put on full display the worst side of humanity. It was all so awful, in fact, that the Church was moved to issue a public statement reiterating its stance on the issue of racial discrimination and hatred: “No man who makes disparaging remarks concerning those of another race can consider himself a true disciple of Christ. Nor can he consider himself to be in harmony with the teachings of the Church of Christ.”

Weirdly, even that was not enough. Just two days later, the Church felt compelled to issue a further clarification inasmuch as some had twisted the previous release somehow to justify racial bigotry. The second statement was unequivocal: “White supremacist attitudes are morally wrong and sinful, and we condemn them. Church members who promote or pursue a ‘white culture’ or white supremacy agenda are not in harmony with the teachings of the Church.”

In the midst of all of this, I couldn’t help thinking that we would all be better off if more people simply went to Sunday School and paid attention. On the question of how to treat those with whom we may not agree—particularly those of a different ethnic or religious persuasion—Jesus taught very clearly:

     25 And, behold, a certain lawyer stood up, and tempted him, saying, Master, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?
     26 [Jesus] said unto him, What is written in the law? how readest thou?
     27 And he answering said, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy strength, and with all thy mind; and thy neighbour as thyself.
     28 And [Jesus] said unto him, Thou hast answered right: this do, and thou shalt live.
     29 But he, willing to justify himself, said unto Jesus, And who is my neighbour?
     30 And Jesus answering said, A certain man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell among thieves, which stripped him of his raiment, and wounded him, and departed, leaving him half dead.
     31 And by chance there came down a certain priest that way: and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side.
     32 And likewise a Levite, when he was at the place, came and looked on him, and passed by on the other side.
     33 But a certain Samaritan, as he journeyed, came where he was . . .

(I suppose I should pause here to point out that Samaritans were considered foreigners whose religious beliefs were abhorrent to the Jews.)

. . . and when [the Samaritan] saw him, he had compassion on him,
     34 And went to him, and bound up his wounds, pouring in oil and wine, and set him on his own beast, and brought him to an inn, and took care of him.
     35 And on the morrow when he departed, he took out two pence, and gave them to the host, and said unto him, Take care of him; and whatsoever thou spendest more, when I come again, I will repay thee.
     36 Which now of these three, thinkest thou, was neighbour unto him that fell among the thieves?
     37 And he said, He that shewed mercy on him. Then said Jesus unto him, Go, and do thou likewise.

So on the question of how to treat those with different racial or ethnic or religious backgrounds, we might reasonably ask: “What would Jesus do?” And the answer is simple: He would be like the Samaritan.

PW

Blown Away

Dear Will:

As I think I may have mentioned, my daughter Bryn left her job dancing for American Ballet Theatre and enrolled in BYU in the Fall. Although at first it was tough to adjust to Provo after having lived in Manhattan the previous year, Bryn took immediately to college. She loved the chance to explore new ideas, meet new people, and feel like a “normal” person for a change.

So imagine our surprise when she called us in October to inform us that she had accepted a job dancing for the Royal New Zealand Ballet in Wellington. Starting December 9. A week before the end of the semester.

Suddenly we found ourselves trying to help Bryn figure out how to move to New Zealand without failing all of her classes. Our efforts were mostly ham-handed, I must confess, as we found it difficult—the amazing Internet notwithstanding—to determine where to live, how to set up a bank account, what to do about phone services . . . the list goes on.

Fortunately, we have a missionary serving here in our ward who is from (it’s hard to believe) Wellington, New Zealand. When he heard our exciting, perplexing news, he immediately contacted his family and just like that we had new friends in Wellington offering to help.

(An aside: If you haven’t met Elder Savaiinaea yet, you should make a point to do so. He is one of the most charming, delightful missionaries to come through here in a long time.)

It then occurred to me that there is a family from New Zealand right here in our stake. I barely know him, but I approached Brother Broederlow and told him of Bryn’s impending move. Within 24 hours he had reached out to friends in Wellington, and before I knew it I was corresponding with Leonie and Peter Brunt, who offered to pick Bryn up at the airport, show her around the city, and give her a place to stay until she figured out a permanent solution.

(Another aside: When Bryn departed LAX, we knew we’d have no way of corresponding with her until she reached out to us somehow. So you can imagine how I felt when I got an email from Leonie which included a picture of her and Bryn on a windy hill in Wellington. I wanted to cry. I can’t tell you how comforting it was to know that someone was watching out for my little girl.)

Bryn and Leonie

I could go on for pages about the Brunts, but they are not the only people who have reached out to Bryn since she arrived in Wellington. When Christmas arrived, Bryn spent several days living with the Charions, a wonderful family she met at the ward there. While it was very hard for us to be apart on Christmas, it was wonderful to see Bryn gathered in by another loving family as she tries to find her place in a strange land far from home.

As I contemplate all of this, I am blown away. No one could reasonably expect this sort of selfless regard by strangers for my daughter’s welfare. The Savaiinaeas and Brunts and Charions are simply living the principles that Jesus taught—and as a consequence their actions cause me to feel His love as well. After telling the story of the Good Samaritan, Jesus said, “Go, and do thou likewise.” Which is precisely what they have done.

What a blessing it is to associate with people such as this: members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, my brothers and sisters in a very real sense.

PW