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“Oppression”

“Whoever forces you to go one mile, go with him two.”

(Mt. 5:41

The Greek word aggareuein is used three times in the New Testament with the meaning 'to compel.' Jesus commands his disciples to go two miles when they are "compelled" to go one (Mt. 5:41). It is also the word that both Matthew and Mark use to describe Simon of Cyrene being "compelled" to help carry Jesus’ cross to Calvary (Mt. 27:32Mk. 15:21). 

This word is Persian in origin and comes from a noun (aggaros) which means ‘a courier’ or ‘an express messenger’ and later became naturalized into the Greek language. The Persians had a remarkably efficient courier system that made it possible for news to travel quickly through the empire. They lined the roads with men stationed with horses at precise intervals. A rider could travel fastest and most efficiently for one day on average. The first rider would deliver the dispatch to the second and on down the line until the important news reached the ears of the king. The Persians gave this courier system a name: aggareion.

It was the law in the ancient world that anyone could be compelled to provide a horse or to act as a guide to keep this service going. Therefore, aggareuein came to mean "to force someone into service," whether they liked it or not. Imagine how it would feel being forcibly conscripted to give up your horse or your afternoon to grease the wheels of communication for an occupying military force.

Anyone could be impressed upon to carry a soldier’s bags or any other service the occupying force laid upon him. This is exactly what happened to Simon of Cyrene (Mt. 27:32Mk. 15:21). It is quite clear from many other ancient documents including Josephus’ Antiquities (13.2.3), the writings of Epictetus (4.1.79), Xenophon (Cyropaedia 8.6.17), Aeschylus (Agamemnon) and various Egyptian papyri that this practice of forced conscription was both widespread and flagrantly abused during the first century. Military officials requisitioned both things and people, not only for public services and for the army’s purposes, but for their own selfish profit.

This aggareia would have been one of the bitterest humiliations that subjects in an occupied country would endure. It’s not hard to imagine how one might get tired of being taken advantage of and choose to rebel against the occupying force (which is exactly what  “zealots” like Simon were doing, Mt. 10:4). Add to that the long history of the Jewish people being kicked around as slaves and exiles of one pagan kingdom after another for hundreds of years, and you have a recipe for rebellion, retaliation and compounded sin where the once enslaved become the very thing they rebelled against (Amos 2:6-8). 

That seems to be the way of history: the oppressed revolt, gain power and become the oppressors. Indeed, that is what happened after the Jewish Maccabean revolt against the Seleucids in the second century BC. Jon Hyrcanus (134-104 BC) assumed power and Jewish tyranny set in with the forced 'conversions' of the Idumeans and the destruction of the temple the Samaritans had built on Mount Gerizim (cf. Jn. 4:9). The Jews had become the same tyrannical force they fought against a generation before. And the wheel turned yet again when Jewish independence ended abruptly when the Roman general Pompey invaded Jerusalem in 63 BC.

But Jesus brought good news that broke the cycle of oppression: "Whoever forces you to go one mile, go with him two." (Mt. 5:41) If someone who is your social superior exacts the most humiliating and distasteful service, if someone conscripts you to do something that invades your rights and that he has no right to ask, if you feel like you are being treated as sub-human, the King says don’t resent it. But his royal command of love goes deeper. He doesn’t simply teach his disciples to grit their teeth and bear it (that’s what the Jews had been doing for centuries!). No, begrudging service brings God no glory. Instead, Jesus teaches his disciples to do what our oppressors ask of us and even more. Not only that but he teaches that we should do it with a heart of love and good will. 

Brethren, this is a word for our time. In a world which is brutalizing and devouring itself, we must speak and live this gospel message of power, love and self-control (2 Tim. 1:7). Christians are taught to actively love, pray for and seek the best for those in power regardless of their character (Rom. 13:1-7Eph. 6:5-92 Tim. 2:1-41 Pet. 1:13-17). And if they are oppressed, Christians are taught to love their oppressors (Mt. 5:43-48Rom. 12:14ff; 1 Pet. 234) to extinguish the fires of sin with the living water of the gospel. The way of Christ is the only way forward.

But how can the oppressed love the oppressor? The only power strong enough to motivate and energize us to do the impossible (Mk. 10:27) is the unconquerable goodwill that God showed us all when Jesus died on the cross. Jesus not only modeled how to suffer faithfully but healed us through his wounds so that we could go out into this broken world as his wounded healers (1 Pet. 2:21-24). Justice will eventually be done and evil will be punished but, in the meantime, may God help us to grasp the limitless dimensions of his love so that we may not only refuse to retaliate against oppression but bring his healing love to bear upon the world.

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