On leaving the gathering on the hill, three friends who had gone to hear Jesus at the rally are wandering along the road when they see three soldiers ahead of them sitting on the side of the road. They are sipping from their water carriers in the blistering sun. Their feet are dusty, they are sweaty and dirty. They have obviously been walking a long way. They are talking about their families and how desperate they are to get home and see them – they miss them when they get called away on duty to defend the petty politics of Caesar.
As the disciples approach the soldiers they try to keep their conversation quiet – Jesus has been causing quite a stir in recent weeks and they don’t want to let on that they have been with him. They might get interrogated and they are afraid.
As they try and avert their eyes from the soldiers and look purposefully ahead, one of the soldiers calls out to them. “Oi, where have you been?”. “O, just up at Capernaeum” one responds. “What you been doing there?” “Visiting relatives,” one replies, almost in the form of a question. “Helping on a friend’s farm”, says the other. They glare at one other, disappointed in each other that their stories don’t match up.
“Where are you going now?” Their answers are united this time, “Back home to to Jerusalem”. “Music to my ears”, says the soldier, “we’re going that way too”.
The three friends know what is coming next. It has happened before. The soldiers throw their backpacks at their feet and start walking ahead. The three men look at the packs, large, dirty, heavy, scribbled with doodles and graffiti…and they look at each other. Frustration is in their eyes…and it rapidly brews into anger. Why should they be treated like this? Plenty of others have walked past these soldiers. Why them? Why are the Israelites treated so badly? Why are they treated like animals, like donkeys, only good enough for carrying equipment? How unfair, how unjust. How humiliating.
They pause, frozen with indecision, and the soldiers shout back to them to hurry up. Was there a way out of this? Could they run? Could they argue their case? They exchange looks and then, completely disempowered, they stoop down, lift the straps of the bags and place them onto each others backs. Then they walk…in the heat…as the soldiers stretch their backs and share a joke. They walk, their untrained backs straining to carry the loads.
But they have done this before. They know that a mile takes around 20 minutes to walk in this heat and with this load. So they walk and count down the minutes. As they walk they talk about all the people they met at the rally on the hill and the stories they heard. That man who caught so many fish that his nets broke and his business partners who all gave up their fishing industry to hang out with this Jesus guy. That woman who said she was so ill she was gong to die, until Jesus visited and healed her. Man, she was giving out some great cakes! That man who kept showing everyone his hands and telling everyone how he shouldn’t really be telling anyone, but it was that Jesus bloke over there that healed him. So many people, so many changed lives. What was it about this Jesus that transformed everyone?
“Blessed are you when people hate you and insult you”, they mutter. “I don’t feel very blessed right now” says one of them.
“Love your enemies…what do they want, a foot massage?!”
“Pray for those who mistreat you. I pray they lose everything they’ve ever worked for and step on a nest of scorpions in the next 5 minutes”.
“Hey, bit harsh mate…they’re only following orders like all the others…I guess they’re human beings too, maybe even made in image of God like us?” They continues to muse, “Doesn’t God’s light shine on the righteous and the unrighteous? Can we possibly bring ourselves to pray for them…that they might also see us, not as donkeys to carry their packs, but as humans like them, equal and of value? What good is it if we only love those who love us, anyone can do that. How can we show God’s love to them without being doormats for them to wipe their feet on?”
As they pondered these questions and talked amongst themselves, they failed to notice the time pass. Not only 20 minutes, not only half an hour, but a whole hour had passed. As they approached a well in the village square of a small hamlet they stopped for water but the soldiers scolded them and insisted they continue whilst they themselves filled their water carriers and washed their faces with cool water. But two elder men, Roman citizens and retired soldiers who were playing chess under a nearby tree, noticed the three friends, weighed down and exhausted by the weight of the packs. They called out to the soldiers.
“Good day”, they called, “how is your journey? Where are you traveling to?” “We are going towards Jerusalem” they replied. “And how long have these Israelites been carrying your packs for, they interrogated?” The soldiers looked at each other. They had been waiting for the friends to notice the time and kick up a fuss, and were delighted that they hadn’t, although they were prepared to pressurise them to continue once they noticed anyway.
“Your men look tired and thirsty, they have done more than the legal time haven’t they”, asked the old men. “You are educated citizens of the Empire. You know what is allowed and what is not. Do you think that by treating these fellow residents as animals that we will win the respect of the people? Do you think they will go home and speak well of the Empire, or do you think they will start a revolution and make trouble? They are human like you, you must not abuse your position of power or you let our side down and disrespect your Roman roots. Take back your packs and be on your way and see that you ask no-one else to carry your packs on your journey back to Jerusalem. We will send word to Caesar that his troops are undisciplined and abusive, taking advantage of others”.
The disciplined soldiers fumed and muttered beneath their breath. They had been humiliated in the village square…they had been caught. As they took their packs off the three friends they mumbled ‘this is all your fault you….you …’ and for a split second they almost called them animals, but they could sense the stare of the elder citizens and so restrained. They loaded up their backpacks and walked, purposefully and quickly on their journey.
As the friends sat, quenching their thirst and cooling off, they pondered what had just happened … and suddenly the gentle yet deliberate words of Jesus did not seem as meek as they had first appeared.