Sabbath Day Thoughts — Luke 6:27-38 “The Good Measure”
On October 2, 2006, milk truck driver Charles Carl Roberts IV barricaded himself inside the one-room West Nickel Mines School in Lancaster County, PA. He had taken ten Amish girls, aged 6-13, hostage. He lined them up and bound their feet. As police sought to breach the schoolhouse, Roberts opened fire, killing five children and wounding five others before taking his own life. Later that day, when the parents of Charles Carl Roberts learned that their son had been the shooter, they were shocked. The husband Charlie turned to his wife Terri and said, “I will never face my Amish neighbors again.”
But face them he did. After the private funeral that the Roberts family held for their son, their Amish neighbors surprised them at the gravesite. About thirty Amish, some of whom had buried their daughters the day before, showed up, arriving in their buggies and walking across the fields. They surrounded the Roberts family in a crescent, as a sign of forgiveness and love. Charlie Roberts’s Amish neighbor came to his home and spent an hour with his arm around him, offering comfort. Ten months after the tragic attack, the Amish shocked the Roberts and the world again. Community members had contributed money to create the Roberts Family Fund to support the widow and three young children of the man who had taken the lives of five of their own.
Those gestures of mercy from the Amish may have humbled, puzzled, or even outraged us. We may have shaken our heads and thought, “Those people are better than I am. There’s no way I could have put myself at that gravesite.” Or we could have asked ourselves, “What’s up with that? How could you hold in your heart both the anguish of untimely, tragic grief and the possibility of compassion for a stone-cold killer?” Or we may just not have believed it. Vocal critics at the time argued that the Amish didn’t forgive. They simply went through the motions of mercy that had been imprinted upon them by their culture. Yet on the day of the shooting, a grandfather of one of the Amish girls turned his family away from hate, saying, “We must not think evil of this man.” Another father said, “He had a mother and a wife and a soul and now he is standing before a just God.”
“Love your enemies, do what is good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. . . Be merciful, just as your Father also is merciful.” The forgiveness and mercy of the Amish in the wake of the West Nickel Mines school shooting put hands and feet and hearts to those tough words that Jesus spoke to listeners when he delivered that Sermon on the Plain. For the disciples and others who had gathered to hear Jesus preach, those words would have felt impractical and unthinkable.
The Ancient Near East was a world driven by retributive violence. An accidental death could readily explode into the murder of an entire family. Blood feuds pitted neighbor against neighbor and nation against nation for generations. If you’d like to read a story of this sort of explosive, escalating, unstoppable violence, take some time to read Genesis 34. The sons of Jacob took retribution against Shechem, who had sexually assaulted and married their sister Dinah. To exact revenge, Levi and Simon came upon Shechem and his kin unawares and slaughtered all the men. Then, Jacob’s other ten sons plundered the community, taking for themselves all the valuables, livestock, children, and wives.
The covenant of the Torah, the Jewish law, tried to limit this escalating cycle of blood violence by teaching a tit-for-tat justice. Exodus 21 instructs that vengeance must be measured and reciprocal, “If there is an injury, then you must give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, bruise for bruise, wound for wound.” To help the people move away from blood vengeance, six cities of refuge were designated in Israel. There the perpetrators of accidental manslaughter could claim the right of asylum and await appropriate justice.
Yet Jesus broke even with this moderate teaching of measured retaliation by insisting that his followers exceed the standards of the Torah. Instead of pulling out their opponent’s teeth and blacking their eyes, Jesus’s friends were to love, do good for, bless, and pray for their enemies. It was a completely new ethic that flew in the face of everything that his followers knew and experienced. The love that Jesus enjoined his disciples to practice is agape, the love that God practices. Agape chooses to act for the good of the other, regardless of what our hearts might be telling us.
Love your enemies? Love / agape is a tough choice that we learn to make. We can only find the ability to practice agape when we consider the mercy of God to us. Those of you who studied the ten commandments with me a number of years ago will remember that disobeying the moral code that Moses imparted to us carries a death penalty. We are all deserving of Yahweh’s judgment, and yet God is shockingly merciful. Instead of judgment and death, God became flesh and entered into this world’s darkness. In Jesus, God chose to live for us and show to us the way of agape. Traditional enemies like Romans, Samaritans, and Canaanites were welcomed, helped, and healed. Clueless, fickle disciples and merciless executioners were prayed for and forgiven. In the ultimate act of agape, on a merciless cross, flanked by common criminals, Jesus revealed that God loves us enough to die for us.
It is in the enormity of God’s costly love for us that we begin to see another way. We begin to think that maybe we can move away from demanding an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. We begin to see that only love can heal hearts, transform an enemy into a friend, and make a changed future possible. With frail and feeble efforts, we begin to choose love. We fail often. And yet, we trust that God’s mercy is there to catch us when we fall. The grace of Christ is sufficient for us.
What might this transformational ethic of agape look like for us? It might be letting go of a long-held grudge. It could be letting bygones be bygones in a family feud. It might be giving a second chance to a friend who betrayed a confidence. It could be working hard together to mend a marriage that has endured infidelity. It is choosing to act always in the best interest of the other and knowing that we can borrow some of God’s love when ours is in short supply.
Jesus described the fruit of a life lived in agape. He called it the “good measure.” When you went to a first century marketplace for grain, the merchant filled a measure to the brim and then gave it a good shake to ensure that every nook and cranny was filled. The merchant then poured that overflowing measure into your apron to carry home. It’s a beautiful earthy metaphor for a life that abounds with goodness. When we practice and experience agape, the world gets blessed and so do we. As we haltingly live into agape, we show God’s Kingdom to the world and in some immeasurable and hopeful way, that Kingdom comes.
In the days following the terrible events at the West Nickel Mines School, Terri and Charlie Roberts, the parents of the shooter, considered leaving the area. Their grief, shame, and pain were so immense that they couldn’t imagine a way forward, but the Amish did more than forgive the couple, they embraced them as part of the community. That generous agape prompted the Roberts to host a summer picnic in their backyard for their Amish neighbors, nine months after the attack. They all came, including a little girl named Rosanna King, wheelchair bound, unable to speak or feed herself, the youngest of their son’s victims.
A few months later, Terri Roberts asked Rosanna’s mother if she could help with the girl’s care. Until her death from breast cancer in 2017, Terri spent nearly every Thursday evening at the King Family farm, bathing, reading, and attending to Rosanna until her bedtime. Terri Roberts remembered the evening that a father said to her, ‘None of us would have ever chosen this. But the relationships that we have built through it, you cannot put a price on that.” Terri believed that the Amish choice for agape, the decision to allow life to move forward with love, was profoundly healing for her and her family. Terri said that is “a message the world needs.”
“Love your enemies, do what is good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. . . Be merciful, just as your Father also is merciful.”
Colby Itkowitz. “Her Son Shot Their Daughters 10 Years Ago, Then These Amish Families Embraced Her as a Friend” in The Washington Post, October 1, 2016. Accessed online at washingtonpost.com.
Story Corps. “A Decade After Amish School Shooting, Gunman’s Mother Talks of Forgiveness” in Morning Edition, Sept. 20, 2016. Accessed online at npr.org.
Ronald Allen. “Commentary on Luke 6:27-38” in Preaching This Week, Feb. 24, 2019. Accessed online at workingpreacher.com.
Susan E. Hylen. “Theological Perspective on Luke 6:27-38” in Feasting on the Word, Year C, vol. 1. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009.
Charles Bugg. “Pastoral Perspective on Luke 6:27-38” in Feasting on the Word, Year C, vol. 1. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009.
27“But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, 28bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. 29If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. 30Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. 31Do to others as you would have them do to you. 32“If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. 33If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. 34If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again. 35But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. 36Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.
37“Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven; 38give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back.”