Carved into a steep hill northeast of Galilee, Gamla gave birth to the Jewish Zealot movement, which came on the scene around the same time as Jesus.
Zealots demanded strict adherence to the law and total separation from anyone who believed otherwise.
To them, the presence of an occupying army in the Promised Land, particularly a pagan occupying army, was unacceptable. It was to be resisted by any means necessary. Zealot assassins roamed the streets of Galilee by night, using small daggers called sicarii to assassinate their enemies: Roman officials and their collaborators, Gentile and Jewish. Zealots believed the sword was the primary instrument of God’s kingdom.
From their hilltop fortress of Gamla, the Zealots looked across the Sea of Galilee and saw, on the opposite shore, Tiberias.
The city Tiberias was home to the Herodians, those loyal to the family of Herod—those who curried favor with Rome. Herodians didn’t believe in God’s kingdom; they were too busy building their own. Most religious Jews refused to set foot in Tiberias.
The Herodian approach to Roman occupation was to make the best of it… and, if they could, make a buck from it.
Two extremes, literally on opposite shores of the sea. Caught in between, on the northern edge of Galilee, was Capernaum—home base, as it were, for Jesus and his disciples.
While the Herodians loved their friends (the ones they could benefit from, anyway) and the Zealots hated their enemies, Jesus climbed a hill between Tiberias and Gamla and taught:
Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven.
—Matthew 5:44-45 (TNIV)
While Zealots resisted oppression with violence and Herodians sought to cash in on the situation, Jesus taught:
Do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles.
—Matthew 5:39-41 (TNIV)
Jesus stood between the two extremes and offered a third way. He rejected both the violent, separatist impulse of the Zealots and the accommodating, opportunistic impulse of the Herodions. Instead, he told his followers to undermine evil with love. Not a wimpy, passive love that involves being everybody’s doormat. But a love that seizes the initiative, reveals oppression for what it really is, and always leaves the door open for the oppressor to repent.
Exploring the theological and political significance of Jesus’ command to go the extra mile, Walter Wink once wrote:
A soldier could impress a civilian to carry his pack one mile only; to force the civilian to go further carried with it severe penalties under military law… Nevertheless, this levy was a bitter reminder to the Jews that they were a subject people even in the Promised Land.
To this proud but subjugated people Jesus does not counsel revolt. One does not “befriend” the soldier, draw him aside, and drive a knife into his ribs. Jesus was keenly aware of the futility of armed revolt against Roman imperial might. He minced no words about it, though it must have cost him support from the revolutionary factions.
But why walk the second mile? Is this not to rebound to the opposite extreme: aiding and abetting the enemy? Not at all. The question here… is how the oppressed can recover the initiative, how they can assert their human dignity in a situation that cannot for the time being be changed. The rules are Caesar’s but not how one responds to the rules. The response is God’s, and Caesar has no power over that.
Imagine then the soldier’s surprise when, at the next mile marker, he reluctantly reaches to assume his pack (sixty-five to eighty-five pounds in full gear). You say, “Oh no, let me carry it another mile.” Normally he has to coerce your kinsmen to carry his pack; now you do it cheerfully and will not stop! Is this a provocation? Are you insulting his strength? Being kind? Trying to get him disciplined for seeming to make you go farther then you should? Are you planning to file a complaint? To create trouble?
From a situation of servile impressment, you have once more seized the initiative. You have taken back the power of choice. The soldier is thrown off-balance by being deprived of the predictability of your response. Imagine the hilarious situation of a Roman infantryman pleading with a Jew, “Aw, come on, please give me back my pack!” The humor of this scene may escape those who picture it through sanctimonious eyes. It could scarcely, however, have been lost on Jesus’ hearers, who must have delighted in the prospect of thus discomfiting their oppressors.
Some readers may object to the idea of discomfiting the soldier or embarrassing the creditor. But can people engaged in oppressive acts repent unless made uncomfortable with their actions? There is, admittedly, the danger of using nonviolence as a tactic of revenge and humiliation. There is also, at the opposite extreme, an equal danger of sentimentality and softness that confuses the uncompromising love of Jesus with being nice. Loving confrontation can free both the oppressed from docility and the oppressor from sin.
Maybe, as followers of Jesus, we are called to be people of the third way. People who transcend categories, stereotypes, and extremes. People who are not owned by one ideology, perspective, or party. People who rise above polarization to find creative, compelling ways to bring bits of heaven to earth.
Two final thoughts.
First, I noticed today (for the first time) the connection in Matthew 5:44-45 between loving our enemies and being children of God. Many in Jesus’ day assumed they were automatically God’s people because of their lineage—their ethnic connection to Abraham. They saw themselves as the elect, the chosen, the predestined. This way of thinking encouraged an “us versus them” mentality that drove the Zealots to violence.
There were, doubtless, Zealots (or at least Zealot sympathizers) in Jesus’ audience during the Sermon on the Mount. Imagine how shocking it was for them to hear, in effect, “If you want to be God’s children, then you must learn to love your enemies.”
What if being the people of God is defined not by how well we separate ourselves from those who don’t believe as we do, but by how well we love those who don’t believe as we do?
Last, it’s worth remembering that neither Zealot nor Herodian lasted through the end of the first century. The Herodians, lost in the pursuit of power and comfort, cast their lot with the powers of the moment—the family of Herod. After the first century, there were no more Herods to benefit from.
As for the Zealots, in A.D. 67, Rome laid siege to Gamla, breaching the city wall and killing thousands. Those who survived the attack committed mass suicide, jumping off cliffs above the village. Later, the Zealots briefly seized control of Jerusalem and ruled with a brutality surpassing that of their enemies. Their legacy is a reminder that violence breeds only more violence. Extremism breeds more extremism. Oppression breeds more oppression.
Maybe, as followers of Jesus, we are called to break the cycle. Maybe we are called to be people of the third way.