Monday, September 8, 2008

Of Second Miles and Boundaries

By Maria L. Boccia, PhD
Professor of Pastoral Counseling and Psychology
Director of Graduate Programs in Counseling Charlotte campus

The Sermon on the Mount contains many teachings which challenge us deeply, so much so that some commentators retreat from the challenge by saying this it is an ideal and perfection never to be attained in this life, but only aspired to. One passage in the Sermon on the Mount that I've been thinking about entails some teachings on personal relationships. Jesus tells us not only that we should not take revenge when someone does something against us, but that we should actually extend ourselves:
You have heard that it was said, 'An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.' But I say to you, do not resist an evil person; but whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also. If anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, let him have your coat also. Whoever forces you to go one mile, go with him two. Give to him who asks of you, and do not turn away from him who wants to borrow from you. - Matthew 5:38-42 (NASB)

As a counselor, I have listened to sincere Christians who desire to grow spiritually struggle with the demands of this passage. This sounds like Jesus requires us in all in every circumstance to do whatever a person demands of us and then some. Could this possibly be how God wants us to live?

Another important teaching of Jesus is contained in the familiar story of the good Samaritan. In response to a challenge from a lawyer, who, when Jesus adequately answered his question about what he must do to have eternal life, challenged him with a second question, 'who is my neighbor?' Jesus responded with the parable of the good Samaritan:
A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell among robbers, and they stripped him and beat him, and went away leaving him half dead. And by chance a priest was going down on that road, and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. Likewise a Levite also, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, who was on a journey, came upon him; and when he saw him, he felt compassion, and came to him and bandaged up his wounds, pouring oil and wine on them; and he put him on his own beast, and brought him to an inn and took care of him. On the next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper and said, 'Take care of him; and whatever more you spend, when I return I will repay you.' Which of these three do you think proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell into the robbers' hands?' And he said, 'The one who showed mercy toward him.' Then Jesus said to him, 'Go and do the same.' - Luke 10:30-37. (NASB)

Now, at first blush, this might resemble the previous passage in which we are taught to extend ourselves to others, in this case on the basis of need, rather than demand, as in the previous case. But recently, as I was reflecting on this while listening to a client struggle with the unreasonable demands of some relationships, I noticed something else about this story. The good Samaritan had good boundaries!

When the good Samaritan came across this man who had been robbed, he interrupted his journey to attend to the immediate crisis and get him situated in a place where he could be adequately cared for by another. He then went about his business, returning to check on him and pay the innkeeper for the care he provided. He met this man's needs, but he did not abandon his own. He did not take care of the man himself, abandoning his responsibilities for his own life and work to do this. Rather, he did what was necessary to deal with the crisis and then left others in his place to do the rest while he returned to his responsibilities.

I think there is an important lesson here. I believe God wants us to be available to others. He wants us to be available whether, as in the first Scripture, because others demand it of us, or as in the second Scripture, when others are in need. But the story of the good Samaritan suggests to me that God wants us to take care of ourselves as well. God wants us to have healthy boundaries. This makes sense to me because without healthy boundaries we cannot have healthy relationships, and we cannot sustain the energy and resources necessary to continue to help others. So sometimes we respond to others' needs directly ourselves. Other times, we may need to let others respond. At the same time, in either case, we need to maintain healthy boundaries to ensure we remain healthy and energized and enabled to continue to serve others.

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