Syria’s actions and how the world should respond to them continue to dominate the headlines. In the wake of Syria and all pockets of violence, oppression and conflict throughout our globe — even within my small neighborhood of nine houses where fights escalate over property lines, barking dogs, pooping dogs, divorce and kids — the old saying “shake the dust off your feet” comes to mind.
The phrase traces back to Jesus. It can be powerful in practice, but what exactly does it mean? Forgiveness? Indifference? No longer caring? A sign of protest against one’s enemies? I wonder what the act of “shaking the dust off” accomplishes, and if it is the right move, especially if it does not bring resolution.
Jesus’ words to “shake the dust off” occur in Matthew 10:14–15 and appear to be tied to unavoidable, negative outcomes: “If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet as you leave that house or town. Truly I tell you, it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgment than for that town.” (NRSV)
In Matthew and Acts, “shaking the dust off” is a sign of protest against those who refuse the good news of God’s kingdom or those who want nothing to do with peace. Jesus instructs his followers that if they enter a house and find it worthy, then let peace come upon it. Otherwise, “let your peace return to you” (Matthew 10:13).
In a practical sense, it seems that the act of “shaking the dust” off does not resolve but rather engages Jesus’ disciples in conflict. How can this be? Are we not called to peace?
With this simple act, I wonder if Jesus was getting at forgiveness and if so, then what forgiveness looks like. There must be a distinction between forgiveness and caving in or rescuing or being nice. Just as war, conflict, and sin are complicated, so is forgiveness. As Simon Wiesenthal’s “The Sunflower” points out, forgiveness is not a one-dimensional solution to reverse the consequences of human actions. Besides, who has the power to forgive? God alone or those harmed? But the dead are unable to forgive.
The preacher Samuel Wells rightly points out that some problems have no solutions. What is our duty as human beings then? For Jesus, “shaking the dust off” meant to keep moving, not to get bogged down. Do not look back and become that frozen pillar. Threats are always there. Shake the dust off.
Whether we like it or not, we are simultaneously woven into Syria’s (and the world’s) woes as well as it’s efforts for peace. As reality teaches us, human beings are part of the problem and of the solution, if there is one. It is the age-old choice put before Eve and Cain: choose life or death. At times, life and death seem to share the same space.
I see Jesus’ words of “shaking the dust off” as an invitation to face honestly our personal woes and the woes of the world, not to avoid them. How do you read this simple yet difficult phrase?
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