a rehash an updated version of a sermon I gave in 2011. I hope you enjoy it.
Photo Credit – Katie Johnston
“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 evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
This is the Word of the Lord.
And, let’s admit it, it’s a whopper of a word. This passage, along with the one we read last week, is part of what scholars have called the “antitheses” of Jesus. The idea is that Jesus is placing ideas over against each other: “You have heard it said…” on one hand, versus “But I say to you…” on the other hand. Which is a good conversation starter, I suppose. But if Jesus is indeed not replacing, but fulfilling the Law, these aren’t over-and-against teachings. Rather, Jesus is challenging his listeners, which no doubt included Pharisees and scribes, to a more personal and authentic interpretation of the Law, a deeper way of living.
And it’s important to emphasize the word “personal.” Today’s reading has a long and shameful history of being used as a hammer to beat people into submission — forcing oppressed people to continue in their suffering, forcing abused spouses to remain in marriage and abused children to remain silent against their abusers. I think anytime we use Scripture as a lens through which we view others, without first having used it to thoroughly and unflinchingly examine ourselves, we become no better than the worst of the Pharisees and religious elite that Jesus denounced in the twenty-third chapter of Matthew. I’ve mentioned that passage three weeks in a row, now, because, alongside these readings from the Sermon on the Mount, it is such an important tool of self-examination for we American Christians in this day and age.
So yes, these verses are, first and foremost, personal. I am not to resist, I am to turn the other cheek, I am to give my cloak also, I am to give and to lend without respect. I am to love, I am to pray, I am to greet. I am to be complete, just like my Creator. If this is my focus, then this whole business of deciding how someone else should act in the face of evil and oppression — especially evil and oppression that benefits me either directly or indirectly — falls by the wayside, because who has that kind of time? Taking care of my own shortcomings in these areas is a full-time, lifelong task.
That being said, there’s a fascinating way of looking at Jesus’ teachings in their historical context as a primer on nonviolent resistance; teachings which have inspired generations of people (Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and so on) to stand powerfully in the face of oppression and tyranny. What on their face seem like simply passive actions — turning the cheek, giving coat and cloak — could be seen as powerful ways of robbing the oppressor of their power. Here’s what I mean:
“…if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also…” according to some of the scholars I’ve read, Jesus is describing an act done by masters to their servants and slaves. It was always done by hitting with the back of the right hand across the right cheek, and was not at all an act of random violence or of fighting among friends or enemies. The blow was about asserting status, rank, privilege and power over the other. It had to be done properly, to demonstrate that the master had control of the slave. The slave must obediently stand facing you without external coercion. You must strike only the right cheek; and only with the back of the right hand. If this is correct, then by turning the left cheek, the slave asserts power over the master, rendering him powerless to continue the all-too-properly-executed violence, and does so without lifting a finger.
“…if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well…” Peasants, which is to sa, the vast majority of people in Roman-ruled Judea, did not sue one another, so this, too is about the privileged abusing the poor. Since peasants quite literally only owned the clothes on their backs, being sued for your coat was being sued for the only thing you owned – except for your underwear… which, in those days, was a “cloak!” Perhaps the idea is to publicly expose the shame which allows someone with wealth and privilege to take away the only thing a poor person owns! So, y’know, give him your underwear, too. Let him explain why you are naked.
“…and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile…” Soldiers were allowed to conscript civilians to carry their packs, but only for a Roman mile. This was no minor inconvenience for anyone who worked and fed their family day by day. Walking a mile with a heavy pack and then back again would mean missing the chance to be chosen for that day’s labor, and therefore that day’s food for the family. Going that extra mile as a voluntary act took back the initiative from the soldier, not only exposing to the soldier the injustice he was committing, but saving some other poor laborer from missing a day’s work as well.
If I may be so bold as to quote the Dalai Lama: “Learn and obey the rules very well, so you will know how to break them properly.”
In any case, for us, I tend to agree with Mark Davis that the central focus of this particular reading is this verse: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.” First off, “love your neighbor and hate your enemy” as a teaching is not found anywhere in Scripture. Rather, we are taught that whenever we attempt to define who our “neighbor” is, we draw the circle too tightly.
Yes, we are told to love our neighbor, but did you know that, right within the Law of Moses, the Book of Leviticus, there is this command? “The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.” Chapter nineteen, verse thirty-four, if you want to look it up.
It is, after all, in the very nature of God, the very nature of nature, if you will, that the sun rises with no respect to whether one is good or evil; the rain falls with no respect to whether one is just or unjust. Not only does this go against the superstition that God sends natural disasters in order to punish entire countries or communities for the sins of their ancestors, which is something we’ve heard time and again from certain TV preachers, but more importantly it goes against the idea of loving only your neighbor and always hating your enemy, and sets the stage for the following verses: in the same manner that God gives sun and rain indiscriminately, we must give of our love without limit, we must welcome without qualification… and on this basis, the preceding verses come into focus for us: non-retaliation, going the extra mile, and so on.
If I may play off of a quote by C.S. Lewis, everyone agrees that loving enemies and forgiving the people who hurt us are great ideas. Most everyone agrees on that right up until the moment they are confronted with an actual or perceived enemy and with a real-life hurt inflicted on them by someone.
There are very loud and well-known voices which are adept at telling us who our enemies are, at demanding we fear, hate and despise this group or that group, that “those people” are bad and “we” are good.
When we buy into those voices, when we subscribe to the politics of scarcity and fear, then all of a sudden this “turn the other cheek” stuff starts to look like fine advice for other people, for people who never had to face enemies and circumstances anywhere near as raw and complex as what we are currently facing. No one before has faced enemies as pernicious and cruel as our enemies. They might have turned the other cheek, but we must hit back before we get destroyed. Others may have been loving and forgiving, but we are called on to use the good sense God gave us and be wary and defensive.
Living like this is living small. And that last thing that Jesus says in our reading today, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect,” that calls us to so much more.
Wait, wait. “Perfect?” I can’t even pour coffee from the pot in the back without dripping, and I’m up here talking about being “perfect?”
That word, “teleios,” could mean complete, as in brought to its end, finished, or wanting nothing necessary to completeness, and it could mean mature, full grown, adult. The good news is that, given the context, the most obvious meaning is the latter, “mature.”
But let’s not set that first idea aside yet. Because what Jesus has been talking about with these so-called “antitheses,” this idea of carrying “you have heard it said” to a more complete and challenging place, is all about living more deeply. Jesus calls us to the maturity that brings depth, but he also calls us to a journey towards perfection, toward God’s perfection. Toward restoration. Yes, restoration between ourselves and our fellow Christians, even ourselves and our fellow human beings, but it cannot end there. That makes Christianity little more than a social activism club.
No, to live more deeply, to walk this faith journey in the footsteps of Christ and in the fellowship of the Holy Spirit is to live in the Kingdom of Heaven in the here and now: to strive to reconcile all of humanity with their loving Creator.
To live more deeply is to love extravagantly – not the emotional, internal, felt “love,” but the difficult, dirty, inconvenient love — love lived as a verb, the feeding, clothing, visiting and welcoming of Matthew 25:31-46. The kind of love that cares, in tangible, active ways, even for people we don’t particularly like. The kind of love that cares, in tangible, active ways, even for people who kind of scare us.
We need a whole-hearted, whole-souled commitment to God’s creation and every person in it. We need, in short, the eyes of God – eyes that scan the horizon not first for what we can get out of life but what we can contribute to life for the peace and flourishing joy of all. This is living more deeply.