A sermon preached at Lyonsville Congregational United Church of Christ on February 23, 2014 (Seventh Sunday after Epiphany)
Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18
“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ 39But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; 40and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; 41and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. 42Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.
43“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45so 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. 46For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? 47And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? 48Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
– Matthew 5:38-48 (NRSV)
We continue reading from the teachings of Jesus from Matthew that are known as the “Sermon on the Mount.” Much of what he has to say runs so counter to our usual understandings that it still astonishes us. But the teachings we read from this morning are perhaps his most challenging. They often cause folks to wonder whether he was really serious. They seem unrealistic, naïve, even dangerous.
But there they are. I’m not sure I can make them any easier to understand. I don’t think anyone can make them easy to live out. But perhaps what I can do today is to help fill in some of the background context and details that the first Jewish-Christian hearers of this gospel would have understood that have been lost to us in 21st century America.
Jesus begins by quoting from a portion of the Torah commandments that would have been familiar to Jewish people: “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” Many modern readers believe (wrongly) that this provided a barbaric justification for punishing a wrongdoer with physical injury in equal measure. But Jewish rabbis and commentators say that this rule was meant to moderate extreme revenge and retaliation – which often happened in ancient society, and can still happen between rival gangs, crime families, and baseball teams. And it really referred to monetary compensation for physical injury inflicted on another – an attempt being made to calculate the value of a lost eye or tooth – not unlike today’s civil lawsuits. Particularly remarkable about this law code is that the social and economic status of those involved was irrelevant – whether they were rich or poor, male or female. The principle expressed in the Torah was a model of fairness and equality.
Unfortunately, the law was not always interpreted that way, and it was sometimes practiced in very cruel ways.
But Jesus counsels a new approach with three often misunderstood examples of “kingdom behavior” – of not retaliating for evil with more evil, but of doing the unexpected in order to change the situation. To understand these, I am drawing upon some of the ideas that theologian Walter Wink has written about.
“If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.” (Matthew 5:39) It is interesting that the author includes the designation of “right” cheek. In those days, just about everyone was right handed. If one person struck another – while facing him – on the right cheek, it had to be a backhanded slap. Such was not an act of fighting, but of shaming another. It was usually the act of a powerful person against a servant or underling – someone of lower status. To respond by turning the “other cheek” (the left one), required that the oppressor hit with the palm of the hand or fist – an act of conflict with an equal that could bring shame on the oppressor.
So this response was to assert one’s equality – one’s God-given humanity and dignity – against someone who regarded you as less than human.
“If anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well.” (Matthew 5:40). This is almost hilarious (if one is being sued wrongly). The coat referred to here was a basic undergarment. The cloak was an outer covering. If this took place in a public courtroom, and one gave both coat and cloak, one would be naked in court! As embarrassing as that may seem, to do it willingly would be bring shame on the plaintiff and the court!
Again, in a strange way Jesus was showing people how to claim their God-given dignity in an unjust world.
“If anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile.” (Matthew 5:41) In the first century, Roman soldiers could compel a person to carry their gear for them – but only for one mile. If they forced someone to carry any farther, they could get in trouble. So to go beyond one mile and on to a second mile could put a soldier in a very delicate situation, and shift the positions of power.
Again, Jesus may have been giving an example of how to creatively declare one’s personhood and dignity and power in a normally powerless position. It was a way of suffering creatively – in a way that said, “I am a person just like you.” Hard work? Yes. Dangerous? Perhaps. But amazingly effective. Especially if it is done as a follower of Christ, in the name of Christ.
Understood this way, these examples are not commands to let someone keep beating you or forcing you into slave labor – they are examples of creative ways to respond to being treated as a non-person. They bring the possibility of relationship where previously there was only oppression.
“Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you.” What’s the point in having enemies if you can’t hate them?
But everyone seems to have enemies. No matter where you go, people hate someone. It varies from place to place and time to time. Nothing seems to create unity among diverse peoples than sharing a common enemy. We almost need them to stimulate energy and sacrificial giving. When one enemy is defeated, we seem to be lost until we find another. Even Christians seem to invent enemies: atheists, Muslims, other Christians, homosexuals, …you name it.
But as Jesus observed, everyone has enemies – even the sinners and heathens. And where has that gotten us?
To make someone an enemy, we become like the “evildoers” that Jesus just taught how to resist creatively. When we make someone our enemy, we no longer have to regard them as people with whom we might have a relationship; they become non-persons, so we don’t have to treat them with dignity or respect. We don’t have to try to understand them. Any time a people goes to war, they create propaganda that portrays the enemy as sub-human.
And when we have enemies, we can conveniently blame all of our problems on them – rather than being forced to look at our own evil, our own sin.
One word of caution – to “love” our enemies does not mean that we allow those who would cause us harm to just have their way. Sometimes love means confronting another with their evil and finding ways to stop it. When a woman is getting beaten in her own home by her partner – who will make no effort to stop – the loving thing may be to leave, or to have the abuser arrested and jailed.
And perhaps the most problematic of Jesus’ teachings here in Matthew is his commandment to “be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matthew 5:48) What does that mean? What about the old saying that “no one is perfect?”
The word in the original Greek text does not mean what we would think of as moral perfection – of never doing anything wrong or making mistakes, or of being able to keep all of the commandments of God. Instead, it is to serve God wholeheartedly, to be single-minded in our devotion to God. It is to be “pure in heart,” whom Jesus said in the Beatitudes would be blessed in being able to see God. We might say it is to be persons of integrity. To practice what we believe, and what we preach.
There are all kinds of ways that the powers-that-be in the world try to dehumanize us. They turn us into a number, a consumer, a statistic. We are stereotyped and lumped in with others with whom we are supposed to share particular traits. And we do the same to others – thinking of them as enemies, as “others.” “Those people.” But in the Realm of God into which Jesus invites us, there are no others. There are only people, created in the divine image, loved by God, and saved by Christ. It is hard to live that way in a world for which that seems like total nonsense. It almost requires that we be – like – perfect! God help us.
Robert J. von Trebra